The secret of business: they’re not clients, they’re friends

If there’s one phrase I hate, it’s “personal friend”.

Why? Because people who use it are drawing a distinction between the friends you have in life and the friends you have at work – let’s call it Facebook Versus LinkedIn. After a decade earning a living the most honest way there is – charging other people for what I do, no employment contract, no pack drill – I’m not sure there should be a difference.

The reason: business is personal. Same with “business ethics” or “professional courtesy”; ethics and courtesy shouldn’t be trammelled by whether the other party signs remittance advices. People are people, irrespective of whether they’re in a suit or floral boardshorts.

When I emerged from a career break a couple of years back – putting on the black suit again after a year of corporate finance and business strategy –  acquiring and retaining customers suddenly became really, really simple. You just make friends with them.

It might sound unprofessional. In fact, it’s the height of professionalism.

Because if you treat every client as a close friend, you’re more likely to deliver what they need from the relationship … and be honest when you can’t. (I’m not superhuman; I have deadline crunches and resource issues, same as you.) Treating clients as friends may be a philosophy, rather than a business strategy – but it’s a pretty good business strategy, too.

It means working on a client because you want to, not because it earns money. (If your first thought of a client involves getting paid rather than looking forward to seeing them, you’re not there yet.) With new clients I’ll often invest months of ideas and execution before there’s a monthly retainer on the table. But once that’s nailed I tend to keep that client for years; I’m still working with people I first met during my decade as an expat, years ago. Why? Because they see me as a friend, too.

It doesn’t mean I don’t care about the money. I love money, and want as much of it as possible. But the best way to grow your client base is to make sure people think well of you; there’s an economy around friendship as tangible as real markets, and being in demand is the natural outcome of being an honest dealer.

If a friend drops £10, you pick it up and give it back.

If a friend buys a round, you buy one back.

And if a friend asks how much you fronted for the taxi last night, you don’t double the fare because there’s a profit in doing so.

Treating clients as friends means you never play games with your client’s budget; you’re psychologically incapable of it, because friends don’t do that. And every business decision becomes simple, too. You take or reject a new client based on whether you like them, nothing more.

It goes against every b-school text and financial projection ever written. But it works.

In ten years and around 600 projects, I’ve had precisely seven go bad. On each occasion, it was someone I had a bad feeling about in the first moments of knowing them – this person’s not a friend. You don’t like them. Get out of there – and ignored it. You can’t fit it in a Boston Matrix or plot it on a Gaussian, but it’s the easiest thing in the world to do: trust your instincts.

Of course, there’s a glitch if you want to grow: this approach doesn’t scale. (Forget mass customisation and CRM; those are facsimiles, not the real deal.) There’s a limit to how many friends you can really call close, perhaps only 20 or so. But in creative industries like mine – any sector that relies on that essential fraction of human talent that can’t be mechanised – those 20 can deliver an income that buys a top-1% lifestyle anywhere in the Western world.

(Over 100,000 people in the UK are responsible for a budgetary spend over £100,000 a year. That’s £10bn of friendship-derived spend, of which you need an amazing 0.001 or 0.002%.)

Peter Drucker once said the whole of business is nothing more than the acquisition and retention of a customer. And that’s easy easy. Really easy.

Just make friends with them.

One thought on “The secret of business: they’re not clients, they’re friends

  1. Good article Chris. It is a question of craftsmanship, if you built a wood cabinet you’d put your name on it, somewhere not too obvious and blatant but where it could be found so the customer could appreciate the time, trouble and care that went into the design, construction and completion of that project. It’s no different if you are producing webcasts, creating a new application process or programs, it’s just harder to stamp your name to them – too bad, it might make people more accountable and appreciative that their work is something that others would pay money for…

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