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Customers Are Not Your Friends

Posted by Bill Lee on October 20, 2010 at 02:16 PM

How's that for a provocative statement? But stay with me on this. I hear a lot of smart business professionals talk about how they often regard customers as good friends, even close friends--that indeed, they make it a personal goal to build such a relationship with some customers.

I say, be very very wary.

Great customer relationships are built on achieving a rich exchange of mutual value. Economic value. Both sides have a responsibility to keep it that way--and it's a solemn resonsiblty to your investors, employees, management, and yes, to your customers. That's not friendship. The danger if you start mixing the two up is that you start doing things for each other--favors, special deals, and the like--that make no business sense. Not good.

Some years ago when I was consulting for a commercial developer in Dallas, I found that project managers in his ' construction division had gotten a little too cozy with subcontractors. How? Because one of them got outraged at me when I insisted that a subcontracting bid be awarded to the lowest priced qualified bidder. (What a concept!) The offended (losing) sub was buddies with the project manager on the job, and as a result of their friendship had gotten used to submitting bids with little competition, and when his bids weren't low, he expected to get a heads up so he could  lower his bid. 

That wasn't good for the project manager's boss (and my client)--not for his bottom line, and not for his goal of building a more price competitive construction division. And by the way, it wasn't good for the preferred sub: relying on such "friendships" and cush deals in business dulls your competitive edge and also tarnishes your ethical compass. In business, those are liabilities.

So whatever action or arrangement you're contemplating with a customer, it's a good idea to stop and ask, are we doing this because it makes economic sense for both our businesses? Or is it to further some misguided sense of "friendship." 


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