How to walk away from bad business without burning bridges.


I know what you’re thinking… “Bad deals??? Wish I had the luxury to have a few of those…”


I get it. As salespeople, and especially as salespeople in today’s world, the pressure is greater than ever to deliver:



But here’s the truth – no matter how high the pressure, my 20 years of experience in sales has shown that bad business does exist and is never worth pursuing. Even when the pressure is on! 


In fact, it does way more damage in the long term than it helps in the short term.


That said, what do you do if you’re in the middle of a deal that isn’t panning out? How do you extricate yourself from the situation without creating a negative ripple across your marketplace and your network?


You can do it… and many times it will actually set you up for greater success later. Here’s a great example of why and how this works, followed by the step-by-step approach you should take to do it and have your customers/prospects love you for it at the same time.


Why not burning bridges matters (an example).


At one point in my career, I was handed a MEGA enterprise account from an inside sales team under the premise of having “the best and biggest accounts with the best salespeople.”


But as I soon found out, the person who originally set up the deal in the first place (on the last day of the previous quarter I might add) did so in such an unrealistic fashion that all parties involved were destined for failure. And the customer was PISSED.


The Beatdown.


The entire first call was nothing short of an hour-long beat down. They did not like being duped and wanted out – with 9 months left to go in their contract.


I was able to disarm them by listening, being empathetic, and trying to figure out where things went wrong. I even flew out to visit them on more than one occasion to discuss how we could get them the most value possible for their money (including switching up their service/product plan and a full-blown training program that I personally oversaw across multiple locations).


However, we ultimately both agreed that this arrangement wasn’t the right fit and created an action plan for how to phase the relationship out – something that royally killed me on my numbers, but I pursued anyway because it just didn’t make sense.


The Comeback.


Fast forward 3 years where I was working with a different company with a better solution that could absolutely help them… they didn’t forget the way I handled the previous interaction with them.


And not long after, we closed a 6-figure deal. Furthermore, they are still a great contact to this day!


The Lesson.


Sales is a long game and the world is small. The people you’re talking to today could be your customers 15 years in the future too. Or, even your employer. So bottom line – make sure you have the best interests of everyone you interact with in mind at all times.


You never know when you’ll run into them again in the future.


Here’s how to step away when you’re already in the middle of a deal that’s not smelling quite right and earn your customer’s respect in the process.


The step-by-step way to step away (and earn their respect in the process).


Step #1: Think like Vanilla Ice


sales, bad business


Something isn’t feeling right? Make Vanilla Ice proud… hit the pause button and look at the big picture, both individually and with your team internally.


Ask yourself these questions:


  1. Is it actually a bad situation or can it be corrected?
  2. Are you in a contract?
  3. What obligations do you have to fulfill?
  4. Is this a new customer or existing?


Each of these things will have an impact on how you move forward. Many times, the situation is not as bad as you think it is and can be corrected by setting/resetting the stage (read: better communication).


If that’s not the case though, you need to be prepared for the conversation that needs to happen.


Study the contract for any obligations you might have to fulfill and review your touch points with the customer so far. Look for creative solutions and ways to benefit both parties and articulate that. Bounce ideas off your team members and get feedback.


The goal here is to figure out what is going on and make sure you can articulate it. The more work you do up front, the better you’ll be able to handle the coming conversation in a non-emotional fashion in the moment (critical to making sure they remember you favorably).


Step #2: Get on the phone and call a timeout.



If things do appear to be destined for failure, don’t assume… do some rediscovery. But do it right away – putting it off will only make the backlash worse later.


Start the conversation with questions. Make sure to understand your customer’s goals NOW vs before and whether they are still the same as yours (this applies whether they are an existing customer or new customer).


If they have changed, make sure you understand WHY.


Remember, the purpose of this call is to confirm or deny whether this deal is good for BOTH of you. Listen actively and pay attention to the space between where you need to. Empathy goes a long way in this situation!


(Related: Why active listening is the sales skill you need to learn NOW)


Step #3: Reach a consensus and set expectations.



If after the call it’s clear that your goals are dramatically different or the items you had previously agreed upon went out the window, the next step is to lay it all out on the table and outline why it’s time to move on.


But, never cut things off cold turkey. You don’t want to leave them high and dry and fending for themselves (especially if they are an existing customer).


At the end of the day, even if what you’re providing isn’t the right solution, it likely is a partial solution. And if your customer is already using it, leaving them in the lurch is going to leave them and their business spinning.


Instead, have a discussion around your findings and the outline you built and set a timetable for when the partnership will end. Help them find the right solution if you can, whether that’s a referral if you haven’t entered an agreement yet or simply sticking with them long enough until they can find it the one that is right.


They WILL remember this – very few people genuinely want to help others around them when there’s nothing immediately in it for them in the short term.


The Key Takeaway…


Your customer’s need for a solution is greater than your need to make a sale.


I know that’s scary as a salesperson, but it’s true. Sales is a long game, and this mindset is going to set you up for success in the long run. Sometimes at the expense of your short term, but not very often if you’re spending your time pursuing the right leads.


(Related: How to sniff out a bad deal before you sign the contract)


One other note – this little bit of honesty and transparency you’ll bring to the table will make you stand out like Shaq on the average street corner in New York. There are so few people who actually do this and it’s magnetic as a buyer when you find someone who does.


Be helpful and they will remember you.


This post first appeared on the Sales Hacker Blog.