Saying Goodbye to a Supplier or Customer

Red lipstick on a steamy mirror, saying "Bye"

Written by Paul Ginsberg

3rd April 2024

Sometimes it’s time to leave a supplier – you know this logically but doing so is really hard. But there’s another side of the coin – sometimes a supplier wants to leave you. Having been on both sides at various points over the years, let’s dive into this, over the next 8 minutes reading time or so, to see why it occurs.

And to set the scene: That supplier could be a platform (Salesforce), a consultancy (such as Naturally IQ), or a seller of physical goods (e.g. a local supermarket).

Areas covered:

  • Qualities to look for in a good supplier (a summary!)
  • How to tell when it’s time to leave a supplier
  • Why is it still hard to leave a supplier
  • Reasons why a supplier wants to leave you
  • The signs/methods one can use to signal to clients
  • Tip! A healthy practice for a supplier
  • Final thoughts
  • Further resources

Qualities to look for in a good supplier

Let’s just set the scene. I’m sure there’s dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of articles out there explaining how to select a supplier, so as a highlight some key criteria that come to my mind are:

  • Recommendations (word of mouth is always best)
  • Transparency – honesty, especially when it comes pricing, managing expectations and SLAs
  • Sustainability – documentation and wider support/training/hand holding
  • Meeting of minds/communications – do they understand and empathise with your priorities? Are they easy to engage with and responsive as you need as an organisation?
  • Price v. quality v. delivery speed trade off – are they in the same place as you on this?

If your prospective supplier meets most of these, for gawd’s sake, stay! Discuss with them any issues, or something sexy that you see elsewhere, but you’re on to a winner. Save your energies for a more constructive use of your time.

Signs that it’s time to leave a supplier?

Picture of various British road signs, many of which say "stop"

Ok. But sometimes it started out great but has changed, so what are the physical signs that it’s time to leave your supplier?

  • Poor communications. Whether it’s poor response times, failure to meet agreed deadlines or lack of clarity in answers, do you really have time to make up for your supplier’s inabilities? There’s an unfactored cost here – your time in all the chasing, misunderstanding, frustration, retaining the mental bandwidth to keep track of any problems and things you could be better doing. Remember to value yourself as we only have a finite time available – don’t just look at the headline cost figure.
  • Unexplained price increases. There’s usually alternatives on the market. Suppliers rely on inertia – it’s a well known tactic. Simply put, new customers usually get the best deals.
  • Lack of innovation. If the supplier isn’t investing in their product, that often means that the internal staff aren’t maintaining their knowledge either, because all organisations have staff turnover. Lack of innovation is either a sign of a highly mature product – unlikely in the IT world(!) – or a sign that the organisation hasn’t got the capacity or the desire to invest.
  • Supplier staff leaving. Some turnover is to be expected. If lots are going, it’s time to consider what they know that you don’t know.
  • You have a new requirement that your supplier can’t meet. Your priority has to be to keeping your business successful, otherwise you won’t have a business in the long run.

Why is it still hard to leave a supplier

A car stuck in mud

I’ve seen disastrous suppliers and yet the customer is still there, so it’s fair to ask the question why.

It turns out that the brain is not logical. Well, it is, but only partly so. Thought centres are primarily driven by emotions – it’s the primaeval way our brain works, for speed (credit to this episode of the ADHD Adults Podcast, but also confirmed by the Uncertainty Experts). There can be half a dozen internal conversations and eventually one strand wins. The brain then constructs a logical pathway explaining why that was the correct choice all along in retrospect! As a consultant brought in to recover projects, I can explain most initial decisions even if I don’t have the original facts – it turns out that the inner workings of my brain are doing exactly the same thing(!)

Emotions turn out to be very powerful things.

I was discussing with a friend the pros and cons of cars versus trains. He said that trains would have to be 10x better than cars to persuade him to do a swap. It struck me that this was both an outlandish statement, but also true… and sometimes the truth is scary!

So what factors are at play?

  • There’s the stickiness factor. There’s a cost to moving, to thinking through why you choose that supplier in the first place – revisiting long forgotten original thought strands; to setting up all your core information again and moving over any data; getting used to the inevitable style of the consultancy, quirks of your new tool, location and stock availability in your new shop.
  • The hassle factor of negotiating new contracts and perhaps explaining why something that was a good decision at the time would not be the decision you would be making if you had to make that choice today.
  • Often we tell ourselves “it’s better the devil we know” – but I think we can counteract this with sufficient research and also it’s fear of the unknown. Instead think “what the worst that could happen” and go from there – but apply that concept both to your existing supplier as well as to your new supplier.
  • Relationships. Saying goodbye is hard to do.

Tip: Rather than saying “no”, redirect instead. e.g. “I think there are more suitable/specialised suppliers on the market instead – have you checked AppExchange or spoken to your colleagues in the industry, or even your Account Executive”; or what’s no longer suitable for you may be entirely appropriate for one of your ecosystem colleagues.

  • Admitting you made a mistake – perhaps the supplier you chose wasn’t appropriate – e.g. you knew they were cheap or inexperienced and you took a gamble. In life, gambles don’t always work out every time. Regardless, be gone, foul fiend of embarrassment! This is not a suitable excuse. None of us has perfect knowledge or foresight (a topic I’ve delved into before). You have learnt from the experience and now it’s time to move on, older and wiser.

Sometimes it is good to stay with a supplier. Hopefully better insight helps you clarify and resolve issues, negotiate a better deal, either in cost, or improved support. You also need to be mindful of the cost of changing: time, effort and risk (but there’s also risk in staying!).

Reasons why a supplier wants to leave you

Qualities are a two way street. Sometimes they are a reason a supply wants to leave a customer.

  • Perhaps the primary contact has changed – at the client or supplier – and the working relationship dynamics are now different.
  • Perhaps you have expanded or pivoted business model and need a more sophisticated solution than the supplier can currently offer.
  • The supplier was in “start up” phase and had more time previously, but less time available now for you. Not great news, but that’s a reality of business.
  • Sometimes the supplier just needs a change. Particularly at the smaller end of the market if you’re dealing with a consultancy, eventually the consultant may want to do different things. We all need novelty in our lives – some people’s level of need is greater than others.
  • Asking for detailed explanations and cost justifications which take longer than the actual task. For me this is a big one. I do Salesforce because I love the technical challenge, not because I love discussing commercials or justifying my abilities, especially once I have demonstrated my skill set. After a certain period the customer should have trust and confidence that the supplier will flag when a cost is outside the usual zone.
  • Invoices not being paid on time. Simple. I earn money working, not chasing payments. It’s a matter of respect, and being confident that the other organisation has the cash to pay you!

The signs/methods you could use to signal to clients!

A man directing traffic in some country that's not the UK, US, NZ or Australia

In the best case you have a great working relationship with the client and you can have an honest, transparent conversation about why your business is no longer the appropriate match for the client. This can lead to adjustments in working methods, expectations and/or even recommendations of alternative suppliers.

Telling a customer that you don’t want to work with them any more is extremely confrontational, so I would recommend you only do that as a last resort. I’m not sure being a people pleaser fits into the neurodiversity venn diagram, but it’s something else to be aware of too! It’s a genuine personality trait and can take some effort to be (self-)aware of.

However, there are some alternative signals that you can also use:

  • An email saying that the product has been deprecated and will no longer be updated
  • An email saying that you, the supplier, is exiting your section of the market
  • Letting a relationship lapse
  • Charges increasing significantly
  • Slipping response time, but I think that this has the potential to incur reputational damage

Although all of these are also valid for genuine situations, where I’m not trying to leave the clients!

Tip! A healthy practice for a supplier

Adjust (ok, increase) your fees at least annually, even if only by a small amount. The client then has the understanding that there will be a regular fee, contract evaluation and review, which helps open up a feedback mechanism.

When/if they complain then I can explain that they are getting significant experience from a well established consultancy “but of course there are cheaper and perhaps more suitable consultancies in the market”. 

If the customer is a pain and they even hint that they may be thinking of looking elsewhere I absolutely lean into it; make no polite reference to wanting to retain them as a customer. Because your life will be better without them in the long run. Alternatively, for the companies I love, I emphasise how happy I am dealing with them and the joy it gives me.*

*all my current clients – you’re in the clear!! I hope you realise that!

Final Thoughts

Client/Supplier relationships are a two way street, but we are still human and not all relationships are necessarily destined to last forever due to all sorts of factors outside of anyone’s reasonable control. I’ve certainly been in positions where I’ve become frustrated working with clients and no longer enjoying it. I speak to the clients and sometimes it’s resolvable, but sometimes it isn’t. Perhaps the biggest two that I’ve recently seen are:

  • For Salesforce and nonprofits, the wider market now better meeting nonprofits’ needs, and Salesforce simultaneously deciding to focus on larger nonprofits.
  • Lack of management buy-in. Perhaps that the business model has changed, or someone has come in who isn’t familiar with the Salesforce offer. It could also be that the customer is experiencing problems but doesn’t – or even can’t – afford the money to resolve the issues.

Most importantly, I read a post on LinkedIn, originally from Reddit, last year that said “The only people that will remember you worked late are your kids.” I don’t have any kids but one takeaway from this is that client/supplier relationships should also be enjoyable and not frustrating.

Further Resources

To understand the constraints and opportunities of being a supplier I really recommend Ankit Taneja’s Forcepreneur podcast series.

P.s. Huge thanks to my today’s anonymous review panel for this particular piece. For some reason they preferred not to be named 😅

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