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When business relationships end, how do you say goodbye properly?

May 3, 2016

If you haven’t already seen it, Train’s music video on “50 ways to say goodbye“, featuring David Hasselhoff and a Mexican mariachi band, ranks right up there on my list of “must-see” distractions from my daily grind of watching other YouTube videos (with apologies to my industrious colleagues who are – even as I surf – hard at work right now).

I was reminded of the video just yesterday, because Yinch and I were invited to a lovely lunch with a couple of ex-clients. Our agency and the organization in question had parted ways amicably a few months back, because of a new global strategy that called for a centralized agency model. Anyone who has worked for an MNC before knows that the “centralize-decentralize-centralize-decentralize” cycle is just part of life.

Our ex-clients called for the lunch to thank us personally, not only for the great work delivered over the course of our relationship, but also – in their words, not ours – for the “professionalism we demonstrated up to the very last day of our engagement, including the handover to the new agency.”

Yinch and I were flattered: we are always sad to lose great clients, but we were happy and grateful that we are still remembered for all the right things. It emerged that some agencies had taken the break-up rather badly, and had made the transition more difficult than it needed to be by dragging their feet on the handover and withholding information assets built over the tenure with the client.

To a certain extent, I can understand the initial instinctive reaction of said agencies: after all, I don’t recall having many amicable breakups with my ex-girlfriends either (and Yinch, if you’re reading this, there weren’t that many). Yet, in our business of building relationships for the long term, the ONLY way we could see ourselves parting ways with any client is to leave the best possible impression behind, for very good reasons:

1. Our business is built entirely on Word of Mouth

That’s the “Secret ™” of our business, trite as it sounds. The reason we have been able to grow over the last 11 years has been due entirely to the magic of WOM. This “strategy” keeps things simple for us: we get our heads down, get under the skins of our clients’ business, and get great work out the door. It’s just plain common (and business) sense that clients who love your work, tend to want to continue working with you – if only to minimize risks and problems for themselves. As a result, we’ve had clients who’ve stuck with us, through thick and thin, for more than 10 years. We’ve had clients who went on to join other companies, only to reemerge a couple of weeks later to get us to do work for their new employers. We’ve also seen our existing client organizations change policies a couple of years down the road, opening up the possibility of us working together again.

2. Being a bottleneck in the world of instant information is not a strategy

When we hear of agencies that raise hackles and walls the moment the relationship ends, it begs the question – what’s the business and reputational value of being a bottleneck in an era where information can be found through a simple Google search? I’m reminded of the Zen parable of a merchant who had set up a store on the banks of the Shinano River (that’s Japan’s longest river for the trivia freaks amongst our readers), trying to sell river water to thirsty travelers. Needless to say, he didn’t make any money. Anytime someone tries to be to gatekeepers of information in a vast ocean of data that’s freely accessible, they will quickly find themselves becoming irrelevant. And in an industry that’s as tiny and as connected as ours, getting a reputation for being a blocker (and an a-hole to boot) is not going to do that person any favors.

3. The Golden Rule

Things will change, relationships will end, new ones will begin. There will be laughter, sadness, anger, adulation, embarrassment and, hopefully, much happiness over the course of the relationship; then the cycle begins anew. That’s life. Yet, whatever happens, the Golden Rule has never failed us: to treat others as we would want others to treat us. Yinch and I are adamant that we never ever want to be in a business that does not adhere to this basic universal law. Business relationships may end, but the personal ones don’t. And those are the ones that not only keep us in the game, but in fact, make it worthwhile and meaningful for us in the long run.

POSTED BY: Allan Tan

Allan Tan