An Unconventional Client Retention Strategy

Most people usually don’t think of empathy as having much business value. In fact, you might think if you start empathizing with your clients, you’ll lose your edge; you’ll appear “soft;” you’ll lose business. Here’s a compelling story* about a global firm that turned that conventional wisdom on its ear and transformed a big loss into a big win.

The News No One Wants to Hear

Once upon a time, a Midwestern U.S. office of a global accounting firm was informed by one of its major clients that the audit work they usually did would be going out to bid. The partners were shocked. “We hadn’t seen it coming,” one partner said, “and they were very clear that this was final.” As a nicety, the client gave them the opportunity to bid.

They brainstormed about why the client could possibly be unhappy with them. What had they done to get the boot? What might have been said at the meeting that resulted in this decision?

Once they had a pretty good idea what the issues could have been, they did something dramatic.

Sometimes Not Risking is Very Risky

Instead of using their 90-minute time slot to do a conventional presentation, four of their partners acted out a skit for the four client executives. They role-played those very execs having that decisive meeting.

They said things like, “Well, those audit folks just haven’t showed us that they have what it takes.” “That’s right, they haven’t been proactive enough.” They humbly and genuinely gave voice to the critical thoughts they imagined the client was thinking.

Unexpected Returns

“We were prepared to get yanked out of there in two minutes,” one partner said. “And, in fact, after five minutes, we stopped and asked them if they wanted us to stop. But they were fascinated; they asked us to keep going. And we did, for nearly an hour. We just kept talking—as if we were the client—about the things that we had done wrong and should have done better. And the client listened.”

Here’s the extraordinary ending to the story: the client rescinded their decision to put the work out to bid, and the firm got the job back. Why? Because they had been able to prove they understood their client’s concerns—in an honest and effective demonstration of empathy. They showed they had finally been listening. As a result, they won the right to try again.

The Business Value of Empathy

Seeing things from the clients’ perspective requires more than just taking good notes, muttering “I understand” from time to time, or periodically pausing to summarize the content of their communications. It means taking the time to tune into the tone, mood, and emotion—the music—as well as the words. It means reflecting it all back accurately and frequently. It means differentiating yourself by not just being the smart ones, but the ones who really get it—not just during the tough times, but all the time.

Bring empathy to the table from the get-go and your chances of getting a nasty unexpected surprise diminish greatly. Pull out all the empathy stops when things go awry and you dramatically improve the odds that you at least salvage the relationship, if not the contract.

Add empathy to your business toolbox and see what it does to help you gain and retain clients for the long haul.


*This and other compelling stories can be found in The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust

6 replies
  1. Bob Whipple
    Bob Whipple says:

    Hi Andrea. You are right, that was a pretty risky approach. For one thing, the auditing firm had significant visibility to their own weaknesses, and doing a one hour role play discussing them as if they were the client would have exposed all of their shortcomings. Let me give an example to clarify what I mean.
    Suppose the client was mostly concerned with the fee charged for the service – in all other respects the auditing firm was doing fine. Then, in the role play exercise, the firm revealed that they did not have good back up services if one member became ill, they took longer than the original estimates to complete the work, they failed to interview one key person on the team, they got caught up in the red tape and did not simplify the process for the client, they communicated too much and actually became a kind of pest to the client, they actually made an error in one section of the analysis.
    So, the client really saw just one problem, but the consultants revealed a total of seven ways they might have fallen short in the client’s eyes. By taking a shotgun approach, the consultants revealed all potential hangups before really hearing what the true issue was. They would get an A+ for transparency, but might get an F grade for their work.


    That;s a really powerful story. I imagine the executives, watching all their thoughts played out in front of them.

    I’m guessing the reason they put it out to bid is they weren’t being clear with the accounting firm on their needs, and didn’t think the accounting firm was able to understand their needs.

    Wow, what a great way to turn it around!

  3. arcelia
    arcelia says:

    “They humbly and genuinely gave voice to the critical thoughts they imagined the client was thinking.”

    Yes, humility goes along way grace usually follows humility!! Thank you for sharing this Andrea!

  4. Andrea P. Howe
    Andrea P. Howe says:

    Thanks to all for your thoughtful comments. Bob, you raise very valid and interesting points. You’re certainly right about the risk of exposure. Here’s how I see it: when we are fearful of revealing our weaknesses, and choose not to as a result of that fear, then we are choosing self-preservation (and high self-orientation) over trustworthiness (and the relationship). This is a great example of where the paradox of trust comes in, as in “the thing we’re most afraid to say is often what will build them most trust.” So what if we inventory all our weaknesses for the client? If they’re too many or too risky, then at least the client can make an educated choice. More often than not, I think the credit we get for being real outweighs all the other stuff. It certainly did in this case.


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  1. […] “An Unconventional Client Retention Strategy” was first published on the Trust Matters Blog. […]

  2. […] “That’s right, they haven’t been proactive enough.” They humbly and genuinely gave voice to the critical thoughts they imagined the client was thinking.” Read More Here. […]

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