The Balancing Act: Friends as Clients

I decided to write this post after seeing a friend destroy a business relationship, and possibly a friendship, through a series of blunders and errors after being hired by another friend. I took the safe route and decided to stay out of the mess. Even still, it got me thinking how so many of us could use a reminder (or primer) on what to consider when choosing to work with a friend as your client. Here are  tips to make sure you execute this balancing act with success.

Start Where You Want To End.

What do you value more: the friendship or the business relationship? That’s the thing to keep in mind as you start out, as bumps arise, and as you end one (or both) relationships. The beginning is a good time to envision what an ideal end to the business relationship would look like. And then, follow that up with B and C versions. This simple act can highlight a potential bad fit. If you cringe at the thought of the business relationship ending, or fear a multitude of scenarios involving poor endings, then this friend may not be a client candidate after all. As bumps arise in the friendship or professional relationship, remember where you want to end if one has to be sacrificed. On the other hand, don’t approach the two as if they are mutually exclusive. Some of my best clients have been friends, or became friends.

Be A Professional.

This means doing the things you would normally do (or should do) with your clients. Written agreements and prompt invoicing is a must. Also be sure that you use your support staff the same way (or  in nearly the same way) that you would for other clients. This also means not asking for extra favors from your friend when it comes to the business at hand. I’ve seen scenarios where a friend’s outstanding business requests went ignored for weeks even though the consultant would never do that with a “normal” client. Don’t be that consultant. It’s a great way to sour both a friendship and a business relationship.

One way I like to be sure that friends understand when I’m working as an attorney (or a consultant, depending upon how I’ve been hired) is to start any unscheduled call with a reminder that this is a “working” call, and to be sure to afford them the deference I would any other client while on the call. It might also be helpful to add that you want to talk about other things later. For example, I might start out by saying, “Hi Ruth, I’m calling to follow-up on last week’s consulting call. I know we still have some planning to wrap up Tisha’s birthday, but I can call you back tonight about that. Do you have 10 minutes to chat now about the consulting work?” Boundaries like these are important to being a professional, and you’ll want to make it a habit when working with friends.

Be A Friend.

One thing I quickly realized when working with friends is that I tended to pull back on the friendship because it seemed “too much.” Well, that’s the whole idea! You’ll end up spending more time with them because of the added working relationship.  I had to remember that I was dealing with a friend as well. Don’t neglect your friends who are clients by avoiding the things you would normally make time for with them.  Go to the movies. Drop by unannounced. Or call them for a chat or dinner. Or any of the things you would normally do to hang out.

If the business relationship ends poorly, remember that he is still your friend. Be clear that you are treating the two differently unless you have a genuine and sincere reason to conflate the two. And don’t be afraid to address the elephants in the room. Sometimes, a person will want to disengage on the business end but is unwilling to discuss it. Be the bigger person by raising the topic and giving a blame-free avenue for ending the professional engagement. This is especially important if your friendship is worth more to you than the business relationship.


About the Author: Lenore Horton is an attorney, consultant, and serial entrepreneur whose goal is to help entrepreneurs, business owners and investors avoid needless failure in their business ventures. She is the Managing Partner of her own New York-based law firm, and founder of The KETNOI Group, a Washington DC-based consulting firm. Tweet her @LenoreHorton.