Losing Clients and Building Resilience

Losing clients can be the result of various scenarios: you weren’t the best fit, the timing was off, or a budget couldn’t be agreed on. No matter the case, we are bound to lose clients in our sales efforts. How we deal with this loss can help to better prepare for future client interactions.

When faced with a loss, we can interpret it in one of two ways: dejection, where we take the rejection personally, or rationalization, where we accept the situation at its surface without digging deeper to learn more. Knowing that you can’t win every sale each time to delve into a new prospect will build resilience in your sales process.

In this episode, I’ll be covering:

  1. Emotion as it applies to career success

  2. How to develop emotional resilience

  3. Why reflection is vital when losing clients

We are trained to separate our personal life from our work life, and follow the best practices put in place by those in higher positions. The fact is, who we are emotionally can’t be changed. You cannot be a different person from your working self, you simply are who you are.

Rather than suppressing the emotional reaction you have when you lose a client or a sale, facing it and diving into these emotions is the first step to building resilience. You don’t have to win at business every single time, you just have to accept that you can’t win every sale and it’s up to you how you’ll handle it. Exercise and laughter are two excellent ways to keep your mind healthy and focused on growing positively from loss.

In addition to keeping your mind and body healthy, taking the time to reflect on the events that led up to the loss can serve as a great lesson for the next sale you approach. You’ll learn what went right and wrong, what could have been done differently, and what you will change going forward. From here, you can create a post-mortem plan to assess the events that occurred, as well as a scheduled plan to improve your sales practice.

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Mentioned in this episode:

Study of sales and servant leadership

Wired: Neuroscience of Defeat

Center for Servant Leadership

Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by Southwick and Charney


Full Episode Transcription:

The book Tuesdays with Morrie is a collection of stories and memoirs written by Mitch Albom about his former professor, Morrie Schwartz, and the time they spent together in the last days of Morrie’s life living with the degenerative disease ALS. My favorite story of the book was a short one. Morrie’s at the Brandeis University basketball game in 1979. As is typical at a college basketball game, the crowd is loud and making a ruckus, the students hopeful that the team will win the bright lights on the court, the pre-party drinks, the painted faces. The crowd is so loud they could drown out a commercial jet engine. How could students not be hyped for the game? Amidst the uproar, a chant breaks out, “We’re number one. We’re number one. We’re number one.” Morrie stands up and shouts, “What’s wrong with being number two?” The students fall silent, and Morrie returns to a seat with a satisfied smile on his face.

It may seem like the goal of selling is to be number one, to win every single time. But if you agree that your job is to serve your client, then you’re certainly not going to close every sales opportunity with a win that comes your way. I know it can sting, but letting some go and accepting the loss is the right thing to do, but it doesn’t make it easy. In this episode, I’ll cover how to deal with loss and build your resilience so you can move on to the next opportunity faster.

Welcome to Modern Sales, a podcast for entrepreneurs, business owners, and salespeople looking to have more and better conversations with your perfect clients. You’ll get a healthy scoop of psychology, behavioral economics, and sales studies to help you create win-win relationships. I’m your host, Liston Witherill, and I’m pleased to welcome you to Modern Sales.

It happens to all of us. We go into a sales opportunity for all the right reasons, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Maybe the timing’s off. Maybe you can agree to a budget. Maybe you’re just not the right fit for this particular client. Let’s be honest, shit happens. And if your goal is to truly serve, sometimes the best service is no service at all or inviting the client to take a completely different route than you can take them on. But it still stings, especially when you think a client is an otherwise perfect fit to work with you.

Here’s the truth, losing is part of selling. More broadly, losing is part of business and losing is part of everything we do in life. You’re not going to win every single time. No one does. The faster you can get over the sting of defeat, the faster you can find a client who does need your help and is willing to pay you exactly what you’re worth. There are plenty of them out there.

But it’s not as simple as losing and moving on. When things don’t go our way, there are typically two reactions that people are inclined to have, dejection, taking the loss personally, which can be deeply stressful. This is essentially flight. Or rationalizing the loss, essentially rejecting the information that we lost in the first place, essentially fight. So, fight or flight reactions.

Now, both reactions are quite harmful. On the one hand, you may have a tendency to be overly harsh and critical of yourself, which will deepen your sense of loss and therefore the stress it causes. On the other hand, you may rationalize the loss, potentially ignoring valuable lessons that could have been learned and limiting your very vital feedback loop. The key to bouncing back is, number one, to accept that losing happens, number two, developing emotional resilience, and number three, implementing a step of reflection to treat every loss as a source of important information.

Now, it’s really interesting. If you go out and try to do some research on emotion in business, of course, you’ll see some of the hits like Emotional Intelligence and some of the other sort of pop culture books about emotion in business, but there’s very little research about how our emotions affect our success and, even more broadly, our mental health in business. But what’s true is we human beings are emotional creatures. And so I don’t want this to come off as woo-woo, but I do want to acknowledge you have feelings. I have feelings. It’s not a revolutionary thing to say. And so when we think about how can we bounce back faster so that we don’t miss future opportunities, and I think from a health perspective, we don’t beat ourselves up for not winning every single one because it’s impossible in the first place, from that health perspective, we really need to understand what’s at work here.

I looked into this topic quite a bit and was surprised by just how little information there is about emotion as it applies to career success, and I believe that’s partly because the difficulty of measuring emotion. You can’t really do a controlled experiment on entrepreneurs, or business owners, or salespeople for the simple fact that most businesses want everybody doing the best practices at all times. So, that’s one blockage. But, I think the other blockages were just trained not to be emotional. We’re supposed to separate our “personal life” and “work life.” And while there are ways to put up some walls and some boundaries between those things, certainly boundaries, it’s not possible for you to be a completely different person when you’re working than in your personal life. It’s just not possible.

So, I looked into a couple of studies, particularly the research around neuroscience and the psychology of resilience. And in one study, they found that using servant leadership as a model both lessens the emotional impact of stress and makes it less likely that any of us will want to quit. The study in particular was done on salespeople. And so what they found was that the people who believed in the servant leadership model weren’t as stressed by their jobs and were less likely to leave. Now, I often implore you to serve, don’t sell. And this concept of servant leadership is something I only recently discovered, but it’s an existing model that essentially summarizes the same ideas.

Servant leadership was created by Robert Greenleaf, and it contrasts the difference between people who are driven to lead and people who are driven to serve. Contrasting between those two examples themselves, Greenleaf writes, “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” And therein lies proof that we cannot win every sale. If we start from the premise that it’s our fiduciary duty to advise clients to the best of our ability and in a way that prioritizes their best interest, that absolutely will sometimes come into direct conflict with our desire to win new business. Perhaps the best solution for a potential client is for them not to do a project. Perhaps the best solution for an existing client is for you to go your separate ways.

Now, personally, as a coach, I don’t expect that any of my clients will be with me forever. Granted, progress is a continuum. Progress is a spectrum, and improvement is relative to your current condition. So, it stands to reason that some of my clients could work with me forever, but what I want them to do is get to proficiency and a multiple of the confidence they had prior to working with me, and then I will feel like I have done their job. There’s going to come a time when we go our separate ways, but we stay in touch. But that’s part of it, right? Maybe at that point they need to go allocate their time and resources to learning other things to improving themselves in other ways. That is part of the deal. And so, if we can prove that if we start from the premise of serve don’t sell and that our goal is to serve our clients, therefore we know we can’t win every new business opportunity, and therefore losing happens. Let’s accept it because it’s part of our moral imperative to serve.

Unsurprisingly, it’s this moral and ethical certitude that helps us build our resilience in the first place. You see, if you approach your work and your clients for all the right reasons, you know that sometimes you won’t do business with them. In their book Resilience, the author’s Southwick and Charney found that the most emotionally resilient people “possessed a keen sense of right and wrong that strengthened them during periods of extreme stress and afterward as they adjusted to life following trauma. Also, altruism, selflessness, concern for the welfare of others, and giving to others with no expectation of benefit to the self often stood as a pillar of their value system of their moral compass.” This means a permanent change in mindset is in order.

If you haven’t bought into the idea of serve-don’t-sell, or servant leadership, and you’re approaching your sales with the zero sum mentality, meaning one person has to win, the other person has to lose, then you have no moral imperative. Your imperative is to sell, is to prioritize revenue, is to prioritize you winning, and only then will you have succeeded in your career and in your life. And what a vapid outlook that must be.

So if we know that a permanent change in mindset is in order, you can choose to accept my imperative, serve don’t sell. But that’s okay. You don’t have to. But my question is, if you don’t accept my suggestion to be motivated by service, what’s your alternative moral imperative? You’ll need one to build up your resilience.

There are two other important strategies to help you build your resilience, physical fitness and humor. Now, stick with me here. I know I may have lost you at physical fitness and humor, but, look. I could give you useless advice like just detached from the outcome of the sale and you’ll be able to get over it faster, but how can you completely do that? This whole discussion about work life and personal life, I mean, the truth is bringing in new business does affect your livelihood. So, the idea that you can simply detach herself is probably not super realistic. And also, I don’t know how to action that information. But what I do know is that if I adopt the serve-don’t-sell mentality, that’s a big thing. That’s going to take time. And that also comes from a deep sense of belief.

What you could do immediately is exercise. Anyone can do it. Everyone should do it. This isn’t a health podcast, obviously, but I’ll tell you a little story. When I started along my path of entrepreneurship, I hit a really big bump in the road early on after I’d quit my day job. I had started a new business with a partner. Things didn’t go very well, and we went our separate ways. I didn’t have time to dwell on what happened or how devastating it potentially was. I just kind of dusted myself off, got back to it, and started working again, and started landing clients.

About four months into that process, I had what felt like an anxiety attack. My heart started pounding. My vision was a little bit blurry. I had to sit down, and I kind of just wanted to crawl into the fetal position in the corner of the room. That happened twice over the course of a month or two. And after that, I knew that one of the things that was going on was, one, I was working too much, and, two, I hadn’t fully dealt with the loss that I experienced. I knew one of the things that was missing from my life was exercise. I’ve been an athlete all my life, and exercise has always been a big part of my life, and I wasn’t doing it. Once I started doing it, I noticed an immediate change in my perception of the level of stress that was going on, without changing much else in my life.

Now, one thing you might be thinking is, “God, exercise. I don’t have time for that.” You know, it’s funny. I had an article come into my inbox last week. I won’t mention from whom, but it basically made the argument that startup founders who don’t have hobbies, loosely defined as something that they did for 10 hours or more a week, startup founders without hobbies are likely to grow their companies 20% faster than the startup founders who do have hobbies. Now, I think that’s hilarious because it automatically assumes growing 20% faster is something we should all strive for, and it also doesn’t take into account the long-term effects of not prioritizing the things that you know you need to do in order to be healthy.

So, I’m going to leave it at that, but exercise really high on the list, and you don’t have to change your mindset to do it. You don’t have to get expensive equipment. You don’t really have to do anything else. If you’re looking to become more resilient and bounce back from adversity and stress faster, just exercising will get you a long way there.

The second thing is just laugh. Laugh about the absurdity of the situation when it comes up. Or even simpler, put on your favorite brainless show, or stand up comedian, or podcast, or whatever you consume and just laugh. That alone will also help you become more resilient. Those two things, pretty easy tweaks. They don’t require a mindset shift. They just require allocating some time to do some of the things that you know will keep you more healthy.

Now, at this point, you might be thinking, “Well, should I just be prepared to lose all the time?” And of course the answer is no. None of us can afford to lose all of our clients. None of us can afford to lose all of our sales opportunities. You have to win business because it’s your livelihood, and it’s mine, too. But look, we also have to accept the fact that we can’t win them all, and we won’t, which is all to say that the faster we accept a loss and experience the thrust of those emotions, the faster we can move on to the next most important step, which is reflection. Every loss is an opportunity to learn something, building towards more success in the future. Michael Jordan talks about this in his Nike commercial, which I’ll play for you right now.

I missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I failed over, and over, and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

“I failed over, and over, and over, and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.” Now, what he doesn’t cover in that commercial is what to do when you fail, and that’s how I want to close out this episode. Because I’ve given you two, I think, really incredible tools. One, if I do say so myself. But, one is to start to change your mindset and accept that if you are to serve and not sell, sometimes you’re not going to win. That is not only okay, that is expected. Number two, developing some emotional resilience so it’s easier for you to deal with it when it comes up. It’ll still sting a little bit, but maybe it’ll sting less and the duration will be lower.

But now I want to get to what do we do with this information, because there’s a rich opportunity there in order to learn from what happened. So, what I would recommend that you do is to reflect on what happened every time because that will help you improve. Now, when you lose a new business opportunity, there’s many reasons why that can happen. But typically, if it’s in the more advanced stages, which are the ones that are going to sting a little bit more, it’s because you did something wrong. It’s because the client didn’t tell you something or you didn’t know something that you should have known. Maybe the priorities changed within the client’s company or on their agenda. Maybe they chose someone else.

Now, we can address all of these different things, but in these situations it’s very valuable to reflect on it, right? And usually it’s going to be a combination of a few different things. This is in contrast to you starting down the road of a sales opportunity. You have a discovery call, maybe a couple of follow-up calls, and then you realize, “Hey, that wasn’t a good fit after all.” And so I want to separate this out into two categories of learning. One is situations where you could have identified sooner that this person wasn’t a fit to work with you, and two is situations where they were a fit but something else happened that made the deal goes sideways.

So, the first thing you should always do, whether it’s losing new business opportunities or losing existing clients, is to build in a postmortem process so you can assess what happened. The second thing I want you to do is institute either a quarterly or semiannually improvement plan. So, you do your postmortems. It’s not very practical to say you’re going to alter your sales process every time you lose. And actually, you shouldn’t do that because you shouldn’t make strategic changes based on individual data points. But the information comes from gathering multiple data points, and that’s what we want to act on. So, we’re going to need enough information in order to act in the right ways. So, that’s why I’m suggesting building your postmortem and then do a quarterly or a semiannually improvement plan on your sales process.

So, what’s in your post-mortem? Number one, you’re going to ask questions, obviously. You’re going to ask what went right in the sales process. You’re also going to ask what went wrong. What were some pivotal moments when the energy, and rapport, and commitment seemed to change significantly? What happened in those pivotal moments? Why do you think that was? I also want you to ask yourself related to what went wrong and what pivotal moments led to this, what could you have done differently this time? If you could go back and redo things, what could you have done that was different that may have led to a different outcome? And after you ask that question, the next natural thing to think about is, what will you do differently next time? That will feed directly into your improvement plan.

If your deals are large enough and if you have clients who are relatively accessible … This doesn’t work as well if you’re dealing with government clients, which I’ve experienced. But if you have private clients, I would also recommend you go to them and ask them, “Hey, one thing that helps me improve my business is to understand what happened in my sales. And I’d love some feedback from you.” Now, the challenge here is there’s not a lot of incentive for your client to help you, other than the nice feeling that they get from being helpful and for improving your business.

If you had good rapport with them, it’s pretty likely that they actually will comply with this request and give you 15 or 20 minutes. You may even send them a form if they’re reluctant to get on the phone, but getting some feedback from them. What do you think I could have done differently or what ultimately led to your decision? What did you need in place in order for this to work? Those kinds of questions will give you some really, really important information.

And so look, if you’re too devastated by your loss, you won’t much have the will to reflect on what happened and you won’t be able to move on to the next opportunity as readily. And if you reject the information that you lost, which neuroscience shows that many of us do … We reject information that disagrees with our preexisting beliefs. If you reject that information and you pretend it never happened, you’ll lose the chance to learn from the situation, and you’ll go into the next opportunity and potentially make mistakes you could have corrected by learning from your past missteps. So, this reflection step is incredibly important.

Just to wrap up, here’s how you can deal with loss and increase your resilience: Number one, accept that losing happens. Serve, don’t sell; number two, developing emotional resilience, which comes from a new mindset, exercise, and humor; and number three, implementing a step of reflection to treat every loss as a source of important vital information by adopting a postmortem analysis and a quarterly or semiannual improvement plan.

Once again, I’m Liston, liston.io. Thank you so much for listening. And if you got something out of this episode, please tell someone you know. Tell a friend. Tell them to listen to this episode or your favorite episode of the Modern Sales podcast. And if you have a second and are feeling extra generous, go ahead and leave a review on iTunes. The link is in the show notes. I don’t ask you to do it because I want your flattery. What I want to know is what you’re getting out of the show. And more importantly, it helps other people find the show on iTunes. Thank you so much for listening, and I hope you have a fantastic day. Bye.

PodcastListon Witherill