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Can or Should You Be Friends With Your Clients?


It’s one of those perplexing questions you may often ask yourself – Can you be friends with your clients?

Firstly what does this actually mean? What does it mean to be a friend?  According to the Oxford Dictionary it is “a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations.” So I’m not going to touch on the client and sexual relationships piece, but will focus on the friend piece!

A “bond of mutual affection” to me means you may like the same things, enjoy each others company, ‘hang out’ together socially, go away with, participate in sport with etc. So does doing these things put the professional client-provider relationship in jeopardy?

I learnt many years ago in the corporate world as a young manager from a respected boss that there is a clear line between employer-employee, and this can be the same for your relationship with clients in a professional manner. I was clearly told one evening on trip away with my then boss while we were having several drinks and general good time, that  ‘we can do this tonight and be friends, but if I came to your store tomorrow and saw any major issues, I would have no issue in managing the performance issues as that is work and this not!’ Those words have stayed with me for the last 25 or so years and I have practiced this myself with my own staff and no clients to some extent. There is a line, and the biggest barrier or challenge is in whether the other person can see the line, and accept that line.

I will admit, I have had and still have clients now with whom I would call friends in the last few years since being in business for myself. I hang out with them, I go away with them, talk non-work matters, connect on social media (selectively) and enjoy their company.

My view is this is fine but there need to be a few mutually agreed to understandings on both side to maintain there is no ‘crossing the line’ in the relationship.

  • It is important to understand when we are working vs. socializing and not mix the two formally.
  • It is important for me to appreciate that they’re a paying client and when I am with them in this capacity, it has to be 100% professional.
  • We both need to ensure that the friendship aspect doesn’t become abused or overused to gain additional services.
  • We both need to have an understanding that the business relationship probably wont last forever, and from my side the loss of income shouldn’t change the personal relationship. From their side, ending the business relationship doesn’t mean that socially they can continue to ask for free advice.
  • A solid ‘truth over harmony’ process must exist to deal with any matters that may jeopardise the business or personal relationship. Develop a strategy to raise issues and address them as you would with any other client.
  • Treat the client as you would any other client, and respect and protect their privacy and confidentiality and don’t talk about them or their business in any damaging way, regardless of how much you know about them personally- this is sure fire way to end the business and personal relationship (and your integrity).

It is a given fact in a service type business like mine, that you become involved and engaged with your clients, and often they reveal a lot of not only their business, but also their personal issues with you.  This has the natural flow on effect of a strong bond forming, and a friendship may develop. While I don’t promote or actively pursue a friendship with each and every client, sometimes it happens, and for me, I feel this is OK, as long as the above considerations are established, understood and followed by both parties.

What is your view on becoming friends with clients?

Tony Ozanne

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