The Fine Line Between Being Friendly and Being Their Friend

By Colleen Francis

When it comes to our customers, we in sales are used to walking a fine line between right and wrong behaviors. The consequences of stepping over that line can range from a simple "blip" in an otherwise strong and steady relationship, to costing you the sale, or perhaps even losing a loyal customer for life.

Today, we continue our ongoing series on the "9 Fine Lines to Sales Success," by taking a closer look at how to draw the line between being friendly, and becoming your customers' friend.

Now, I know that we at Engage spend a lot of time talking about how important it is to develop trusted relationships with your clients. And that's still true. But building a trusted relationship with a client doesn't mean that you have to be their friend; it just means you have to be friendly.

It's been said, for example, that most people can only manage about 6 meaningful relationships at a time, before one of those relationships starts to deteriorate. For sales people, it's important to remember that those 6 relationships should be our family and friends - not our clients.

Avoiding the "dark side" of the line
A wise former boss once said to me that sales is not the profession for you to get your emotional needs met.

Sales people cross the line between being friendly and being their customers' friend when they start to empathize with the customer so much that they lose focus on why the relationship was built to begin with: to help solve a problem, and create profit for both the buyer and the seller.

As I mentioned last month, too many sales people mistake building business rapport with getting friendly. Your customers are not your drinking buddies, your shoulder to cry on or the people you run to when your credit card is over the limit. They are your customers, and you need them to like, trust and respect you as a business partner - not a friend.

When a sales person becomes too emotionally attached to their customers, they may inadvertently sabotage the relationship in one of three important ways:

1. They lose the objectivity they need to make the right decisions for the buyer's company, and for their own.

2. They lose their professional distance and decorum, letting their hair down, revealing their more "casual" selves and perhaps even doing or saying something inappropriate which could potentially offend the client. I've seen far too many customer relationships ruined over late night parties that went on too long, personal conversations that went a little too deep, or jokes that were just a little too risqué. Whether it's gossip, distasteful jokes, excessive drinking, smoking or simply a sloppy appearance, being too casual will eventually deteriorate even the best business relationship.

3. They take their new "friends" for granted, and begin to expect that all their business will always come their way. As a result, they forget to market to them, recognize the importance of their business or promote them to other customers. In other words, they get lazy, start focusing on the socializing and neglect the real work - like looking out for new issues, recognizing new opportunities and solving new problems along the way.

Moving over to the good side: What goes around comes around
The best and simplest way to stay on the "good side" of the friendly/friend line is to remember the Law of Reflection: a universal law which dictates that what we give out, is what we tend to get back.

The Law of Reflection is essentially the same as the principle of reciprocity, which we can all recognize as a fundamental principle of persuasion and sales. You may also know it as the rule of karma, or the philosophy that "what goes around, comes around." But whatever you call it, in my experience, the Law of Reflection is - bar none - the easiest way to maintain a friendly relationship with your clients, without becoming their friend.

In a sales relationship, our customers prefer to give to those who have first given to them. This wisdom seems incontrovertible, but far too many of us still tend to ignore it in our day-to-day business, and far too many of us fail to apply it to our sales relationships.

For example, studies of the restaurant business have shown that the surest way for a server to get a big tip, is to give the patron a piece of candy at the end of the meal. The more candy a server leaves, the bigger the tip they receive. Even more interesting is the fact that, if a server gives each patron one piece of candy, turns to leave the table, and then turns back and says "but for you people…" and gives them each a second piece, the tip goes through the roof - not a bad return on investment for a 10-cent piece of candy, and a little customer appreciation!

That's the power of the Law of Reflection.

When we examine our own lives and careers, the Law of Reflection applies just as clearly. When others are upset with us, we tend to get upset right back at them. When others blame us, we tend to blame them in return. And when someone accuses us of something, we tend to accuse them as well.

The reverse is equally true. When we take responsibility for our actions, others take responsibility for their actions. And when we apologize, others tend to apologize back, or at least minimize their aggression towards us.

Staying on the good side
Whenever I do a seminar for a sales team, I can usually predict the attitude of a sales manager by interviewing the people who report directly to them.

When the team members blame others, I usually find that their boss is a blamer. When they are friendly, the boss is generally friendly. When employees take full responsibility for their actions and results, 99 times out of 100, the boss possesses an ownership attitude as well.

In short, the attitude of the executive, manager or supervisor tends to be reflected in the attitudes of their employees. That's why a change in leadership can often directly affect the morale and productivity of a group, even when all of the other members remain the same.

Applying the Law of Reflection is the key to staying on the right side of the line, and persuading our customers and colleagues to be more honest with us. The friendlier we are, the friendlier our customers will be - without having to cross that line. The more honest we are, the more likely it is that others will be honest with us.

It's interesting to note that we frequently hear sales people complain that a prospect or a customer isn't being completely honest with them. After further discussion, these sales people will almost always admit that they weren't being totally honest, either. Sadly, this situation often results in a standoff in which everyone loses.

At a seminar the other day, "Jane" complained to me that one of her prospects was not being open about the decision-making process at his company. Jane knew that, because of the size and scope of the project, other people at the company would have to be involved in the approval process, but the prospect was being thoroughly tight lipped about it.

I asked her if there was anything she was holding back, avoiding telling the customer or masking in a maze of words. She suddenly smiled, and admitted that she hadn't told him that her own senior management would likewise need to be involved in the order. She'd been talking around the issue, hoping that they wouldn't ask, because she feared they might think less of her ability if she couldn't handle the deal on her own. Jane left the seminar that day with a plan to tell her customer the truth.

Of course, nothing is perfect, and the Law of Reflection won't work 100% of the time. But it is an easy, effective and instantly implementable way to stay on the right side of the line between being friendly, and being your customers' friend.

Join us next time for another of our 9 ways you can walk the line, and ensure your sales success.

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Colleen Francis, Sales Expert, is Founder and President of Engage Selling Solutions ( Armed with skills developed from years of experience, Colleen helps clients realize immediate results, achieve lasting success and permanently raise their bottom line.

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