Not gone but forgotten

Ever wondered how polygamous marriages work?

You’ve no doubt seen photos of the proud husband surrounded by his collection of wives. There’s no prize for guessing why the guy always looks unreasonably happy. What’s more intriguing is what’s going on behind the beatific smiles of the wives. Yes, they look happy. But most acid bath murderers also show a pleasant demeanour in the photographs shown on the evening news.

Imagine you’re wife number one.

You meet the man of your dreams, you court, you marry, you enjoy times of complete and total happiness. Then he announces that he has found someone younger. He isn’t exactly going to trade you in. He’s just going to put you up on blocks while he plays with his new toy. Any hope that he’ll get bored and come back to you flies out the door a couple of years later when he announces plans to add yet another younger model to his fleet.

You try to convince yourself that you’re happy. But be honest. You’re seething with hatred or jealousy or envy (or a particularly toxic cocktail of all three). You could be forgiven for wondering why you couldn’t keep your partner happy.

You think the same thing doesn’t happen in business relationships?

Consider this hypothetical case. After working for a global consultancy, you decide to go out on your own. You set up your business. You give it a catchy name, Go Inc. You start chasing clients.

After a couple of anxious months, you get the phone call you’ve been waiting for. Your first client. Not a biggy, but a client none the less. Ah, what a great feeling. You’re on your way. You lavish your new client with attention. Not just because she is your only client. Not just because you need her cheques to pay your rent.

You really do appreciate her demonstration of faith in your fledgling company. She’s taken a risk in giving you her business. You know it. And you show it. You always go that little bit extra. You put in way more hours than she is paying for. You call on favours from suppliers to get things produced for her cheaper and faster. You take her to lunch more than you can really afford to.

Then you get your second client. About the same size as your first one. And your new client gets the same treatment as the first. Well, almost. After all, there are two of them now so your new client doesn’t get your undivided attention. But a lot of it. Maybe eighty percent of it.

Your first client begins to get an uneasy feeling. Maybe it snuck up on her gradually but she’s now pretty sure that your attention and interest seem to be waning. At first, she doesn’t know why. She doesn’t know that you’ve picked up another client. But she does notice that the lunch invitations aren’t as frequent. And it seems to take longer to get her calls returned. And, come to think of it, the calls seem to be getting shorter.

Then one day she notices the new client logo displayed in your lobby or your website. Or she reads of your recently gained client in a trade magazine. And that’s all it takes.

There’s a stirring, an ominous rumbling.

Small marsupials retreat to their burrows.

Birds stop chirping.

The wind dies.

The monster has awoken.

Jealousy raises its head

As much as we all believe that jealousy is a wasteful, silly emotion, we all have it. And it now comes into play, doing funny things with your client’s mind.

Whether your new client is enjoying more of your time or not, your first client imagines she is.

Whether you place greater value on your new client or not, your first client now believes that you do.

You casually mention to your first client that you went to the football on the weekend. No harm in that. You and your client talk about football often when you’re not talking about her business. Only this time it’s different. This time, while she’s saying, “Boy, what a game, huh?” she’s thinking, “I bet you took your new client”. And even though she continues to be amiable, something deep inside has changed forever. She has started wondering what you’re doing and with whom in those increasingly long periods you’re not with her.

Of course, once this niggling doubt has started, it’s going to get worse. It’ll get worse when she sees a third client’s logo proudly displayed on your wall. It’ll get worse when she hears that your fourth client’s budget is five times bigger than her own. And it will breach the flimsy barricade separating jealousy and paranoia when she sees your smiling mug shot in a magazine article naming your company as the hotly tipped favourite to win one of the biggest pieces of business in the country.

She feels unloved. She feels forgotten. She sits alone in her office after the rest of her staff has gone home and fondly recalls the good old days – the days when you phoned her more often than she called you. The days when you’d return a call within the hour.

She can still visualise that paragraph in your credentials document where you wrote:

We’ll treat our smallest client as we treat our biggest – both will benefit from our higher level of thinking.

She frequently thinks about the early days, the honeymoon, and compares those days to now. Now she’s lucky if you return her call the same day. Now she has to talk to your personal assistant before she can talk to you. Now she feels she is holding a ticket whose number is never called.

Yes, it’s unreasonable. Pathetic even. But in this mood, your neglected client is easy prey.

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