Outsourcing

How friendly are you with clients?

When it comes to personal relationships with clients, Chip Camden admits that he has often erred on the outrageous side. Where do you draw the line with clients?

 Relationships? We have to talk about relationships again? For most geeks, whenever someone wants to talk about a relationship, we want to hide behind a monitor. But the business of consulting involves just as much (or more) skill in dealing with people as it does in dealing with technology.

I've discussed the consultant-client relationship before, but now I want to explore the other relationship you have with your client: the personal relationship that exists outside your working relationship. In many cases, there isn't much of a personal relationship. My clients whom I've never met or spoken to except by e-mail only have my written communication by which to form an idea of my personality (some might say that's more than enough). But when you work closely with a client for many years, you can't help sharing some degree of personal intimacy.

Nor should you avoid it completely. People like to work with friends. In fact, attempting to keep a relationship purely professional may only increase mutual admiration and the desire for something more. It often starts with a shared insight or a harmless joke that whets one person's interest in how the other person thinks. The next thing you know, someone's wearing a halo.

But that's when you may have gone too far. When someone supposedly can do no wrong, disappointment is sure to follow. If your client views you as the object of admiration, you need to defuse that bomb before it explodes by being humble and self-deprecating. If you're the one with stars in your eyes, then you need to shake yourself by the collar and remind yourself that everyone is human.

A romance presents the same problem, squared. Desire augments admiration to the point where it goes beyond where reason can recover it, and the ensuing disappointment can be correspondingly devastating -- it's usually enough to completely disable the relationship from then on. When that happens in the workplace, one person or the other often feels compelled to leave. You don't want to create that problem between you and your client or anyone who works for them. I know -- I've done it twice thrice four times (oh, who's counting?). I regret something about all of those relationships except one -- my wife.

Friendships, and especially romantic relationships with people who work for your client, can also introduce the potential ethical problem of a conflict of interest. What if the best thing for your client is to show your special someone the door? Less extreme but much more common is the tendency for you to favor policies that would advance that person's career. You're no longer an uninterested observer -- your recommendations become biased.

But suppose you keep relationships with your client clear of all crushes, obsessions, and romantic entanglements, where do you draw the line between being a friend and acting unprofessionally? Most consultants don't mind dining with their client or going out for a beer, but would you shoot pool with them or play poker? Would you visit their home, or invite them to yours? Would you sing karaoke at their company party or dance with their CEO? Naturally, it depends a lot on the client and the culture they foster within their organization. It's a gross generalization, but in my experience companies on the West Coast of the United States often seem to be more tolerant of certain behaviors than those on the East Coast or in the United Kingdom.

I confess that I have often erred on the side of the outrageous. Perhaps I'm a narcissistic attention seeker (that would also explain my need to blog), but I like to tell myself that it has more to do with being honest and with letting my clients get to know the real me.

How friendly do you let yourself get with clients? Do you have any horror stories of times when you or clients crossed the line? Share your experiences in the discussion.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

56 comments
Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... and a lot of times a client who is also a "friend" will expect that you'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Not that they would return the favor.

dirtylaundry
dirtylaundry

Since I provide an *at-your-home* service, the fact that I am a woman and gregarious has been a benefit. One of the complaints I've received about similar services is that the techs were all business, were too standoffish and bristled at additional questions. Also, when an appointment cannot be met on either side, there is more understanding and flexibility due to the more friendly, personal relationship. I tried this *personal* approach in the office environment and it never worked. People are much nicer when you enter their homes and deal with their personal computers. I've also had a family member or 2 (usually another male adult or the children) just merely stare because it's not often they see a woman tech breeze thru OSes and open cases. However, I draw the line at delving any further than my computer work. It keeps the understanding that this is still a professional relationship and that I am providing a service.

dixon
dixon

...let the clients set the tone. After all, it's their dime. Some like a jovial, kidding around type of interaction, while some folks are all business. Either way, or anything in between, is fine. I do generally like to keep my social life separate from my professional life. Things can get messy otherwise.

reisen55
reisen55

A good in-house sense of humor for fun makes for a great client relationship. And when we screw up, it is important to laugh at ourselves as well. One morning I solved a hellish problem for staff and put every single cartoon about "I hate my computer" I could find on different desktops. They loved it. If your client has a wonderful sense of humor and can tolerate rough language, let me recommend Foamy the Squirrel at illwillpress.com. Look for toons and view his first encounter with Tech Suppport. I was talking with the owner of a medical practice one day and casually mentioned I purchased a DVD at a computer show that had CRUSADER RABBIT on it - HE LIT UP!!! So, he got the DVD.

msaranm
msaranm

They may take all the advandages since you are IT admin.Thus will create such a dificulties for us. From my realtime exp.I learnt that be careful when you facing such a situation just do your work promptly all they want only the resource from you.

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

I tend to be as friendly as possible, without moving into the category of close or intimate friends. I try to be perceived as, "Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent." (The old Boy Scout motto for those who do not know.) The idea in my mind is to foster trust and a good working relationship. But at the same time I WANT to maintain a certain distance between us. Or, perhaps, that latter statement would be better illustrated by my saying that I want it understood that there are lines I will not cross. Notice the included trait of "loyalty" in that motto, above? I am first and foremost loyal to the company for whom I work. When that is no longer the case, I'll resign. Secondly I am loyal to the paying customer. That means whomever signed the contract and who then later signs the check when the contract is satisfactorily completed. In my line of business, one of the issues that frequently comes up is that various members of the customer organization, not the contract manager/signer, come to see me as extremely helpful, friendly, etc. And then tend to want some special consideration, a little bending of the rules/terms of the contract, some "freebie" service or advice, or whatever. Remember my Rule #1? Loyalty to my employer? And Rule #2, loyalty to the individual or group within the customer organization who signed the contract I'm working under? Any request or asked for favor that would violate Rule #1 or Rule #2, gets a "No" answer. It is a lot easier to give a "No" answer, and for the recipient of said answer to accept it without getting all out of sorts, if the relationship is not too close and personal. As concerns getting into personal, more intimate relationships with customers or their employees. As we used to say when I was in the Navy, "Not on my watch." Meaning, it ain't gonna happen. Morality aside, it seems to be to be a bad idea on any number of levels. If I were available, and I'm not, its a big world with lots and lots of available ladies who might interest me (And I'm easily pleased ... basic requirements being FEMALE, warm and still breathing, willing and friendly, not so ugly as to scare me if I pass her in dark alley, and she shares at least some of my interests. Oh, and she doesn't find me totally repulsive. I'm far uglier than the rest of you pikers and pretenders. With the charming and interesting personality ... of the average rock.) Even as ugly and undesirable as I am, I still have to duck "invitations" to get better acquainted by some gals. There have just got to be some "desperate" ladies out there, IMHO, if even some show interest in me. Some of you eligible bachelors MUST be falling down on the job. Either that, and more often likely the case, the lady in question wants something. That special consideration or favor. All of which is not to say that I won't have lunch with a customer. I even go to some customer events. i.e. Not long ago I attended an after-hours party celebrating the retirement of a fellow who I'd worked with within a customer organization for many years. I have, occasionally, "let my hair down" so to speak, with certain carefully selected customers. But that is seldom, and the person's concerned few. Only happens after we've known each other for considerable time, and I've come to know that the other person understands the difference between professional and personal relationships. i.e. The person knows and understands that while today (or tonight) we may be partying hardy and acting silly like long, long time close friends, tomorrow ... if the situation demands ... I won't hesitate to say "No" in a business decision.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I have good relationships with all my stores, but there is no little or no interaction outside the store. In my case, the primary reason is most likely that we simply move in different circles.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

I try to keep all my clients on a comfortable, friendly distance. Sometimes I will join them for lunch if I think it will help me to get more information and they need to take a break. Never, ever outside of work through. I want them to be comfortable with my presence and free to talk about their computer problems at what ever level of understanding they can. I also need to understand at which level I can converse with them. Many service people treat the customer as the enemy and this just creates friction that can lead to misunderstanding the real problem.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Don't worry. There will be no romantic entanglements between you and me. I am ugly, but your photo shows that you are uglier than I am ugly.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

What type of neighborhoods do you service? Have you ever been "hit on" (or feel threatened) in someone else's home?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Tell me about it. I feel lucky that I finally married one of them, so I'm not even tempted any more.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, humor can go a long way -- but you do have to gauge your client's tolerance. Wouldn't want to butcher any of their sacred cows.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The ones I've been working with the longest enjoy (?) a closer relationship, while I pay attention to maintaining the right distance with newer clients.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

the days of the 'dedicated playground' are over.

herlizness
herlizness

> working lunches are ok but you'll do a lot better if you DON'T talk about computers when you go out with clients ... let me give you one specific hint: people with children LOVE to talk about their children (mothers AND fathers) ... let them tell you ALL about Tammy's A+ grades and Jason's future in professional sports or medicine and you'll get more business

GSG
GSG

We are usually the client. We had one of our people who was new to IT who thought that the vendor was a personal friend. So, she wouldn't turn in problems, and wouldn't address this person's general lack of knowledge. It took someone else (me) stepping in to address the issues, and get the problems fixed. She learned a hard lesson as she is no longer with our organization, or even in IT. The client represents the interests of this organization, we are not friends with the vendors, because they represent the interests of their organization, and many times, the interests of each party are completely opposite of one another. For example, a discussion where we believe that the contract states that we will be provided a service at no cost, but the other party believes that it states the exact opposite. You can't be "friends" and have that discussion. If you're too friendly, you are not looking out for the interests of your organization, or yourself.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That's probably the first time I've ever been grateful for being called ugly.

reisen55
reisen55

Each one has a different tolerance level. My smallest account, a single used book seller with a single computer BUT that it his entire life for internet sales, SCREAMS LIKE CRAZY when something goes wrong. My wife panics, AL IS REALLY MAD!!! Nope, that's Al. I call and fix and he is a pussycat. One client at the start of this year sent me a note about renewal of contract. He thought this was funny. I quote " I tried to catch you in the office yesterday to tell you we found somebody else, but I didn't want to give you a heart attack. " Oh, hahahahahahaha it is to laugh. Not funny and he was making a humor. I remembered that particular comment with extreme ill-will and, quietly, have paid it back in kind with this client - well below the radar.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

This ########################### Computer is driving me nuts I'm going to park an Excavator on it. At one place I had one of the staff do that to get a new workstation and now every time there is a problem that is the threat that I hear. Unfortunately if I'm not there fast that is exactly what Happens. :( OK great for new sales as I supply all their needs but I find it counterproductive when it should have been an easy fix. Luckily they are fairly close by not more than a 25 minute drive away and they are always good for a laugh even if they have the Most Expensive I Pod on the Face of the planet. It's the only place that I'm paid to play with an I Pod. :D Col

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

I don't have much of a relationship with clients outside of the Business premises. I don't go the Christmas Parties or similar mainly because I don't have the free time available. But I do do a lot of the staffs computers for free or at cost to keep them happy and this I see as just a part of the business that I'm in. Good Will has never hurt anyone. ;) I bet I'm uglier that the rest of you lot put together. :p Col

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

When they've told you about their kids, you've become almost part of the family. If you're ever lucky enough to meet their kids, you're a lifer. They can't let "Uncle Chip" go without having to explain it to their kids.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

you have to be able to apply the same degree of separation when it comes to business decisions. The closer, the more difficult. But it can be done.

burntfinger1
burntfinger1

I was so damned ugly I was cute! Ex girl friend. Wife just says I ain't bad looking for an old guy :) I've always tried to keep the romance out of work, but I've been close enough to clients that one of them named a baby after me. It just depends on the client. Some I like, some I wouldn't invite to someone else's house.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

There are a lot of believers in the squeaky wheel principle, so when they need help, they squeak loudly. Others believe more in civility, and they get really bothered about having to raise their voice or ask for something twice. You have to know your clients. "paid it back in kind... well below the radar" You sound a little bit vindictive, reisen55.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

You always know exactly where you stand with them and if you ever have a problem they are the ones to ask for a solution that is way out of the Box. :D Col

santeewelding
santeewelding

I run into a whole lot of those people; the ones not used to being told they Can Not do something. I gravitate to them. The others, they are no challenge.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

I get to spend hours with the I Tunes App fixing up the mess that he makes. I found the Library saved to 25 different locations on the HDD once. I was called in because a New NB had no room left on the HDD that only had about 20 GIG's used when I supplied it a week or two previously. Somehow it had burned up the other 230 GIG in a very short time. 25 Entries of a 20 GIG Folder for some strange reason takes up a lot of HDD space. :^0 Prior to that I used to just tell him to fix up his owe programs but it took hours to sort out what I could safely delete and what had to stay put. I think on that occasion I deleted the entire Play Library and rebuilt it from scratch. Then there was the Garman GPS which he insisted didn't work with a Europe Map Installed because it would only give him a distance to Madrid and no directions on how to drive there from AU. In the end I had to sit him in his car and ask him which way he thought he needed to head to get there. :D Earthmover's are not a group to upset at all. But you know exactly where you stand with them all of the time and there is defiantly no Politics played but you may find yourself lying down and getting some sleep unexpectedly. Particularly when you tell them that [b]No that isn't possible[/b] with something that they really want to do. That crowd isn't used to being told that they [b]Can Not[/b] do something. ;) I hadn't touched either an I Pod or I Tunes prior to this one job so it was defiantly a Learning Experience. I just wish that he wasn't trying to fill up an 80 Gig I Pod with songs to listen to. :( Col

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

They are standing in line for a smaller Version of Skynet so that they can try to do as they please they all currently think that the HAL 9000 units are way to dangerous to have around because they [b]Think for Themselves[/b] and no Government or Business wants to have something smarter than them around. They all want something that will do as it is told. :D Col 0:-)

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

The banks and the government are already ahead of you for one of those Hal9000. It's just a matter of time ... and safety nets.....

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Then you will be the one killed first. :0 But just in case you think you never go near an Airlock door you need to remember that Lift Doors in High Rise Buildings are also controlled by the HAL 9000 Series of systems. Not to mention Traffic Control Devices and that billing system for your Electricity and Phones so I may just have to bankrupt you so that when you die it looks like the final act of desperation. :D Actually any Automated Device is controlled by me. :0 [b]Be Afraid Very Afraid.[/b] :p Col 0:-)

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Now go and search for some PlyCraft Rods so you can weld up some Ply Wood that I'm sending you. ;) I've run out and the suppliers here have told me that you brought out all their stocks, to go with the Crankcase Sawdust and square drills to make square holes. I just hope that you get a lot of Apprentices sent to you to get a Long Wait. :^0 Col 0:-)

santeewelding
santeewelding

And predilections are noted. When the presidium confers, you may or may not be noticed.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

At the top of the list. OK then I'm happy to be way down the bottom. :p After all I don't want or need to associate with [b]Show Tune Lovers[/b] as I don't want people getting the wrong idea about me and thinking that I have a [b]Limp Wrist.[/b] :^0 HAL 9000 the Pretty one who likes to be around Young Women. :D Col 0:-)

santeewelding
santeewelding

Second-class. The first has yet to weigh in as to what is happening to his effort.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Is what I said. That said, "ugly" includes malformed observation. Your place is secure.

cupcake
cupcake

I noticed your new head shot and wanted to compliment you on it... much better. But we all know its not about what you look like but how much you make us all laugh!

santeewelding
santeewelding

We'll put you down as fourth; probationary fourth. Only, though, if you, er, improve.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

I had been in hospital for 7 days. They had washed the worst of the Ugly away. :( Col 0:-)

santeewelding
santeewelding

To what I taught my beautiful little girl in how to look bad-ass ugly. Talk that way, too. Beautiful little girls need to learn those things. And you're a guy. What's your excuse?

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

I have used this picture previously. :0

santeewelding
santeewelding

To Toni Bowers as counterpoint to her piece about appearance. You could be featured.