Breakups, in general, are hard.

But breakups in business happen all the time. Sometimes you need to let an employee go, or even a fellow leadership team member. Other times, you need to have a clarifying conversation with a potential or current investor. And, maybe most common of all, you need to let a vendor or company partner know it’s time to end the engagement.

Even in business relationships, there are still emotions involved—especially if an engagement began with high expectations, or if things went sour. What’s important is that you continue asking whether the relationship is growing and evolving, and both parties are satisfied and getting what they need, or if it’s time to cut ties.

While these types of decisions can be difficult, they end up being much more painful if you avoid making the decision altogether. These types of relationships cost you:

  • Time
  • Money
  • Headspace
  • Team cohesion
  • Even other opportunities (you could be working with someone else)

I recently went through this with a vendor, and by the end of the engagement, they were no longer solving problems, but adding more problems for us to solve ourselves. And at a certain point, we had to make a judgment call.

If you’re questioning making the same decision with one of your own vendors, here are a few ways to know it’s time to end the engagement—and how to do so in a way that is respectful, but clear.

1. Make a list of all the reasons you feel the relationship isn’t working, and reflect on whether you could be doing anything differently.

Relationships are two-way streets.

Before you make the rash decision to let a vendor go, question why the relationship isn’t working anymore, and the role you might be playing in the dynamic. Make a list of all the things you feel are going wrong, and then give yourself some time to step away from the list. Come back once the emotions have settled, and re-read it with a clear head. 

Try to make the decision as logical and rational as possible. “These are the pros, these are the cons, these are the results I’m seeing, and these are the results I’m not seeing.”

I’ve learned in the past that if you do this exercise and ultimately know you should terminate the relationship, but don’t, the relationship might get better for a short period of time, but it always goes back to where it was. So, if your gut tells you to sever ties, it’s probably the right decision—for both parties.

2. If a conflict arises, don’t do anything irrational.

The worst way to end a relationship with a vendor (or any relationship, for that matter) is in the middle of a conflict.

If a vendor gets upset, now is not the time to terminate the relationship. Instead, use this as an opportunity to really examine what the conflict is pointing at, and whether this is the sign of a larger pattern. 

Usually, what I’ve found is that conflicts arise when the company and the vendor are no longer growing together. Either the company out-grows the vendor, or the vendor levels-up their own business to a point where their engagement with you is too small—and thus, deprioritized. Sometimes an honest conversation about this fact that reset expectations and both parties can collaborate more effectively under these new conditions. But for the most part, it’s better to accept where you’re both at on your respective journies and go your separate ways.

But again, this should not be a decision you make in the heat of an argument.

Take the time to understand the root of the issue, and make your decision calmly and consciously.

3. When you rip the Bandaid off, be clear about next steps.

Once you decide to end the engagement, be very clear about how both parties should proceed to wrap things up efficiently and effectively.

My rule of thumb in ending vendor relationships is: the person with the coolest head, wins. If you’ve done a good job documenting the reasons why you feel this is the best path forward, and you can communicate those reasons based on the needs of your own personal situation (and the needs of the company), then the conversation should be very straightforward. Don’t make it emotional. Just state the facts, and say, “In order for us to be successful, we’ve made the decision to find a vendor that can help us with X, Y, and Z.” 

From there, explain what’s going to happen next—the same way you would with an employee you’re letting go from the company. Let the vendor know what expectations you have for your remaining time together, and come up with a fair strategy to terminate the relationship. 

In most cases, this conversation doesn’t mean “things are over” the moment you leave the room or hop off the phone. There is a period of time where both parties slowly separate from each other. So the more you can keep your cool, the easier your life is going to be in the weeks to come.

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