I don’t want to use the ‘D’ word, but I will if I have to

By Lisa Nicks

How to make or break a great client-partner relationship


Sadly, business isn’t always plain sailing. You can’t count on people playing nice and doing the right thing for their client. And I firmly believe that doing the ‘dirty’ on a client or fellow business solution supplier or vendor doesn’t pay off in terms of karma, reputation or repeat business.

D is for Draconian

Like a prenup, we have client-supplier contracts for a reason. They protect all signing parties by formally articulating the nature of the relationship and the quality and scope of the supplied services and solutions. Traditionally, software was all purchased up front and you had a perpetual ownership that you needed to ‘renew’ each year through buying the ongoing support and maintenance contract. Or as more relevant nowadays, SaaS licenses are purchased for a fixed term with continuous renewals, contracts are reviewed and usually renewed if all goes well. And mostly, it does.

But what happens when your solution set is no longer fit for purpose and no longer supports your client? And if they need to sunset your solution and lift and shift to a more modern platform, and need access to their data before the end of the contract?  

The big question is, what happens when you are replaceable? How do you handle it?  

A knee jerk reaction I’ve seen of late is for vendors to hold their clients to ransom. They refuse to provide access to data for a new system even if it falls a day outside the end-of-contract date, and instead force the client to sign up for another full two-, three- or five-year period. And that’s a lot of money for a customer to pay as part of their solution exit strategy. Sadly, this often happens when a vendor is facing a substantial financial impact due to losing the contract, but in truth, has done little to future-proof their solution so it remains relevant. They haven’t invested in a programme of R&D, they don’t have a solution roadmap, and they haven’t gone full 100% cloud multi-tenant. They have endangered their own business by being left behind. None of which is the client’s fault.

While it may be a sign of these challenging financial times, holding clients over a data-access barrel is a short-sighted decision in a small market like New Zealand where bad news travels more quickly than good.  

D is for Disappointment

I’m not big on disappointment. That’s why I’ll never sign a contract with a client that hinges on set-in-stone dated delivery milestones.

While we all intend to run to schedule, large projects tend to be organic. They’re impacted by events on both sides, on resource availability (e.g. illness or other unforeseeable life events), other partners (who will or won’t give you access to data), pandemics, or changes to the project scope. While we absolutely try to achieve milestones, deliverables shift in tandem with goal posts. 

So we use a fluid project plan. We have solid commitments and tightly defined deliverables, great project processes and governance, highly experienced project managers, and outstanding consultants. But we still won’t agree to a concrete go-live date. That doesn’t mean we won’t set up the project with agreed go-live dates as defining project principles, but we have seen go-live dates slip for very valid reasons time after time. It also doesn’t mean that we take it as a license to let a project go off the rails and slip backwards; it just means that we are aware of the variables that affect our ability and capability to deliver.

We’d rather be conservative and under-promise and over-deliver to minimise any potential disappointment.

D is for Decency and Documentation

We are not alone in having lost clients over the years - for all sorts of reasons. And where we can, we’ve taken on board the issues and going forward, we have learnt what needs to change on our side and what’s behind the breakup.

We have also walked into situations where a partner has let down a client, and we’re there to pick up the pieces. But when we’ve asked for a statement of work, a project plan, a solution design to be produced from the outgoing project team, there’s nothing. Or the statement of work is five or six pages (whereas ours are 60-80!), so the client must pay for all that work a second time around, which is disappointing.

Comprehensive and well-executed documentation is part of a project. It should enable the partner who ultimately ends up delivering that project to pick up and carry on. Even if it’s reviewed and reconfigured, the content of the documentation should show an understanding of the business, the project drivers, detailed requirements, and propose a viable solution.

Another critical document is a Master Services Agreement (MSA). If you’re at the stage where both sides and their lawyers are reviewing the agreement and picking through the fine print, the writing is often on the wall. That’s when the big D word comes into play.

D is for Divorce

Divorce is rarely a pleasant experience. It’s heart-breaking and frequently traumatic to walk away from all the time, effort, and money you’ve invested in what you believed was a lasting (business) relationship.

But dissolving a relationship need not be nasty and epitomised by poor behaviour. I don’t want to dwell on it, but life is full of opportunities. It’s not wise to burn bridges, especially in New Zealand where you are likely to cross paths again. Instead, I believe it’s better to shake hands, and close, but not lock, the doors amicably behind you.

While for some throwing legal resources at an MSA is their first reaction, I see little value for either side. By the time you reach the point where you’re talking through lawyers, the relationship is usually beyond repair, and a graceful negotiation and retreat is a better strategy. What’s more important to us than ‘winning’ based on the small print in the MSA, is keeping our reputation intact. A legal dispute, even when you are in the right, is damaging in the marketplace. But we also want to be treated fairly, and in the same respectful manner.

And if we should agree to a friendly divorce and move on? We’re happy to organise making your data available to your new partner. And if you want to date again the in future (because we know circumstances change), we’re always up for a coffee and a friendly chat.

D is for Dating (on the rebound)

We like dating; it’s great to get to know clients and establish if there’s enough common ground to form a viable and mutually rewarding relationship. Sadly, we’ve also had many experiences of picking up the pieces after a client and vendor have had a nasty breakup.

Where the documentation and development to date are in good condition, we can help a business get back on their project track quickly. It’s more challenging if the project’s been left in a mess. We’ve seen instances where basics like user training haven’t been delivered, or even included in the SoW!

It’s never pleasant cleaning up after someone else and trying to repair the trust of a dispirited client. But with some pragmatic counselling and professional consulting, we can help a business recover momentum, and make sure that your project is the success it deserves to be.

A word of advice if you are on our side of the fence, and being replaced by a new partner or solution. Don’t toss your toys out of the playpen and behave badly. Your financial gains over the customer’s pains might not be worth it in our tightknit New Zealand business community.


Lisa Nicks

General Manager Sales, Fusion5

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