You worked hard to bring a client on board - or, let's be honest, more likely you had an in that enabled you to secure the client in the first place. Then one day, the contract expires and isn't renewed. Or your emails aren't returned. "Thanks, but we're going to go in a 'different direction.'" Your exterior remains cool, while on the inside you're trying to figure out what went wrong and how to make up the lost revenue.
This might not sound satisfying, but in most cases the best thing you can do is employ the "if you love something, set it free" strategy. If it comes back to you, etc. Most of the time, the effort that you exert trying to recoup a lost client would be far better spent enchanting new ones. Then again, that's conditional on how big a client we're talking about and how easy the client is to replace. If looking for new business isn't as practical as trying to salvage the lost business, then read on.
SEE: How To Target Ideal Customers
Why They Leave
Unfortunately, this is where custom and etiquette get in the way of the conveying of information. Social propriety forbids the dismissed vendor from asking the now-former client why they're not a current client, and also prohibits the ex-client from giving a straight or actionable answer. But the answer is probably this:
It's not them, it's you.
Almost certainly, it's you. You either failed to compete on price, service, quality or familial bond. Granted, there isn't much you can do about that last one.
As both a producer (of advertising materials and vacation rental stays) and a consumer (of the typical things people consume), I've found that quality – or its absence – is almost always the primary criterion for switching providers. My advertising business hasn't lost many clients, but the ones it did lose were looking for something I wasn't providing. Some of them wanted expensive illustrations and original artwork that I didn't offer. Others needed a large project turned around by an impossible deadline. Even if there was no way I could have made the deadline, and even I said so before any money changed hands, it's still fair to classify that as a quality issue.
Bringing Them Back
The reasonable (and defeatist) thing to believe once you've lost a client is that you'll never recover said client. But it's important to remember that few people aggressively chase business that they figure no one can recover. There are very, very few lifetime contracts. Almost every partnership can dissolve, or at least be renegotiated.
Obviously, there's a huge difference between being your clients' No. 1 choice and their No. 2 choice. No. 1 gets to bill the client's accounts payable department, while No. 2 sits there waiting for an opportunity. However, what's easy to forget is that there's almost as large a gap between the No. 2 choice and the No. 3 choice; and when No. 1 goes down - which, sooner or later, it will - the client will go to the next name on the depth chart.
In the early '90s, envelope magnate and pop-business author Harvey Mackay argued that if you can't be No. 1, you can at least be No. 2 to as many potential clients as possible. That even includes clients that you've lost. Sure, the competition for the top spot is overwhelming but once that position has been slotted, most people give up. That's a critical mistake. Clothing manufacturer No Fear popularized the slogan "Second Place is the First Loser" and emblazoned it on t-shirts, which is unfortunate, because a lot of people take that sentiment literally. Business isn't a sporting event, with unambiguous and final winners and losers. The game never ends. Everything is permanently on the table, and the race for No. 2 is wide open. Often, it's even uncontested.
Mackay's strategy, which can easily be contemporized for a different era, involves spending targeted time and money on that lost client.
Sometimes it requires nothing more than flaunting convention and confronting your lost client. It can be as simple as saying, "Look. I understand that we lost your business, and that you're now dealing with Company A. If it works out with them, great. If it doesn't, we're going to redouble our efforts to be the best vendor you've ever had."
Even a token gift every few months is suitable – again, depending on how big a client it was and how badly you want it back. You can call this sycophancy, but no one seems to have devised a better method for getting on the good side of a once-valuable client.
The Bottom Line
Stay abreast of any personnel changes. Often, all you need is for the decision-maker (the one who decided to dump you) to leave the company – and perhaps take the company that usurped you along with him or her. That person's replacement, who's likely unaware of your status as a former vendor, will be far more susceptible to being won over by you.
Winning over a lost client isn't something you want to expend most of your effort on; and even with commitment and diligence on your end, it's still going to take time. But it's definitely possible, and it happens every day.
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