Navigating the Pitfalls of a Client-Friend Relationship
Last week I had a meeting with a new prospective client that got seriously off-track. She burst into the café where we were meeting, flopped down and launched into a story about this crazy thing that had just happened to her. She had me giggling so hard that I had to dab tears from my eyes. Turns out, I had a similar story, so, of course, I had to share mine.
For a long while after that discussion there was no talk of business, just knee-slapping stories and riotous laughter. It was only an hour later, when we were both merrily pretending to wolf down cheeseburgers, that I remembered I was in search of a new client, not a new BFF. But with all those laughter-induced endorphins running through me, I couldn’t help but wonder: would it be so wrong if she turned out to be both?
Well, we all know why it could be so wrong. Under the best circumstances, having a client as a friend (or a friend as a client) can gloss both relationships with a patina of awkwardness. At worst, you could wind up neither clients nor friends, but sworn enemies. Nonetheless, sometimes a relationship with a client can slide into friendship, and there may be times where you tap an existing friend for business or vice versa.
Can such a relationship work? I say it’s possible – if you proceed with extreme caution and firmly put in place the following protective measures.
Choose Your Client-Friends Wisely
The best friends to have as clients are those who hold professional values similar to yours, and those with whom you can be open and frank without emotional fallout.
If you’re considering entering into a working relationship with a friend, go in with clear eyes. Now is not the time to be blind to your friend’s faults. You know Tom, who always “forgets” his wallet when you’re out? Don’t take the risk. You know Susie, who habitually bad-mouths her employees? Forget it. You know “indecisive Dan,” “know-it-all Nancy,” and “super-sensitive Sam”? Very probably, these wonderful friends – whose flaws you overlook, as they do yours – would not make good clients. The best friends to have as clients are those who hold professional values similar to yours, and those with whom you can be open and frank without emotional fallout.
On the other hand, if you see your relationship with a client turning into a friendship, before the new relationship goes too far, ask yourself a few questions: Does this client provide the bulk of your business? Is this client a steady – or even periodic – source of referrals for you? Is this person a heavy swinger in your target market whose opinion could hold sway over prospective clients?
If the answer is yes to any of the above, it’s probably best to keep the relationship friendly, but not to let it evolve into a friendship. That is: go out, have drinks, and have fun. But don’t let your guard down, don’t share too much information, and never forget that this person is the one who pays your bills.
Set Ground Rules
Before entering a client relationship with a friend, it’s essential to discuss the terms of your working relationship. As you would with any client, talk openly about your rates, discounts, the project’s time frame, cancellation policies and expectations. But you should also talk about any concerns you may have about your new relationship. For long-term or on-going projects, develop an exit strategy or “safe word” so that you may end the business relationship amicably.
During these discussions, listen to your instinct and assess whether you have any doubts, misgivings or see any red flags ahead. If so, be strong and withdraw gracefully. If you’ve chosen your client-friend wisely, you should be able to do this without it impacting your friendship.
You also may need to establish new ground rules if you’ve become friends with your client – especially if you realize that you’re doling out significant amounts of advice (or work) that your client formerly would have been charged for. Don’t allow resentment or handouts to get out of control: that’s fodder for a blow-up.
Get it in Writing
You should already have a written contract with a client-turned-friend. But if you’re working with a friend-turned-client, you may have deemed a formal contract unnecessary. Even so, you should informally memorialize your agreement in writing, both for clarification and for future reference. After you’ve set the ground rules and discussed the terms of the project, send your friend an email outlining your discussion. Make sure you get a response and smooth out any points of disagreement.
If you’ve decided to have a friend as a client (or vice versa), you need to grow an extra layer of thick skin.
So, you think you’ve chosen your client-friend wisely – but has she chosen you wisely? When performing work for a friend, make sure that your professional standards don’t waver, even if you’re doing the work for free, or at a discount. Providing a friend with shoddy work, or delivering the product late, can impact her business, not to mention her opinion of you. In addition, prepare yourself for the fact that, like any client, she may not be fully satisfied with your work, even if you’ve put your best effort into it. If you’ve decided to have a friend as a client (or vice versa), you need to grow an extra layer of thick skin.
Monitor Your Relationship
Stay alert to your friend’s satisfaction with your business relationship. Remember to periodically reassess the ground rules to make sure you’re both still on board. If you sense trouble ahead, or realize that one of you no longer wants the relationship, be prepared to execute your exit strategy while you’re still on good terms.
Even with all the precautions in the world, some relationships just go south. If you see the situation spinning out of control, you’ll need to decide which relationship, if any, you want to preserve. Even if you’re very hurt or upset, keep that “professional” hat jammed firmly on your head and don’t fire off an angry email or tweet. Instead, wait until your temper cools and then calmly tell your friend that you would like to discuss how to resolve the situation amicably. If the client responds to your genuine overture with nastiness – or doesn’t respond at all – well, there’s nothing more you can do. But if he responds cordially, use your mutual good will to arrive at a satisfactory solution as quickly as possible. Then go directly to the nearest bar and swear never to work together again.
Have you ever successfully worked for a friend? Would you do it again?