Keep, Cut, Change: How to Get Culture Fit with Clients

Walraven (center) with Syncroness employees.
"They know I have their backs," he says. 
Landing a $2 million dollar contract is a big deal in a company the size of Syncroness, a Denver-based engineering consulting firm. CEO Mike Walraven was delighted when a new client signed Syncroness to provide research for a technology feasibility study.

“It was a fairly significant contract for us,” says Walraven. This was exactly why the team was disappointed to find – two weeks into a two year contract – that the existing technology could not do what the client wanted. “The physics was such that it just couldn't be done – it couldn't be scaled to fit the need,” says Walraven.

Now Walraven and his young company faced an ethical decision: let the client know immediately, and loose the $2 million dollar deal, or drag the project out in hopes of keeping some of the contract’s money on the table.

Walraven made the ethical choice. “I had to tell the client, ‘We’d just be burning your money to continue this research.’”

The tough choice paid off: it took a few years, but the client returned to Syncroness the next time they had an engineering research need. More importantly, word of Walraven’s honesty with clients circulated in the industry, leading to new clients and a strong reputation.

What this client found was that Syncroness was a good culture fit for their organization. Finding clients that fit your company’s culture has the long term benefit of creating loyalty and easier, often more profitable, working relationships. Walraven offers these suggestions for keeping, cutting, or changing clients to ensure a culture fit with your organization:

1. Choose clients carefully. It may seem that the choice happens in the other directions – clients choose you – but in reality, most bigger contracts begin with a courting season that allows both companies to get to know one another, including the culture and values at play.

Walraven recommends watching for these red flags:
  • The prospective client treats you like a commodity rather than a partner.
  • The prospective client has tried outsourcing before and hasn't found a consistent partner. 
  • Their goal is only financial and they just want to get it done cheaply. 
  • They can’t articulate what they need, and they lack a clear vision the project’s future.
Being selective about clients is a privilege, Walraven says. But it also prevents future headaches.

2. Do everything you can to keep commitments to your clients. Once you have a strong client relationship, or have an agreed upon set of expectations, Walraven’s team goes out of their way to keep the relationship thriving.

One recent Syncroness client project began to go over budget. “We hadn’t set clear expectations up front,” Walraven says. Along with that, a change in leadership for the client, along with a slow scope creep had taken the project off path and over budget.

“My team was saying, ‘Let’s just cut this project now. It’s hurting the company,’” says Walraven. But he knew Syncroness’s long term reputation was more valuable than this short term problem, so he made the decision to finish the project.

“To quit now wouldn't speak too well to our values,” Walraven told his team. “We want a lasting relationship with the customer, and killing the project would kill the relationship. Word of mouth would come back to bite us.”

3. Respectfully confront clients. Syncroness’s clients are often under a lot of pressure to find new technologies, meet tight deadlines, and operate on lean budgets. As a result, clients can sometimes get over-bearing with Walraven’s staff. He won’t tolerate it.

“We have the tough conversation. We remind the client that they can’t talk to our staff that way. And often,” he says, “the reminder is all it takes.”

4. End relationships gracefully. Not every relationship can be salvaged. Recently a long term client began failing to pay bills. With 10 staff members dedicated to the client’s project, resolving the situation was important. But the client’s new ownership – they’d been purchased by an off-shore firm after facing financial problems due to a law suit – seemed to be stripping the company of resources while also making decisions that were ethically questionable.

"We've tried communicating with them,” says Walraven. “If times are tough, we’re willing to work through it with people. But it requires a significant amount of communication. We put our cards on the table and say this is what’s okay and not okay – from our standpoint of integrity and good business sense.”

Seeing no changes in the client’s behavior, Walraven made the tough decision to end the relationship before it became costly to Syncroness. “You have to exit gracefully – do what you've committed to do, communicate clearly, and then move away,” he says.

Finding (and keeping clients) that are a good culture fit is part of the long game of business, Walraven says. “There’s plenty of work out there. You should be able to find the people you want to work with and not work with others.” Making that choice inevitably works better for your company in the long term – even if it’s a tough call in the short run.


Amber Johnson is the Center for Values-Driven Leadership's corporate relations and social media advisor. She is a non-profit and small business communications professional. In addition to blogging about business for the CVDL, Amber writes about marriage and other topics on her personal blog.

What's Your Metric for Success?

Would your strategy change if you changed
your definition of success? Photo credit: Flickr via CompFight. 
Definition of success?  I could lose everything and truly be okay with it.  ~Tony Hsieh, billionaire and CEO of Zappos

This idea of a metric for success was suggested by someone this past week on Facebook regarding our current political dilemma. I have to admit, I do wonder what our various senators and congressmen are using as their metric for success given the decision making we've observed. Is their metric for success re-election? Pleasing a very specific and small group of constituents? To be on the winning side?  Self-promotion? Doing what's best for the most people? Who knows? But it certainly did cause me to ponder the question: What's my highest metric for success? And, how much is my ego driving my metric?

I'll openly admit that I have been a casualty of our culture when it comes to measuring my success. I let external expectations of success influence many of my decisions. For years, in my little company of Greystone Global, I had numerous staff, multiple locations, etc. These are all symbols or metrics of success in the consulting world.  The real truth is, when I first started in the consulting business more than 17 years ago, I wanted to be an independent consultant. That never changed. However, I allowed my ego to get the best of me and I did all of the things that others told me I was supposed to do to be a "success." I had multiple staff, multiple locations, traveled across the country to clients from coast to coast. But those metrics of success weren't bringing me fulfillment.

As I mentioned in a recent blog, I was busy, but busy (along with the staff, locations, etc.) wasn't the metric for success that really mattered to me. I wanted to be able to look back on a year of consulting and coaching and point to specific scenarios where organizations were healthier, dollars were being spent more effectively, people were achieving personal goals, and teams were thriving. In order for that to happen it could mean (or even require) that I wasn't overly busy and it really didn't demand the locations, staff, travel, etc. So, as staff either retired or wanted to make other changes I chose not to replace them. I pursued client relationships that didn't require extensive travel, and I function from one small but efficient office space. 

My highest metric for success? Did I develop a relationship and do work with each of my clients that could in some way push the world a little closer to wholeness? I honestly believe that I have a better shot at achieving this metric for success by ignoring what culture dictates as my metrics of success. But, that requires a lot of fortitude to put my ego aside; because while I may have changed my metric for success, our culture has not. So I still get asked the same "success" questions like: Are you busy? How many staff do you have? Are you traveling a lot?  It's not unheard of, but on a rare occasion I get asked something like: What have you been able to help some of your clients achieve in the past year?

My intent was not to ramble on about my own metric for success, but to challenge each of us to be really honest with ourselves. How do we measure our own success? If you're not sure, then look at the decisions you are making – not your aspirations – what you are actually doing. What we actually do or decide, is the real indicator of our metric for success, not what we'd like to do. 

Is your metric of success honestly bringing you fulfillment? If not, then maybe it's time to re-evaluate. But please, don't take 15 years to make it right, like I did.
Dr. Kathryn Scanland is the president of Greystone Global LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, leadership development and organizational design. This post is republished with permission from Tuesday Mornings.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Last week I had the privilege of attending two outstanding conferences, first the COMMIT Forum, a conference hosted by the Corporate Responsibility Association; followed by the Inc. 500/5000 conference, hosted by Inc. magazine.

Though divergent in areas of focus, the two conferences had one unintentional theme: the incredible value of culture in guiding the direction of a company.
We heard this time and time again from the well-known speakers that took the stage.

  • Jim Collins, celebrated author of Good to Great, spoke of developing a culture of discipline as a way to combat "chronic mediocrity." 
  • Social media experts spoke about the value of reputation and engagement as measures of culture, and how that reputation is shaped by leadership decisions. 
  • Responsibility executives spoke about the struggle companies face when they form partnerships with organizations who aren't aligned with their corporate cultures and values: the result is often a failed project.
  • Serial entrepreneur Les McKeown spoke about the burnout that results from "over-cooked systems," and mis-alignment of internal leaders to an overriding vision. 
  • Hubspot "evangelist" Laura Filton reminded us that generosity should be a stronghold of contemporary business culture. "Generous is the new cautious and controlled," she said. 

Do you notice what these speakers ARE NOT talking about? They aren't talking about strategy. In fact, several spoke derisively about business plans that get written, shoved in a drawer, and never revisited. Day to day decision making - the decisions that truly guide what our companies become - is almost always shaped more by culture than strategy.

Two leaders, at two separate conferences, offered the same observation: Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Attributed to leadership guru Peter Drucker, the statement's meaning is simple: strategy is important, but who you are, and who your company is at a core-value level, will guide your future more than any single plan.

So how are you shaping culture? At the Center for Values-Driven Leadership, we're working to understand the factors of culture that best lead to success, as defined by profit and revenue, employee engagement and retention, pace of innovation, and customer loyalty. Our Return on Values research initiative, a partnership with the Inc. Small Giants Community, asks the question, In small and mid-size businesses, what is the relationship between culture and profit? 

To see some of our answers, we invite you to visit our Return on Values website at
Amber Johnson is the CVDL's corporate relations advisor and a non-profit and small business communications specialist.