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Don't let burning bridges fall on you

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Every good businessperson knows the importance of building quality relationships. But I'm surprised at how often people don't give the same thought to the "quality" with which those relationships end, and the possible ways in which a bad breakup can come back to haunt them.

Most business relationships don't last forever; employees move on, customers come and go, suppliers are replaced. But what goes around does indeed come around, and paths can cross again, particularly within the same industry or in small communities. More than a few times, I've seen and experienced reminders of the importance of not burning bridges with:

Employees: Many, if not most of us, still see or hear from former employees, especially if they've stayed in the same general line of work. At times those employees may come back to work for us again, or they might prove to be valuable industry connections. Imagine if your former employee goes on to become the head buyer at your biggest customer (a very big deal, and it happens). The terms on which you parted company will revisit you, either in a very good way or a very bad one. Unless it is absolutely unavoidable, no matter what the reason for separating with an employee, I always stress the importance of doing so in the most amicable manner possible. Who knows? The guy you fired may be your boss some day.

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Customers: Obviously we (usually) don't want to lose them and we can't please them all, but customers will leave us for various reasons. In the worst-case scenario, if we've tried to do everything we can to win them back and failed, we should try to displease them the least. They might come back later, they might not. But needless to say, their word-of-mouth -- especially in an era in which a comment can travel the world in seconds -- can have a huge impact on your business. Customer conflict and ill-will must be avoided at all costs.

Suppliers: Vendors take many forms, from the local company that supplies your janitorial supplies to the life blood manufacturer(s) whose products you distribute. So the risks of a relationship gone bad can vary from inconsequential to catastrophic. Some suppliers (like the janitorial supply company) may be easy to replace; the more mission-critical ones, not so much. Either way, you never know when you are going to need someone -- or need something from someone -- and burning bridges with suppliers can mean anything from the simple embarrassment of coming back with your tail between your legs looking for a favor, to the disastrous impact of losing a product line, future opportunities, and your reputation with other prospective partners.

Sales representatives: If your company relies on independent sales representatives to work with your accounts, remember that while your rep force may change, those salespeople are always in touch with your customers, probably more often and more directly than you are. In all likelihood, they will also be selling competing products. So even though you've gone your separate ways, your ex-reps are still sitting face-to-face with your customers, but now possibly selling against you. There's nothing you can do about the business competition, but being a class act when you split will at least reduce or eliminate the animosity that can lead to a nastier, vindictive kind of competition.

Competitors: Although this isn't the same dynamic as the constituencies listed above and doesn't typically involve similar conclusions, it is still very much a relationship, and one that is at least as important as the rest. Some of the companies I admire most pride themselves on having cordial relationships with competitors, when allowed to do so (we feel the same way at my company). That doesn't mean they don't compete aggressively -- it just means they understand that business is business, and it doesn't have to be personal or negative. To paraphrase the name of my own column, it is, in fact, possible to "compete with class." One of the common ways in which bad karma comes around in these situations is when companies get acquired, and suddenly a once-unfriendly or even "dirty" competitor finds itself under the thumb of a former rival. It often makes it very easy for the new owner to make personnel decisions, if you get my drift.

Of course, business situations are not always rainbows and unicorns, and sometimes there is no avoiding an unpleasant end to a relationship. But whenever and however possible, it is in the interest of all parties involved to minimize bad blood and keep a philosophical, businesslike attitude -- after all, you never know who you're going to meet... again.

Image courtesy of Flickr user dullhunk

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