My customer, my friend…Walking the thin line between friendship and business

I still remember the incident like it was yesterday. He was a person I had grown so attached to that I did not even think of him as my customer. He was more than that. He was my friend, or so I thought. When he came by the banking hall to transact business, our conversations would go beyond just business. We would talk about almost anything under the sun. My colleagues even thought I had known him before coming to work for the bank. It surprised them when they go to know I had met him for the first time in the banking hall. We were friends. Period.

So you can imagine my shock the day I was summoned to my manager’s office because of a report by an aggrieved customer that had been lodged at our Head Office. My name had been mentioned in the said report to the effect that when the customer came to lodge the initial complaint, I had laughed the issue off. In shock, I asked who the customer was. Lo and behold, it was my “friend”. Talk of a stab in the back. How could he have done this to me? Why did he not even tell me before rushing off to go report?

I could recall the incident that he was referring to. I vividly remembered that I had laughed, but not because I did not consider it as a serious issue but just because of how he had narrated the incident. I had become so comfortable in this gentleman’s presence that I had let my guard down. Granted, it was not proper for me to have laughed but, in my mind, he was a friend. What could go wrong? But I was wrong. Things had gone wrong. He had lodge a complaint, not to me or the branch but all the way to the Head Office. I felt so hurt that day. Needless to say, our “friendship” was never the same after that incident.

The whole issue of friendship and customer relationship is a very dicey one. There are people who would not even want to deal with their friends as customers. If a friend told them he or she wanted to purchase something they are selling, they might even say no. They would not even mind of their friends went elsewhere to do business rather than with them. As a matter of fact, there is a claim that many friendships have had to break up because one became a customer of the other. It seems when money is involved things become a little more tensed.

On the other hand, there are also those who strictly warn against becoming friends with customers. Those on this side of the argument argue that when a business professional begins to see a customer as a friend and not as a customer, there is bound to be trouble. They warn business professionals against letting their guards down when it comes to the business-customer relationship. To them, no matter how comfortable a business professional finds himself or herself around a customer, the one should never ever forget that the relationship is still that of a business and a customer. I am sure I would have benefitted from that lesson earlier on in my career.

They further argue that many customers do not want to be friends with sales professionals. They claim that for the customer, the important thing is to earn the respect of the business professional. In their estimation, respect alone is enough. They accept the fact that the business professional should treat the customers as a friend, but they believe that is not what the customer really wants. I am yet to see any empirical evidence to support this stance but I will just take their word for it.

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One other point they make is that when a customer begins to see the business professional as a friend, the customer might be tempted to make requests which the business professional might not be in a position to grant. For instance, the customer might want a drastic reduction on the price of a particular item—a favour that the business person might not be able to grant at the time. When that happens the customer might become hurt or even take offence and this might negatively affect the relationship. The relationship might even be damaged beyond repairs.

There is a second line of thinking on the issue of friendship and business. They are those who wonder why actively befriending potential and actual customers is not an approved customer acquisition strategy. To the proponents of this school of thought, business professionals should even be friendlier to their customers than they are to their friends. Their reason is that our so-called friends do not put money in our pockets. However, our customers do. Our friends do not pay our salaries at the end of the month but our customers do. They even argue that one can stay without seeing a particular friend for months without any problem. However, if one does not see his or her customers for months, they will be problems. Therefore, if we must show friendliness to anyone; it must be our customers. One can see the wisdom in that logic as well.

Then there is a third school of thought that believes there is no one-size-fits-all solution to that debate. What to do is dependent on the individual customer in question. For the purposes of this line of thought, it is important to know the kind of customer you are dealing with.  There are some people who, by their temperament are gregarious, and therefore love to be among people. For such a customer, going strictly business might cause you to lose the one. If the customer is the strict business type, then you are liberty to go strictly business on the one. Anything else and you might lose that customer.

A customer-facing business professional must be necessarily versatile in his or her approach to dealing with different customer types. In other words, the best advice would be to be friends with those who want to be your friend and go strictly business with those who only want a business relationship.

In fact, I daresay that in walking the thin line between business and friendship, the best advice can actually be found in the Holy Bible. The Apostle Paul writing to believers in the ancient city of Corinth wrote:

“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 New International Version (NIV)

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The Apostle knew that to win a soul (read, customer), it is important that the soul identifies with you. If a person feels estranged from you, it is next to impossible to get the one to win the one to your side.

For customers who need to be treated as friends, it is important to note that it will require a lot of hard work on the part of the business professional. The first thing to consider is time. Friendship requires an investment of time. The one placed in charge of the customer’s business must try as much as possible to visit or check in on the customer regularly. You cannot stay away from the customer and only visit if you hear the customer is planning to take away his or her business to a competitor.

Making friends of customers also requires caring for what the customers care for. The customer’s need must become the burden of the business person, if the customer is to become a friend. This is why it is important for businesses to know more about their customers. You cannot care for someone you know very little about.

Friendship is also about keeping one’s promises. Therefore if a promise is made to a customer, that promise must be fulfilled. You will not stay friends for long with someone who keeps disappointing you. This also means that the business should be careful when making promises to customers. Under-promising and over-delivering is way better than over-promising and under-delivering.

Customers feel great when they are appreciated. Therefore if the customer is the kind that must be befriended, then it helps if his or her opinions and advice are sorted for. To respect a customer’s opinions and to seek the one’s advice is to pay the one a very good compliment. This is why feedback is a very important tool in the toolkit of every customer-handling professional.

Finally, a gift here and there, regardless of the cost, would also go a long way to build up the friendship. A gift, no matter how small, is a business’ way of telling the customer that he or she is on the mind of the business. A gift also helps if it is something that would help the customer succeed at what he or she is doing. For instance, if you were to give the customer a piece of information that would help the one make more sales or succeed in a venture, you would have obtained a friend for life.

Customer loyalty is a very sort after measure for every business. Truly loyal customers are very hard to come by. Therefore when a business has loyal customers, it is important that those customers are well looked after. However, it is common knowledge that the word “loyalty” is almost synonymous with friendship. It is expected of friends to be loyal. In other words, when a business wants its customers to be loyal, then maybe—just maybe—it has to make friends of those customers.

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