We just ended a 15-year relationship with a supplier. Here’s why

Ian Whitworth staff supplier

Ian Whitworth. Source: supplied by Penguin Random House.

Last week we dropped a professional services provider that was pretty integral to our business. We’d been with them for 15 years. We’d been putting it off for a long time, and it saddened me that it got to this point.

The reason we did it is, I think, the single most common way service businesses lose customers.

They didn’t get back to us about anything. Or if they did, it was in a geological time span.

Like all these relationships, they started strong. Asked questions. Offered useful advice beyond the answers we specifically asked for.

Over the last five years it spiralled down to a vending machine experience. A vending machine that would drop you a Mars Bar seven months after you inserted the coins.

They didn’t ever get back to us about any specific request or question. Our partners in each business would send them email requests. They never got answered. Nor the followup emails.

We tried phone calls. You’d leave a message with a perky receptionist, and there was no response ever. Finally after months of ignoring us, they’d respond at the last possible date before inaction would accrue penalties.

This was a CBD firm that you’d expect to have the resources to deliver advanced offerings like responding to long-term customers.

I haven’t spoken to anyone there, literal voice communication, in maybe seven years. It’s not essential for them to do the work. But it certainly doesn’t make me feel like I have any kind of relationship with them. I remember them as nice people, but they are abstract ones and zeros to me after all this time.

When we wanted to break the news to them, we wanted to do it personally over the phone, because that’s good manners after the length of the relationship. But we couldn’t get them to return a call for weeks, so it had to be done by email.


Asking the questions, hearing nothin’ but crickets. Source: supplied.

Professional services people are too busy to do professional services

If it was just this one story, I’d think it’s maybe a rogue outlier experience.

But no, I’ve got another legal situation running at the moment that hasn’t gone as long, but is twice as bad as the one above. Weeks, months of ghosting all emails and calls.

What the fuck, professional services people? I feel bad writing this story. I feel like readers will go: ‘Ian, now that you’re 200 stories in, you’ve run out of topics and you’re now telling us ridiculously obvious tips nobody needs. Respond to your clients’ direct requests within the month, duh, what’s your next story? Hot tip: remember not to do Zoom meetings nude?’

I’m not in professional services, so I really don’t know what is going on out there. I’m assuming overwork. But how can you be so overworked that you can’t message long-term clients with a quick update message? Like “really sorry I’m swamped in some major projects and I’ll get back to you next week with an answer”.

No response isn’t being too busy, which sounds important. It’s being disorganised. And disrespectful to your clients.

It’s not just professional services. Another of our businesses had a major brand approach them for a joint marketing venture. Lots of positive meetings, finally the official go-ahead from the CEO, high-fives all round. From that day on, we never heard a peep out of them. Every contact attempt brought deep-space silence.

After eight months we gave up. Last week we started the same project with their competitor.

How hard is it to say “things have changed and we can’t do it any more”? Wouldn’t have bothered us at all, shit happens and you move on.

The Code Red tradie saying

There’s a Code Red phrase you hear from blokes you’re doing business with — tradies, sales reps and so on — when you ask them to do something in the future. A quote, call-back, or actual delivery of services.

“Too easy mate,” they chirrup. Implying that of course they’ll get back to you, why wouldn’t they do something so simple and obvious?

You will never hear from them again.

Anyone who says “too easy mate” has forgotten your request before their phone is back in their pocket.


“Too easy mate”. Source: supplied.

Good business people have a system to manage their promises

I know you think you don’t do the things I’ve written about here. But neither did the firm that triggered this story.

Before you spend a cent on more marketing or new biz development, here’s the single most effective thing you can do to improve your business:

Get your people to be better at doing that thing they said they’d do.

And have a system for keeping customers updated on where things are at.

It’s not like you need a special software platform to do this, to-do lists have been around a while.

If you don’t want to do the work, say so. Nobody will think any less of you if you respond with “Thanks for the enquiry but it’s not something we can do at the moment.”

Good or bad, people are happier if they know where they stand and they can plan around it.

To borrow a Rory Sutherland observation, the reason people like Uber more than cabs is the tracking map and timer. People are fine with a wait if they know how long that wait will be.  If you leave them hanging with no information, they get tense.

Then angry, and they look for a different supplier. And what a waste of all your efforts that is.

This article was first published on the Undisruptable website. Ian Whitworth’s book Undisruptable: Timeless Business Truths for Thriving in a World of Non-Stop Change is out now from Penguin Random House. 


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Ross Clennett
Ross Clennett
18 days ago

So, so true, Ian.

My elderly mother had a new kitchen installation (2 days of work) booked for late January. Yesterday the company finally finished the work. Supplier and staff issues are understandable but when nobody either called my mother or responded to her calls (on one call, when she did speak to a human, they responded “But isn’t that job finished?”) I, like you, am left wondering how hard is it to make a call (or even send a text)?

Last November I submitted a home insurance claim to Comminsure (I have been a customer for 15 years). The assessor turned up in early December and for the following SIX MONTHS no communication about a decision (to the value of under $3k). My various follow-up calls were all handled with “Somebody will call you in the next seven days”. Nobody ever did, despite having twice registered a complaint. I received a decision (partial accept) two days ago, one week short of seven months after submitting the claim.

Unsurprisingly, Comminsure is highly reliable in deducting my premium each month.

It appears that the more communication channels a business has access to the less likely they are to actually communicate with their customers.

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