In the movie When Harry Met Sally, Harry asserts that men and women can’t be friends because “the sex part always gets in the way.” One could say the same about being friends with clients, not because of sex, but because the business part would always get in the way.
As anyone with children can attest, there comes a point in your child’s life when you must decide whether you’re going to be a parent or a friend. When five-year-old Juan says a curse word in public, it might be amusing—Juan might have impeccable comic timing—and you may have to bite your lip to keep from laughing. But, as a parent, you need to let Juan know that profanity is not okay…at least not until he’s paying taxes.
Same goes for a businessperson and his or her client. While it’s important to have a cordial and friendly relationship with your clients—depending on your industry, it may be necessary to offer life advice and even play the role of a therapist on occasion—establishing a friendship with someone you have a fiduciary duty toward is often the path to misunderstandings at best and bad business decisions at worst.
Most of us look to our business advisors for clear-headed information and guidance. We need objectivity and, occasionally, a hard talking to. We don’t need the person who manages our money to be a shoulder to cry on about a bad breakup or a drinking buddy. What we need is someone who cares about our portfolio, or our job prospects, or our legal issues as much as or more than our personal lives.
Of course, there are exceptions. When both parties are mature, well adjusted individuals who understand that the business and personal spaces must be kept separate, a real friendship can sometimes blossom. But that’s rare.
Sure, you may have flown down to Aruba with your stock broker and his family for a long weekend and had a great time, but when you’re back on Monday and the market is tumbling and your broker’s advice seems to be losing you a ton of money, that friendship will be on the skids faster than you can say “Dow futures.”
Does that mean you can’t go out to dinner with clients or check in with them when you know they’re going through a tough time with their health or their family? Of course not. Friendly, compassionate, and cordial interactions are the cornerstones of a successful business relationship. But, crossing the line into the kind of intimacy that friendship entails is, more often than not, a mistake.
So, be like cynical Harry instead of idealistic Sally in this respect. Keep your clients and friends separate—like the dressing on Sally’s salad.