Tony Shepherd LL.M.(SYD),A.S.D.A.,A.T.C.L.


It's everywhere - the key to success in business is to exceed your clients' expectations, be more client-centric, client intimate, anticipate their needs, suspend your agenda, drill down, show more empathy. Have I left any out? Undoubtedly.

Problem is, and here's a big disruption - far too many people that I advise as a negotiation and relationship management specialist have forgotten how to protect their own revenue, profitability, people and risk profile. They have become so "client immersed", that they have fallen victim to what I call the modern client Stockholm Syndrome.

The original Stockholm Syndrome, identified in 1973, and now officially recognised in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is a psychological response where a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands ( In 1973 four Stockholm bank employees were held hostage in a bank vault for 6 days. They began to develop a bizarre connection with their abductors advising police (and the Swedish Prime Minister, no less) that while they fully trusted their abductors, they did not trust police who were negotiating to free them.

See the client connection? How many sales and business development specialists, professionals, key account managers and even very senior executives are driven to do everything possible to make the client "happy"? They rationalise discounting, offering clients inducements or more advantageous arrangements, waive agreed terms, accept variations that result in loss or risk to the service provider, and worst of all, pressure their own colleagues (who have to work unprofitably around the clock) to do whatever it takes to keep big clients "happy" - unpaid work, out of scope work, unfairly expedited or prioritised work, organising disorganised clients, etc.

News flash! They've fallen victim to the client Stockholm Syndrome and, quite frankly, forgotten who they work for. I was advised of a situation where a Sales/BD person in seeking to renew a client contract withheld key client demands from their own finance and legal teams to then pressure them into accepting a less advantageous contract extension (more favourable to the client) to ostensibly -

  1. Beat the competition to the deal; &
  2. Retain a key client (albeit on more risky, less profitable terms), arguing they were working hard to preserve a great relationship, while their colleagues were potentially "blockers".

But there is hope. I spend my days helping people understand a critical distinction - clients must always be "happy" with the services we provide, but they just need to "agree" to the terms on which those services are provided, not be "happy". Don't confuse the two.

If there is any deficiency in our service offerings, we need to fix this immediately and at our cost. If we promise to deliver something, we must deliver it. True client focus is to deeply understand the client's needs, then formulate a differentiated offering and perform to satisfy those needs on an agreed basis (pricing, deliverables, etc).

But ... as long as we have performed as promised, we are then entitled to pursue and protect our terms, even if the client is "unhappy", or just wants everything their way.

A quick example. A small, specialised training company had agreed to provide tailored training services to a large multinational. Dates had been blocked in, cancellation terms previously agreed, resources set aside. While there was a 20 day cancellation term in place, 2 days before the training the multinational announced that given other (subjective) priorities had just surfaced, the training could not be conducted, and indeed, all training had been indefinitely put on hold.

When the client contact within the training company politely raised the potential cancellation fee (and sensibly suggested some alternatives), the client indignantly pointed out that they would expect their providers to be far more attuned to their "needs" and that it was a very poor "service proposition" to propose cancellation fees to a client of this calibre (even though they had actually agreed to this!)

What would you do? Is it a poor service proposition to respectfully pursue the cancellation? If it is, why have an agreement in the first place?

I would suggest the service provider has performed from a service perspective (being ready, willing and able to perform). This is not a service's a previously agreed term! Is it poor client "service" to respectfully assert a term that gives the parties certainty and clarity and is critical to agreement being entered into the first place? If it is, then the client Stockholm Syndrome is more pervasive than we think.

Author description - Tony Shepherd is an Australian lawyer, communication & negotiation specialist who works globally advising & training teams to profitably manage commercial relationships. His contact no is 61 412 004 011 or email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Article first published on LinkedIn on 30th April 2017 -