How to Fix a Scary Client-Provider Relationship
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “scary” relationships between clients and their HR technology providers. I see them all the time, across all domains, and in all shapes and sizes. The common element to all client-provider relationships is people, which means every relationship has the potential of becoming complicated, emotional, and, yes, scary for all parties.
Maybe this will sound familiar to you:
- The provider wants to win the business of an important new client.
- The client has complicated requirements and high expectations.
- The provider wants to be collaborative and show a can-do spirit. They say “yes” to every requirement, but don’t explain the tradeoffs — the complicated, manual, non-standard workarounds (Eek!). The client likes hearing “yes” and doesn’t ask to see use cases or documentation about how the processes will work. The contract is signed.
- During implementation, more complexities are exposed. The provider doesn’t want to let the client down, so they keep finding fixes and saying “yes.”
- When problems come up, the provider smoothes them over and makes amends, but again, doesn’t explain the complicated process required to make the fixes.
- The client gets frustrated when problems come up, or when things don’t go according to plan. The relationship gets emotional.
- A big mistake happens. No one is happy. Everyone comes to work afraid and unsure about what’s going to happen next.
Sounds scary, right?
If you’re in a relationship that’s going south fast, here’s my advice: It’s time to march up to the front door, ring the doorbell, and take off your mask. Be vulnerable, show yourself, your fears, your expectations, and your true capacity. It’s time to get real and be honest about your most frightening client-provider relationships.
After years remediating broken professional relationships, I’ve learned a few lessons that I hope are helpful to you.
It Won’t Fix Itself
Whether you’re on the client or the provider side, here’s the truth: It’s scarier when you don’t know all the gory details of your relationship. If the relationship is fractured and your mutual processes are leading to errors, face your fears. Instead of putting your head in the sand and hiding, decide to put a critical focus on the relationship. Invest the necessary energy, time and money into either fixing it — or leaving.
Do whatever you can to strip away the layers of emotion and blame. Find the key information and let the data guide your conversations about how you can mutually improve. Ask questions. Dig deep. No finger-pointing or escalations. Just facts and paths forward.
In my experience, this is the hardest part. Take a step back, find a healthy distance, and honestly reflect on the relationship. If that’s too hard, bring in people who have fresh eyes and can pinpoint ways that everyone can improve, without an agenda. Take my word for it: It’s never a one-sided problem. Transforming a broken relationship requires dedication and change on both sides. You have to realize that you’re all in it together.
Go deep, gather all the information, and establish a roadmap for moving forward.
Decide When Enough Is Enough
It’s noble to try to salvage a broken relationship. If your team has invested years into working with a client or provider, it might be worth trying to save it. But at some point, both parties have to decide how much is enough.
Decide on your red flags or key metrics. Are you losing key personnel? Are your people tired and frustrated? Is your profitability in the basement? Are all of the KPIs and SLAs underwater?
There’s nothing shameful about ending a professional relationship that has run its course. It’s actually kind of magical when two groups of people get together, finally acknowledge their relationship is unsustainable, and leave with their heads held high.
Learn from Your Mistakes
We’ve all found ourselves in professional relationships wrought with miscommunication and unmet expectations. But we can learn from our mistakes and develop better relationships moving forward.
If you’re the client, develop very detailed use cases to substantiate how providers will support your most important requirements. Find the time to understand the “how” behind the “yes.” And make it safe for a provider to say “no.” Don’t be a terrifying client.
If you’re the provider, have the courage to say “no” — or, if you say “yes” to a complicated requirement, show your work and document your processes. Weigh the pros and cons of certain solutions in partnership with your client, embracing open and honest communication.
All of our relationships are more likely to succeed if everyone is transparent from the very beginning. Becoming a better communicator isn’t easy work. It’s often pretty scary, especially when you work in human resources and deal with people’s benefits and paychecks. But that makes this work even more important, and we can do it, together.
With over 25 years of experience, Mark Stelzner has worked for organizations of every size and vertical. He has spent his career fostering relationships through attention to detail, natural curiosity, and a self-deprecating sense of humor.