How This Whole Thing Started
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How This Whole Thing Started

How This Whole Thing Started

Once upon a time (1984 to be exact) I was a relatively new VP of Marketing for a large Division of one of the country’s best-known service management organizations, headquartered in a major northeastern city (known for cheesesteaks).  My fellow Atlantan and good friend Steve Wurzbacher had joined the company about three months prior.  Together, we were off to conquer the world of contract service management.

Our boss, Division President Bill Edmundson, was an industry veteran and a wise and steady leader.  So, it was a bit of a shock to see him fuming in the halls one day as he angrily clutched a “Closing Report” detailing the operator’s analysis as to why we had just lost another important client.  “This is BS, he fumed.  I know this hospital.  I know this client.  John, I’m making this your problem, this has to stop and you need to figure out the how we’re going to stop it.”

So, I did what comes naturally to marketing executives at Fortune 500 companies – I started looking for a consultant.  When I asked the big silk stocking guys if they had a client retention program we could adapt, they all answered ‘no’ (but were quick to add that they’d be more than willing to develop one, if we funded it).  Nonstarter, I’m afraid.

The next step was to go and meet the newly lost client face-to-face.  To my surprise (and frankly concern) there were quite a few other recent client losses right along the route I had taken (down I-95).  We set out to talk to as many as would see us.

There were some real revelations – and, quite frankly, surprises:

  • Getting the appointments was incredibly easy.  These folks were eager to talk with us because none of them had really wanted the relationship to end (change, for them, would be a hassle) and they really seemed sincere in wanting to help us learn the lessons we needed to learn.
  • The Closing Reports were never the whole story – or sometimes even the main theme of the story.  It was easy for operators to point to “cost” or claim to have been “low-balled”, but price was seldom the primary driver.  We could be really good at fixing problems; we just needed to know which problems the client believed were the right ones to fix.
  • People changes (on either side of the relationship) almost always were a contributing factor in the loss.  We realized that these changes automatically added an element of risk to the sustainability of the contract and that they had to be handled more intentionally and effectively.

At about our third or fourth client meeting, one of the interviewees opined, “You know these are important and relevant questions you are asking.” (We were getting pretty good at it by then.)  “If you had asked these same questions 9 months ago, then actually done something about the issues you’ve surfaced, you would probably still have our contract.”  WHOA… BIG MOMENT!!

Of course, the body of knowledge that we know today as the Clients for Life® client retention process sprang from these humble beginnings.  Today, it’s protecting nearly $20 billion in management contracts in over 30 countries.  And, as for Bill Edmundson, who originally sent us packing down I-95, after several internal promotions and a stint as CEO at another company, he would eventually become one of our partners in Tenacity.  (That was when we knew we were really on to something special.)

There’s a lot more to the story that has transpired in the intervening 27 years, but these were the first baby steps.  As we look to Tenacity’s 3rd decade and make some fundamental changes in our route to market we’re grateful for every client, every partner, every reader of our books and every opportunity we’ve been given to evangelize the message of successfully retaining the clients you’ve worked so hard to get.  Stay tuned.

John & Steve