What To Do When a Client Wants to Hire You

I’d been at my marketing agency job for about 6 years when I received an email from one of my clients.

“Whenever you’re ready to leave, I’ve got a nice, cushy job waiting for you.”

He wasn’t kidding. The salary was double (double!) what I was making at the time, so I jumped on the opportunity. Problem was…I negotiated everything behind the back of my employer and – when I told them I was leaving – let’s just say it didn’t go down well. The whole management team felt betrayed by me AND the client, which made my transition more awkward and messy than it should have been.

But this is one of those workplace grey areas, right? I mean, no one sits you down and tells you how to leave a company. So…. I will (with the benefit of hindsight, of course.)

Okay, ideally here’s how this process is supposed to work: The client, after being blown away by your stellar service, decides you would be a great fit for his team. Subsequently, the client’s first call would be to your boss – not you – to clue her in. (While this may seem unfair – after all, it is your career on the line – when there’s a business relationship at stake, reaching out to your manager first is considered proper protocol.) Once aware of the client’s intentions, your boss gives him the green light to contact to you directly.

Now, you are in the enviable position of having a choice between the client’s offer or a revised compensation package from your boss – who will no doubt try to up the ante to keep you onboard. Yay you, right?

Well…here’s where it gets squirrelly. If the client bypasses your boss and contacts you directly, what are you supposed to do then? As I learned the hard way, if you negotiate in secret then announce you’re quitting, you’ve set the stage for an uncomfortable departure at minimum – or a burned bridge at worst.

So – assuming you’re interested in the discussing the client’s offer further – the next thing out of your mouth after “thank you for the opportunity” should be “have you spoken to {my supervisor} about this?” If the answer is “yes”, you’re covered. If it’s “no”, you owe it to your current employer to bring them in the loop at this point. This is obviously not something you want to send over email, so schedule a few minutes with your boss to speak to her directly. Game tip: Have a clear idea of the client’s official offer before you go into any meeting like this. You don’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest if the client isn’t 100% serious.

Now, if you’re clawing at the walls to leave and there’s nothing your boss could say or do to get you to stay, then you can take a courteous, but more decisive approach, e.g. “Tanea, I spoke to Jeff today and he has asked me to join their team as a sales manager. I wanted to be honest and up front with you because I’m giving it very serious consideration.”

However, if you’re on the fence and want to use the client’s offer as leverage for a raise or other perks, you should know what you want before meeting with your boss as well. Assuming you’re a valued employee, she will most likely ask if there’s anything they can do to keep you and that’s not the time to stutter and say you’ll give it some thought. It’s the time to speak up and get what you want. For example, “Jeff  is offering to give me ownership of projects with a budget range of $200,000 – $250,000 which is appealing because I feel ready  to work on larger accounts.” Another game tip: Lead with the work first. This is not only a terrific opportunity to bargain for more authority (note I didn’t say responsibility), but you don’t want your boss to think money is the only factor in your decision. If you genuinely want to stay, you need her to understand that you care about your future with the company – and kicking off the discussion with a salary ultimatum doesn’t quite send that message.

If you and your boss agree to some general terms related to your job function, now’s the time to talk turkey. Again, the key is to come into the discussion knowing what you want. For example: “Jeff is offering a salary that is 10% more than my base here plus an additional three days of vacation. Is that an offer you would be willing to match?” Most likely you won’t get a decision on the spot and – when you do receive word – it won’t be everything you asked for. So – as with any successful negotiation – always know what your minimum requirements are and be willing to walk away if necessary. But before you throw down that card(!), be absolutely certain you’re willing to follow-through and leave the company. Because if you’re bluffing and the boss calls you on it -“Wow, that’s too bad. We’re really going to miss you.” – you’re going to feel pretty dumb.

* Note: If you have a non-compete agreement with your current employer, that doc trumps everything I just said. Another reason why I never sign the damn things.

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