(but only one good way to transition a client)

By Sammi Soutar

No one really wants to think about transitioning an outward-bound client, even when the AMC initiates the "nudge toward the door," but in real life it happens. 
Professionalism is crucial; even toxic clients, if sent on their way with good customer service and the best of assistance, may serve to be a future referral. No matter what your personal feelings about departing clients - good, bad, or indifferent - you don't want to give them ammunition to complain later (even if you do plan on dancing a jig as soon as they're out of sight).
Like other unpleasant contingencies of life, the only way to manage a transition well is to have a plan already in place.  The brief effort exerted to create a plan is preferable to the expense, aggravation and possible legal ramifications that can puncture your peace of mind if you don't.  Without a plan, you may be driven, but with a plan, you drive.
   In addition, if you choose to "wing it" during a client transition, you risk getting some pretty nasty headaches during or following the event. Here are three Excedrin-strength scenarios that a transition plan can cure:
o    A client who has exited stage left later loses or destroys files then blames you, even though you carefully kept the association's "house in order" during your watch.
o A year or two after the final farewells, the client or new management accuses you of mishandling or not fulfilling your firm's record keeping responsibilities.
o       During the transition, the client makes unreasonable demands on your staff's time and you feel compelled to jump through these hoops because you don't have a contract that clearly spells out what you and the client are each responsible for upon notice of termination.
To avoid these migraines, start by providing a brief summary of what a transition entails as part of your promotional material or proposal.  Include a copy of ASAE's transition checklist or create and include your own.  Your checklist can always be updated later to reflect any pertinent records or data introduced during your stewardship of the organization. We fill in the checklist as we process an incoming client and keep a completed copy on file.
Develop a basic transition plan that outlines action steps and time lines that can be easily customized for each new client.
Be sure to include a provision detailing the transition upon termination in your service agreement. Think of it as a prenup agreement while planning the wedding.  You don't want to sound as if you expect the relationship to end, but you do want to appear professional, prepared and thorough.
This ensures clients understand and accept the transition steps at the time they select your AMC to provide service.  I've found that clients feel reassured by this evidence of a highly organized office. They also appreciate knowing up front on what's involved should a transition become necessary.
In short, better communication leads to better relationships. The time to spell out the procedures of who does what and when, so that you reduce the risk of miscommunication and frustration, is at the beginning of a contractual relationship - before there is anything to disagree about.
  An especially important part of any transition plan is the requirement for a financial audit. Once a CPA has audited books and records for accuracy and completeness, you can release them to the client with the knowledge that accounts were in order at the time of transfer to the association's new home.
  It is never safe to assume board members or new management will understand all that a transition entails.  Plan to educate them, and sidestep the disruption that an outward transition can represent by spelling out the steps involved, the high level of professionalism you will, of course, bring to the process, and the responsibilities each side will assume.
  When termination and transition become necessary, start the process by sending a courtesy letter to the client contact, usually president or board chairman, of the association, reviewing transition procedures and enclosing a copy of your transition plan and a schedule for their completion.  If your client is going to another management firm, be sure to include the AMC in the process, as well, to ensure a smooth transition for all concerned.
Contact the new staff, whether employed by the client or independently contracted through another AMC, and outline the anticipated procedures, timelines and steps.  All involved parties need to be informed and updated regularly to avoid confusion and ensure a smooth, coordinated and cooperative transition. 
Outgoing transitions needn't be negative.  You may actually want to retire to the Bahamas some day, and before you can relax with your umbrella-clad drink on the beach, you'll have to send your client on to a new service provider.
        Amenable or acrimonious, smooth or stressful, the decision is yours.  Taking charge of your outward-bound client's transition will ensure it is done correctly and imprint an enduring memory in the minds of departing client leaders of your firm's utmost professionalism and client-friendly service standards.
       
        By Sammi Soutar, founder, Able Management Solutions, Inc., Columbus, Ohio. First published in ASAE's AMC newsletter 2003