Posted in practice on August 11, 2015 3:32 pm EDT

Managing Change in Client Relationships

If your client is a church, it's possible that leadership change will present you with a new face somewhere along the way.











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TAGS: business, collaboration, design, leadership, teamwork,


By Christian Doering

If revenue is the lifeblood of your business, client relationships are its heart. I had to re-learn this lesson several times during a decade of consulting on marketing-related matters. I enjoyed a productive, mutually beneficial and profitable relationship with a division of a large corporation for several years, until the person who originally hired me left that organization. The company’s need for the services I was providing didn’t change. My ability to fill that need, which was well established at that point, did not change. The only thing that changed was the person on the other end of the phone and email. A good working relationship ended, I was unable to replace it, and the revenue from that client disappeared in very short order.

"Relationship styles are important, because people like to work with people they like. So be watchful for signs that your new client contact is not comfortable with the style that worked so well with his or her predecessor."

You may have endured something similar, but let’s hope not. Losing a client is hard. Finding a replacement can be expensive and time-consuming. If you’re always chasing replacement business, it’s next to impossible to grow. As long as they’re working, it’s best to keep the client relationships we’ve got.

Point of contact

Professional relationships may be different from friendships, but there’s no doubt that they are personal relationships. If some or all of the people you work with at Church X leave their positions, it doesn’t matter how good the fit between your firm and that church was. What matters is how good the fit will be, because in a very real sense you are dealing with a new organization.

So, people matter, a lot, and they can change, for instance by getting older. The youngest members of the “Silent Generation” are now 70 years old. They might well be ready to hand leadership over to “Baby Boomers” in the their 50s or 60s, or even “Gen X-ers” in their 30s and 40s. Perhaps this hypothetical church is looking to attract younger worshippers and looking to “Millennials” in their 20s and 30s to show them how.

Demographers like to talk about generational culture shifts. The Silent Generation was conformist, but also enjoyed rock ‘n roll, Playboy and drive-ins in the suburbs they developed. Older Boomers used to be peace-and-love hippies who thought they could change the world by listening to rock music and going to festivals (a few still do). Later-stage Boomers were materialistic, hard-striving Yuppies who liked to get down at the disco or may have embraced the chaos of punk-rock mosh pits. The Boomers were the first dual-career generation—tied up at work when their latchkey Gen X kids got home from school. Millennials, on the other hand, were raised by “helicopter parents,” always hovering around, anxious to protect their children from drugs, HIV and other dangers that shadowed Gen X.

Before we get too caught up in generational stereotypes, consider that both Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), the world’s most famous Beatnik, and Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), the Beat poet who became a hippie icon, were born into the “Greatest Generation,” the one that survived the Great Depression, fought WWII and laid the foundations of the world we inhabit today. Just as there’s no such thing as a relationship between organizations, there’s no such thing as a relationship between generations. Relationships exist between people, and people are individuals.

Dealing with Leadership (change)

So our first guidelines for navigating leadership change might be “Don’t read too much into titles: there is no relationship between organizations outside of the relationships between the people who make up those organizations.” Guideline #2 would be “Don’t assume that any individual is typical or representative of a group or category to which they may belong. You can relate to a person, but not to a demographic.”

You can always hope that your counterpart in the client organization will give you advance notice, make an introduction to the replacement, perhaps even share some personal insights with you. None of that may be possible, however. Too bad, because one of the most important things to keep in mind when there’s a personnel change is that most if not all of the rules have changed at the same time. You have evolved a way of working together that includes a personal relationship. You must be ready to throw all of that out of the window if it’s not effective with the new leader.

Relationship styles are definitely important, because people like to work with people they like. So be watchful for signs that your new client contact is not comfortable with the style that worked so well with his or her predecessor. You may well have to change that style. If you can’t, then you should look around in your own organization for someone who might be able to relate to this person more easily and naturally. It could be a generational thing, it might be a matter of personality types, or it could be that mysterious “chemistry.” But accept that you need to find someone in your firm who can make it easy and, hopefully, enjoyable for that (possibly younger) person to discuss important issues and make hard choices. If you can’t, that church is going to be looking for a different design partner. Once again, the relationship between your two organizations is only as strong as the relationship between the people who form the link between them.

While you’re attempting to work out the style of this new personal relationship, try to keep the focus on substance. A basic premise of any organization is that people put aside personal quirks and differences in order to work together toward a common aim. That aim has probably not changed, although the new client leader will probably have different ideas about how to achieve it.

A discussion about goals and directions would be a very important and useful one to have: try to schedule it as soon as you can. If possible, explore long-term issues outside of the pressure of a specific project. Along with specific questions, such a conversation can help you evaluate the relative importance of “substance” and “style” in this particular relationship. Some people are mainly concerned with getting to where they want to go, while others are more concerned with how companionable their fellow travellers are.

Change is seldom easy, but it is inevitable. Change in client leadership will happen sooner or later. If you’re ready to see it as an opportunity to learn something—about yourself, about what your firm stands for, about different approaches to common aims—your chances of making it into change for the better will be much greater.



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