How to Get Out of an Abusive Business Relationship

Gabe Perez
Gabe Perez
VP, Enterprise West at Coupa Software

Gabe Perez has over a decade of leadership experience in Procurement and Spend Management.

Read time: 6 mins

Everyone, myself included, knows or has known someone stuck in a bad relationship. It was all roses for a while, but now things have gone beyond sour and the relationship is downright abusive. It makes you crazy because seems so obvious that the mistreated party should just walk away. So why don’t they?

Seeing these kinds of relationships in my personal life, it’s become glaringly evident to me over the past couple of years that they aren’t just person to person. They’re business to business too, and though the abuse is not physical or life-threatening, many of the underlying dynamics are the same. Customers behave badly toward vendors or vice versa, and this scenario seemsjust as prevalent, if not more so, than in personal relationships.

As a sales leader for a disruptive enterprise software solution, I see it all the time. I’m typically coming into a business where there’s a legacy vendor who’s been mistreating the customer for a long time. Even though the customer is clearly unhappy and being shortchanged in the relationship, they still find it very difficult to end it. I know this is not unique to my industry.

Both in personal life and in the business world, walking away is easier said than done. Whether you’re in my position of trying to sell something new and better against entrenched competitors, or you are in a company that is in an abusive relationship with a vendor or customer and want to end it, it’s helpful to understand what you’re up against and how you can escape.

Ties That Bind

In business, especially with enterprise software, there are people who have built teams, processes and their professional status around a solution. These people will often fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo, no matter how obvious it is that it’s not working.

There are also partner and executive relationships. We recently lost a deal at the end of a rigorous 9-month evaluation where all constituents agreed my company had the superior solution, and we even had a negotiated contract ready to sign.  The legacy vendor used the threat of ending an existing partnership in another, unrelated line of business as a trump card to win the deal at the 11th hour.

A Process of Rationalization

Bad business relationships usually start out with high hopes and good intentions and become abusive through a slow process of compartmentalization and rationalization. There’s a saying that if you drop a live frog in a pot of boiling water, he’ll hop right back out. But if you put him in a pot of cold water and bring it to a boil, you’ll have frog soup. That’s a pretty good description of how bad relationships take hold.

Maybe there were some warning signs early in the relationship—maybe a little too much conceded on price, or an onerous term or two that got slipped into the contract. In the initial excitement of the early stages of the relationship, it’s easy to make excuses for small irritants and see them as isolated incidents.

Continuing along that path, you can easily wind up four or five years down the road, having spent millions of dollars for “extras”, including additional services for basic enablement, or even more software than was needed, and not only are you not close to the ROI you were promised, you don't even have the basics working.

What are the signs you might be in an abusive business relationship? Here are three classic behaviors of bad actors:

The Blame Game  - They try to convince you that it’s your fault that things have gone south, and that they’re actually the victim. The version of this I see most often is vendors who tell the client they didn’t hire the right people, that their systems couldn’t be integrated and so on.  I’m still amazed at how often customers believe it.  The customer will concede, unnecessarily, that his or her company “failed to implement a product properly” or that their organization “didn't have proper change management."

Stringing You Along – They divert attention from real problems by creating distractions. In an enterprise software scenario, that might be giving away free modules, selling you expanded services or painting a pretty picture of the next upgrade that’s going to fix everything--if you can just hold on.

Promising to Change - As it becomes clearer that things aren’t working, they use promises to change can keep victims from moving on. Tactics I’ve seen include giving away a new interface, and putting new people on your account. Another one I see a lot in my world is, “this is the cloud version. You're on the old, on-premise version so the cloud is going to make everything better."

How do you escape from this kind of relationship? With compassion, empathy, patience, truth, support, openness and perhaps most of all, with a clear view of a new path ahead.

Anyone who has tried to convince a friend or relative to leave a bad relationship or who has been in a long, dogfight of a sales cycle knows how difficult it is for someone to admit what they are doing is not working. It takes an incredible amount of courage.

Even then, it’s difficult to change. People fear change, loss and the unknown. Organizations will often double down on a bad relationship under the theory that the “devil they know” is better than the risk and uncertainty of change.

Breaking Rank

You need that one person in the organization who is willing to break rank and say, "We have to do the best thing for our company. Take off your rose-colored glasses, and look at the truth. This company has had every opportunity to keep their promises and hasn’t done so. They are not going to change."

You also need the support of a strong executive sponsor, since you are often going up against your own people, exposing a wrong, and these are the people you have to come to work with every day. Sometimes you also need external support from a consultant or alternate vendor.

With those elements in place you can start to build consensus. It’s a long road, and you have to consistently and transparently counter fearmongering and lies with facts and evidence so that the truth can prevail.

At the same time, you have to paint a picture of a clear path forward to something better. It’s not enough to be moving away from something bad. People have to be confident they’re going towards something good.

Even with all that, sometimes they still aren’t ready to walk away. But if they do, they have a great chance to experience something better and to find a relationship that can grow and flourish, and most importantly, unrealized goals will finally become a reality.