There’s a lot of talk about relationships in business, and how to make business more human.

There’s also a lot of talk about how businesses need to be more like friends, and treat people the way you would your friends if you want to succeed.

Add in the view that businesses and their clients should be friends as well, and you could be forgiven for thinking you need to be either Ross or Rachel and sipping coffee in Central Perk to get anything done.

But here’s the thing – that viewpoint is a myth. Not only that, it can also be a dangerous myth.

Here’s why.

Friends Don’t Always Come With Benefits

Let’s look at the friends angle first. Can you have friends in business, or be friends with clients? For sure – you can be friends with anyone. But here’s why you shouldn’t be.

With friends, we let our guard down. If they’re going through a tough time, we support them. If they need to borrow money, we help, and let them pay it back when they can. If they need to pick our brains, we’re there for them.

But because we let our guard down, we very often don’t put it back up.

Transfer that to business, where either a client, or a supplier, or a customer, uses your service but doesn’t pay when they’re meant to. Or a supplier skims money off you left, right and centre without you knowing it. Or they talk with your competitors behind your back while you’re working on getting them airtime.

Business don’t have friendships. Businesses do what’s right for them at that given time, and rightly so – it’s why it’s called business and not high school.

If you’re friends with a business, you can put your own success and longevity at risk because you don’t want to ask too much of your friends. Unpaid invoices go unchallenged, and soon your business is struggling to pay an invoice. Once you start down that path…

Relationships Never End Well or They Wouldn’t End

The relationship angle is an interesting one, because obviously we can (and should) foster relationships in our business lives at every turn.

Relationships are the key to a long client/vendor arrangement over a one-hit-never-work-together-again one. Relationships are also the key to promoting relevant skilled resources to those that need them – say, you recommend one client to another, or an outsourcer to a client, etc.

But the key to remember is that, just like many personal examples, relationships come to an end. Girlfriends split with boyfriends, friends split with each other, families grow apart. The closer the relationship, often the harder the split is. It can turn nasty as sides are picked and grievances aired, and that’s no fun at all.

We’re currently working with a client whose previous agency always talked of their “special relationship”. Yet once the agency’s work and results were questioned, the owner went postal and demanded more money (even though they’d already skimmed the client of more than $12,000 for a project in limbo). So much for the “special relationship”.

So is it impossible to combine friendship and business relationships? No – if approached right.

Buddy Boundaries

In an ideal world, we’d all be friends together – people, businesses, ex-lovers, enemies, etc. The world would be an easier place for all if we lived on clouds and blew bubbles at each other.

But we know that life isn’t ideal.

Instead, we just need to realize that sometimes, it’s okay to not be friends. That doesn’t mean we can’t be friendly, though – similar word but a world of difference.

  • Respect boundaries. Appreciate that while tone and interaction can be friendly, at the end of the day you’re still in business to both make your clients and customers successful, and be successful too.
  • Maintain professionalism. I’ve seen some classic emails because of a “friendship” – because of the perception, professionalism goes out the window from the sender. Keep in mind that businesses are professional ventures, and don’t send a CEO an email better suited to pub talk.
  • Understand subtleties. While we look out for our friends unreservedly, often we can’t offer the same support to our clients, vendors, customers. Know where the cut-off point is and you know where the help can begin and end.

We all want to be friends. We all want to have the most amazing relationships. And, often, that can be the case (or a close resemblance to it).

But we also want to be successful – for our clients, our customers, ourselves and our families who depend on us to keep a roof over their head. If we confuse friendship and relationships with friendliness and professional relationships in that order, we run the danger of losing sight of crucial decisions that need to be made.

And none of us can afford to do that.

image: marie-II

The Great Friends and Relationships Myth originally appeared on Danny Brown on January 27, 2011.