Devise an effective exit strategy for consulting engagements

Consultants should come up with their exit strategy early in the engagement so they can time the project and the exit, line up follow-up work, and get client referrals and testimonials.

My 20 years of experience as an independent consultant has taught me that last impressions can have a greater impact than first impressions. All too often, consultants make the huge mistake of leaving the engagement before the engagement is over.

I venture to say that your biggest challenge as an independent consultant is finding work, and there's no better way than repeat business. That said, how many times have you been invited back to work for a prior client? If the answer is zero, you're working too hard for engagements.

The way you finish a contract has a tremendous impact on whether you'll be invited back. An aphorism I espouse is, "you're only as good as your last project." I've seen many consultants fall into the trap of putting all their best work up front in an engagement to impress the client, only to turn in a lackluster or even negative experience for the client in the end. That's not only unfortunate, it's unnecessary, but you need to fight inertia.

Most consultants fall into this trap because it's a natural tendency at the end of the project for the consultant and the client to attenuate the relationship. You're probably thinking about how to find your next engagement, and they're thinking about how to move forward without you. An even worse situation is when the client tries to find something for you to do just to keep you around; this may sound like a good thing, but it's not. If you're not consistently providing demonstrable and significant value to your client, it's time to leave.

Tacking into the wind

You can alter this course by planning ahead; in fact, I start thinking about my exit shortly after I begin my engagement with a new client. From the very beginning, I'm thinking about three things:

  • timing the project and the exit.
  • lining up follow-up work.
  • getting referrals and testimonials.
Timing From the very beginning of the engagement, you should try to guess when you'll exit. It's not necessarily your contract end date, as most good consultants are extended if it makes sense.

You should also have a lot of influence over when you leave -- that is, exit on your own terms, not when the client tells you to go.

And, you should try to time your exit with a high point in the project. Most IT projects have a deployment of some sort, then a knowledge transfer, and possibly a wrap party. If you can exit just after a final celebration that's perfect because a natural question will be, "What's next for you?" You want to be able to say, "Actually, I have another job lined up at XYZ company. I'm taking about a week off, and then I'll start things up over there." If there's no final celebration, plant the seed, even if it's only an ice cream social. You want a big project event to tie in with your exit.

Follow-up work You should constantly be on the lookout for possible enhancements or improvements to your current project. Most likely, as you're moving through the project, decisions will be made to forego scope in favor of bringing in the project on schedule. Make sure you keep a record of these decisions for your final debrief. Referrals and testimonials You must get testimonials from as many of your clients as possible. This is a major differentiator when looking for new business, as it demonstrates that you've done successful work for other people. That said, do not wait until you're on your way out the door to ask for a testimonial. You want the opportunity to follow up on the testimonial while you're still actively engaged with the client. You should start requesting the testimonial about three quarters through the project.

Alas, I must go

With the proper plan in place, you're in good shape to exit, but you must remember to end big. Do not slack off on your contribution toward the end of the project; on the contrary, this is the time to put in your best work. The client will know you're looking for your next opportunity, but they should never see you marketing or interviewing for your next job.

Just prior to leaving, send out a self-congratulatory exit email that casually expresses how wonderful it has been to be involved in delivering such significant results for the company. You don't want to blatantly brag about your project achievements. Also, don't be shy about extending social media invites, and asking if they'd like to receive your monthly newsletter.

Your final conversation will be with your hiring manager or buyer. Make sure to keep it brief and professional. Thank them for the opportunity, review the list of follow-up work that you've collected in an unassuming way (i.e., "you may want to consider these areas for improvement moving forward"), and ask if you can follow up with them in about three months to see how things are going. If you have a good relationship, you can schedule a lunch meeting on the spot.