Columns by Eric J. Adams
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Handling the End of the Relationship
"Old soldiers never die; they just fade away." That truism can be rewritten to read: "Old business relationships never end; they just fizzle to a close."
Okay, so the rewrite lacks the poetic grace of the original, but it's true, nonetheless. Even if your business relationship is based on a contract with a clear endpoint (an architect, for example, delivering blueprints), the personal relationship continues. And, of course, there are those relationships built upon nebulous terms, wherein it's often hard to ascertain exactly when and why the relationship has ended. A marketing consultant, for example, may be hired by a company to release a new product or break into a new market. When does the contract end? Often there are no clear milestones.
In these cases, it's often hard to know when you're no longer needed (though the clues may be rather ominous: the phone calls from the client stop coming and you're mysteriously taken off email group lists). It's a state of limbo, which, depending on your personality, can be considered anything from a simple nuisance to a calamitous assault on your self-respect.
It doesn't have to be either. As always, your goal is to take a less-than-ideal situation and turn it to your advantage. Think (as one always should) strategically, because there's still much to be gained after the relationship has ended. For one, there's always the prospect of future work with the client. At the very least, you can hope your client will become a great source of new clients.
So when you're sure the working relationship is truly over, follow these simple steps for a successful exit.
1. Don't take it personally. We all hate rejection. And termination, spoken or unspoken, is exactly that. It's someone telling you they don't want to work with you anymore. You may feel resentment or bitterness, and the compulsion to react verbally or in some passive-aggressive way.
Don't do it! Let it slide. After all, you're a professional, and part of being a professional is learning how to take "no" for an answer.
2. Make the client feel good. When you sense the end has come, there are a few ways to help you ride off into the sunset looking like a hero. Many clients don't have the courage to say, "Thanks, but we won't be needing you anymore," so say it for them. Be sure, of course, that the job really is over before you say any goodbyes, but if you're certain, say something like, "It looks like all the work is done here. I really enjoyed working with you, and I hope we get a chance to work together again soon." The client may feel so relieved that you did the dirty work of making it "official," they'll start thinking of jobs to give you in the future.
If the relationship is ending on a sour note, be frank. "Sorry things didn't turn out as expected, but I learned a lot working on this job, which I'm sure I'll be able to apply to future jobs, and I thank you for that." A little humility goes a long way.
3. Ask for feedback. In the corporate world they call it an "exit interview," in which management hopes to glean morsels of gossip from outgoing employees. Management is right about one thing; people have a tendency to be honest and frank at the end of a relationship. For you, it's a great time to ask for feedback -- specific feedback. "Was there anything I could have done better?" "Any way to improve our working relationship?" "What were the highlights and low points of the process?" These questions, naturally, might not be this pointed when you ask them, but you get the idea. Get frank.
4. Say adios to everyone. If you're working with several folks inside a company, even casually, take the time via email or phone to say thanks to each one. Do it individually, not in one of those "Hi Y'all" emails. You never know when that administrative assistant will be promoted, and you can be sure your gesture of a two-minute phone call will be remembered. Plus, people move on to different companies and different positions, and they take their contact files with them. Here's your chance to jump ship with them.
5. Leave lines of communication open. "You have my number, please call if there's anything I can do." It sounds like a no-brainer, but think about how many business relationships you've had that did not end this way. This simple phrase does so much. It informs the client that you're not harboring bad feelings about the end of the relationship and would be happy to pick it up again.
You may also want to include this tag line: "By the way, can I use you as a reference for new clients?" Your client will automatically start thinking about all the good things they'll say about you.
Naturally, if the job didn't work out well, you might think twice about asking the client to act as a reference. Or better yet (and this is a little devious, I know), ask them to serve as a reference, then have a friend call in the guise of a potential client. You'll receive some honest feedback about what you did right and wrong in the eyes of your former client.
6. Check in regularly. Every few months, check in with your client just to ask, "How's it going?" Talk about the project you've worked on and ask for any new thoughts now that time has lapsed. Subtly mention that you're still available for work or referrals.
Not all old soldiers fade away, and not all business relationships have to fizzle to a close... unless, of course, you want them to. Come to think of it, the freedom to make choices like that may ultimately be the greatest benefit of being an independent professional.
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