Tough Love: Finding the Right Match in Your Client-Vendor Relationship

By: Lauren Granahan

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At SweetRush, we often use analogies when speaking to clients about projects. Home decorating is one of my colleague’s favorite analogy themes. John-Carlos will often say things like, “That would be like me trying to decorate your living room before I’ve even been to your house.” Meaning, we should get to know you—your brand, culture, budget, timeline—before we create a solution that meets your needs. It works. Like most analogies, it takes a concept that might be new to people (designing a game or a simulation or an entire curriculum for their employees) and makes it accessible to them (we all, at some point, have tried to decorate a space and make it feel like “ours”).

The analogy I like most when thinking about the work we do with clients, and particularly the client-vendor relationship, is dating. I’d like to think that this analogy is not just relatable and useful for me (in the spirit of full disclosure, I have been through my fair share of failed relationships), but it’s also universal and human. It has the same accessibility of home décor, and does double duty by having the ability to tap into emotions that are often hard to describe.

When I was in my 20s, I dated a guy named Justin. Justin was great; he had strong family values, an incredible work ethic, and wasn’t too hard on the eyes. At that time, I was driven, organized, and probably a little too tightly wound, but was still adventurous and loved to travel. Both Justin and I grew up with similar backgrounds and shared similar values and ideologies—on the face of it, nothing would indicate that we wouldn’t get along.

In reality, it was a total mismatch. He’d had bad experiences in the past with his father being “too Type A” and railed against my tendency to plan our weekend days down to the minute. Conversely, I found his laissez faire attitude to be wasteful. When I’d relent and allow a “go with the flow” Saturday, we’d invariably end up on the couch talking about “what to do,” and my blood would boil when I thought of all the missed opportunities to get away—if only we had planned!

After a year, we parted ways. Yes, it took a full year of these types of tense interactions for us to wise up and realize “you know, it’s cool—we are both great people, but we just aren’t the right people for each other.” Literally two months later, Justin met the girl who is now his wife and mother of his two stunning and vibrant children. His wife is chill and goes with the flow, and I’m quite happy for them.

I’d like to say that after that year, I made only the right choices. If only it was that easy. I had my share of missteps, but as time moved forward I learned from every interaction: I learned who I mesh with and what the wrong fit feels like. I learned to recognize the feeling in my gut when there are elements that jive. And, as we all hope to do, I moved closer and closer each time to the right partnership.

And so it is in business. One of the many unique things about SweetRush is our commitment to working with clients who align with our values and are truly good fits. Working here, I’ve learned that just as in dating, a client-vendor relationship is two-sided. We both come with different experiences. We both have certain things that feel right and others that raise alarms. Ultimately, we both have a choice: to date or not to date?

One of the hardest decisions we have to make is telling a potential client—even before we go on that first date—that it’s not a match. Done properly, however, we are able to make the suitor realize that it’s not that they’re not a great company (i.e., Justin), but given who we are (i.e., Lauren) we know that it’s just not a fit (i.e., laissez faire vs. planner). When explained properly, each party goes away grateful that we didn’t try to work together only to confirm what we already knew: it wasn’t a fit (i.e., one year of tense weekends). Through thoughtful explanation, based on years of experience, we set these clients up for success by setting them free to find the right one for them (i.e., wife and two beautiful children). Sometimes we even play matchmaker and connect them with temporary learning consultants or a partner that can better meet their needs.

One example of a mismatch in a client-vendor relationship is rushed timelines. Given the breadth and depth of our client portfolio, we are obviously attuned to the pressures that organizations are up against—and time is obviously a key factor for most businesses. We’re able to realize efficiencies over the course of a relationship with our clients and have truly found a groove in which we’re producing our standard, high-quality deliverables in optimized timeframes. That said, for a first engagement, rushing is never going to produce a good result.

Sometimes—not often, but sometimes—it’s just not a match. It is a very difficult decision to tell a client it’s not a match, because we want to help everyone who approaches us to be successful. And yes, we won’t benefit from the revenue that client-vendor relationship might have brought us. But ultimately, we know clients come to us for expert guidance and the best consultation. We like to think that recognizing a mismatch, and pointing those clients in a more suitable direction, shows that we do truly care about the success of their initiative—and this tough love approach is the ultimate consultation we can give.

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