Weiss Advice Issue: 161, February, 2017
I’ve had several inquiries over the past few months asking for help in a situation in which a presumably happy and stable buyer abruptly left the operation. The consultant, understandably, was shocked by the possible impending loss of what had appeared to be a delighted client.
In this economy, sudden departures aren’t surprising. The company may have felt the need for a cost reduction, your buyer may have found greener pastures, you may have misread the stability of the situation, or serendipity may have victimized you. In any case, here are some quick actions to put into place. Be advised: The longer you wait, the worse your position.
First, hunt down your former buyer. (You should always have a buyer’s personal address and/or email, in any case.) Talk to a former assistant, secretary, or human resource staffer, or use the local phone book. Don’t send an email. Make a phone call and express your surprise, but ask if you can be of any service. Immediately extend value. Find out why the buyer left. If on good terms, you can then ask for an introduction to others and advice on how to proceed. You may even request a letter of endorsement. But if on poor terms, find out what went wrong and what the degree of your own exposure may be.
Many consultants are bashful about making that phone call. There is no reason to feel that way. Call with the intent of expressing concern and offering help, and then honestly ask for advice on how you should proceed. That’s what partners do.
Next, if a successor has been named, immediately introduce yourself by phone and email, and offer to debrief that person on the status of your project and the next steps emerging. Make it clear that you are midstream on an agreed upon and assigned project, and you need advice at this point on fine-tuning (not continuing or discontinuing) since you would normally have done this with his or her predecessor. You may want to increase the allure by stating you have some interesting interim results which you are eager to share.
If no successor has been named, approach the former buyer’s superior with the same case you would have made for the successor. Stipulate that the project is on track and successful and that to ensure the maximum return on the investment it is key for you to discuss current options and choices with a responsible member of management. Emphasize that you only need a few minutes, but that the project is a fait accompli which will succeed for fail based on continuing management support and partnership.
Also, contact all of the key stakeholders, be they implementers, sponsors, or simply strong advocates you have encountered. Gather their support and ensure that momentum does not suffer. Gain their insights as to what needs to be done next. Some of them may have influence with the successor or the former buyer’s superior.
Finally, assemble all pertinent documentation: the original signed proposal, progress reports, ancillary agreements, recommendations, outstanding invoices, and so forth. Be prepared to make these available as the actions suggested above unfold. Reasonable people may want to make themselves familiar with the background. Don’t “dump” all these on an unsuspecting successor, but have them ready in a coherent, readable form if they’re requested.
Above all, don’t panic. If you have a signed proposal or contract, you should be fine, and even oral agreements carry the full force of the law. The greatest problem occurs in those cases when your project is contradictory to a “new direction” that caused your buyer to leave. When that occurs, try to rapidly meet with the new people and be prepared to agilely shift your focus. The idea is to retain your relationship with that client, not to fight to the death for a project that no longer has appeal.