“It’s so good to see you!”, “Let’s go for a cuppa”, “Would you like to go for lunch?”
We heap lots of care and attention at the start of a professional relationship don’t we? Following up on chance encounters, responding to questions promptly and arranging as many opportunities as possible to attend to new and potential clients. Our message, “We want to listen to the challenges you’re facing, understand them and deal with them”. And of course, “let us show you what we can do to take the burden from your shoulders”. We know we’re good at what we do and we want the opportunity to show you too.
Successful relationships depend on strong collaboration. We listen, we respond, we understand. And let’s face it, it’s easy at the start when everybody wants to make a good impression. But when your bread and butter involves moving in and out of professional relationships, what’s the best approach to ending them? Once we’ve delivered our top-notch communications projects and advice, how do we move on and ship out?
Well, we should probably follow some basic relationship rules.
Ask any agony aunt and she’ll tell you that you should probably put as much effort into the end of the relationship as you do at the beginning. Heard about the happy divorce? Well apparently it’s all down to good planning and communication. Of course that’s easier said than done in a personal relationship. But for us professionals, it’s not personal, it’s just another section of our business plan.
So let’s put it into practice. Having recently completed almost a year of communications advice at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, we’ve reflected on how to manage the ending of a professional relationship in a positive, collaborative way.
First off, reflect on the relationship, what you’ve learned and achieved.
The work is done (hopefully beyond their expectations), the contract requirements have been fulfilled (bells and whistles attached), so take a moment to look back over what you’ve done. What were the real high points? How many pitfalls did you successfully navigate? What did you learn?
Accentuate the positive, the things you’ve loved about them as a client. How honoured you have been to work for them.
And set any parting advice for your client in the context of what you’ve achieved – be challenging, but collaborative. Think about how you would have approached discussions at the start of the relationship and follow your own advice. You took them out for lunch to pitch your initial ideas, discuss parting advice in the same way.
No one ends a personal relationship by email or text (do they?!) – so, unless you’re client is a robot, keep the personal touches going right the way through.
Secondly, remember they said, “it’s not you, it’s me,” so respect their decision.
“It’s not you, it’s me” has a bad reputation in personal relationships, but on a professional level it should remind us that it is actually just someone taking a responsible decision. So respect your client. Unless your work was shockingly below-par (and let’s face it, if that’s the case, you should have seen it coming), a decision to end a professional relationship is probably down to the work being completed and the budget being spent. You did a great job. They just don’t need you to do it anymore.
Consultancy is never for life. It a business relationship. No one feels guilty about walking into a shop and buying a pair of shoes (ok, bad example), a client relationship should be the same. Ask them for feedback of course, (just as your favourite shoe shop might), what could you have done better? Ask for a reference. But you weren’t an employee, so don’t expect tears and a big send off. And if they do present you with a bunch of flowers, then you clearly did a really good job for them. Above all, don’t feel bad about it coming to an end.
Finally take a deep breath, turn the page and move forwards.
Courage is underrated. Moving on from any relationship in a positive way needs a bucket load of it. I’ve reflected, celebrated, I’ve even written a tw-epitaph (Honoured to have helped @iicsa_media begin the process of securing justice for the victims and survivors of child sexual abuse). Now I’m looking forwards.
Stay in touch. Meet for lunch or a cuppa. Follow what they’re up to and tell them what you think. Or in Crest’s case, arrange a team to run the British 10K in July to raise money for some of the victims and survivor charities associated with the Inquiry.
Head of Communication and Campaigns
Jo Coles is a Head of Communication and Campaigns at Crest. Jo brings expertise in the political and voluntary sector delivering politically-sensitive campaigns and communications. She gave strategic communications advice to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse between October 2015 and May 2016.