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If You Love Your Clients (and People), Set Them Free

Everyone knows the old saying “If you love someone, set them free” and the various endings: “if they don’t come back, they were never yours to begin with”, “if they come back to you, it was meant to be”, etc. It’s a simple and powerful idea, relationships are only worthwhile while the parties choose to be there. The moment one decides their needs aren’t being met it’s a clear sign that the magic is gone and the relationship must end unless there is enough at stake to warrant staying and working on things.

Imagine if it were possible to keep a partner in a relationship by limiting their choices and options. For example, what if they agreed not to see anyone else for a period of one year following a breakup? Or if they agreed not to use any of what they’d learned in their relationship with you later on in a other future relationship? Or perhaps you could prevent them from leaving because you have agreements with other potential suitors not to date your ex. That’s crazy talk right? Even if these things were possible, and I’m sure some have tried, how toxic would the relationship become?

Ironically this is what professional services firms try to do all the time with their employees and clients – the people they care about and pursue relationships with – and it’s just as crazy. Plus, it costs a fortune in lost productivity and time. Many firms intimidate their people with employment contracts  that restrict their ability to work for competitive firms or provide services to “clients” of the firm for lengthy periods following a resignation. I have to wonder, is that what’s best for the clients these firms claim to love so much, whose interests they are looking out for? Is that what’s best for the employee who is investing in building a career based on providing advisory services, becoming what David Maister has called the “Trusted Advisor”?

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting for a minute that anyone pursue disruptive or unethical business practices. In professional services we have a tendency to throw around the term “client” loosely, usually referring to an organization or individual we’ve rendered services to in the past or one who calls upon us from time to time as needs arise. Even where long-term contracts underpin relationships, there are almost always provisions for cancellation because there has to be a way to disengage if the agreement isn’t serving all parties. Professional services firms may try to retain their clients by preventing their consultants from working with them in other employment contexts but it doesn’t help anyone. In the long run, consultants need to choose the best firms to practice at, and clients who want to continue working with an consultant that knows their business should not have their options restricted by the firms they originally transacted with.

In a romantic relationship all you can do is let the other person know that you care about them, that you want to be with them, and do everything you can to stay with them. If that doesn’t work all you can do is let them go if that’s what they want. You cannot force someone to love you back. If the relationship is meant to be it eventually will be.

My perspective is that our clients make a choice to do business with us every single day and face countless alternative value propositions from our competitors. And we’re happy they do because it forces them to make a conscious choice to do business with us over and over again. What is better than a client or employee who knows they can work with anyone they want to but chooses to work with us? Ultimately we’re just not that motivated to protect our relationships by limiting our clients’ choices and don’t view our relationships as proprietary. We don’t own our clients and employees and any consulting firm that thinks they do are missing a key principle about relationships. The moment we develop a sense of entitlement about their loyalty, we need to remind ourselves about the importance of working hard to earn it and letting them make the choice.

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