When change happens, can you be ready?

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It happened abruptly. The association with which my business has had a close relationship for more than 27 years suddenly decided to invite its long-standing executive director to leave. Perhaps the group’s board of directors had been deliberating about the change for some time but if that is the case the members kept things under tight wrap from the membership and I think most if not all of the association’s staff. I attended a scheduled public function the day before the “end” and the individual seemed fully in authority and doing his job in a very public place.

As things turned out, the decision to have this individual leave shouldn’t have been too surprising, nor was the consequence of his departure for my business. Our 27-year publishing contract would end. I could publish a final issue, and say goodbye, but the story would be over. Association staff initially suggested they might replace the newsletter contract with some freelance writing work but that is not guaranteed. Simply put, I lost a very important long-term client.

In hindsight, could I have saved the contract? Possibly, but not likely, because this time a year ago I was ready to kill it myself, when we changed our business/publishing model from a primarily print to an almost exclusively digital enterprise. The association’s newsletter, printed on tabloid-format “book stock” uncoated high-grade newsprint, had become something of an anachronism but was viable to publish when integrated with our other publications. (Big cost savings in printing can be achieved when you “gang” several small jobs into a single production run.)

As a stand-alone publication, the only way I could see it continuing would be to restore a subsidy initially granted when we started producing the newsletter almost three decades ago, but dropped something like 15 years ago. I also offered a digital option, at no cost, with much greater frequency.

The former executive director made it clear he wanted nothing to change, and so we continued publishing, with the subsidy, In essence, the publication’s final year was on truly borrowed time.

Of course, the logical question could be: “Why couldn’t we implement the previously proposed digital version of the publication with the new administration? I quickly realized that even more had changed. The new executive director has specific journalism/writing/communications training, and is comfortable putting the effort and management time into producing his own communications products for the association. I can’t quarrel with his expertise. And since he’s paid well for his work, why shouldn’t he do the job?

In the next few weeks, I’ll need to decide on whether to renew my association membership. In some ways the decision will be easy. A spin-off publication generated through the original newsletter contract continues, and that business (of which I am a partner) is also a member, so I can retain my connections, at least for now, with the association without the dues cost. And of course I’ll check into the freelance writing option. A contract worth a few thousand dollars will go a long ways to justifying the $1,100 annual dues.

These rear-guard initiatives may help save the relationship; and that is good. Fortunately, while this is obviously a very important client, I’ve never allowed my business to depend on any single customer. And I recall how the last time we lost a major client — which generated about five per cent of our overall business — it was painful, but not deadly. (And several years later that client has returned, with lower volumes but still enough business to truly help our cash flow.)

Lessons and take-aways from this experience:

  • Nothing is forever; even the closest and deepest client relationships can end or alter significantly, often on short notice;
  • Usually you can dissect the cause, but rarely will you find a single and total explanation;
  • In any business relationship there are things under your control, and others which are not;
  • If for some reason you need to depend on a single relationship for your business viability, be very aware that you could lose it all if that relationship falters. It is wisest not to allow a single client to control more than five to 10 per cent of your business volume; and
  • Really good business relationships can survive big shocks and changes and often have some redundancy behind them. Accordingly, while I won’t need this key relationship, I expect it will continue or revive in some way in the future.

The story continues.

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