Don’t Make Your Clients Your Friends!

Faults shared are as comfortable as bedroom slippers and as easy to slip into. – Phyllis McGinley

Telling you not to make your clients your friends  may seem like an anathema to the marketing and client management techniques. Let me tell you what I mean. But first, you have to hear my story.

A very wise sales manager cautioned me when establishing relationships with the dealers that I worked with, never to make them my friends. He assured me that it was fine to be “friendly” with them, but not to make them “my friend”. The difference is significant. 

A friend is someone that you can confide in and trust. You can be friendly with someone who is a very brief acquaintance and still not trust them, or be willing to confide in them early in your acquaintance. I was in the business of wholesaling my brand of tractors to established tractor dealers. I had to entrust them with inventory from the company that I represented. We offered floorplanning terms which meant that we filed UCC forms which gave my company a security interest in that inventory until the value of each tractor sold had been paid to my company. So, if a tractor, which was secured by my company was sold, the agreement was that we would be paid off immediately.

I visited my dealers on a regular basis. At times, I would arrive with no-notice that I was coming. I was trained to be on alert for dealers who might have 10 tractors on floor plan (unpaid) yet only have 9 tractors in stock when I arrived. It was possible that a tractor might be out on “demo”, or left with a customer to use for an afternoon, to demonstrate the features of that unit. Upon my arrival, the first thing I would do is check to see what unpaid inventory was in the possession of each dealer. If I found any tractor missing, I would make it a priority to find out where that tractor was located. It might be behind the dealer’s building, out on demo, or (worst case scenario) sold out of trust – that is, sold without payment to my company. 

If it was gone and not paid for, I investigated further. If the dealer presented an invoice that had just been issued to a customer the day before and the dealer had not gotten around to sending the check in a timely manner, I could live with that.  I would get a check right then and there. If the dealer told me that he had loaned the tractor, and it was out on “demo”, then I would invite the dealer to escort me to that customer’s house to verify that it was a loan and not a sale. Usually, before we set out for that customer’s house, the dealer would come clean if it had actually been sold – because the customer would immediately reveal the truth and be concerned that that tractor was there under false pretenses.

The good dealers didn’t play games. But many of the new dealers had not established a long term business relationship with me, so that I didn’t know if they could be trusted or not. My sales manager warned me not to get to close to the dealer. That, if a sale out of trust occurred, that I would feel pressure to make the dealer’s problem, my problem. To hide the fact that a dealer had sold a tractor and cover for them, for another week until they came up with the cash, meant that I was complicit and would immediately lose my job if discovered. The closer the relationship the greater the difficulty of revealing a misrepresentation. It is when the dealer appeals to your friendship to allow them to do something wrong that you have to decide – are you going to put your job in jeopardy for someone else’s indiscretion? 

As attorneys, you will have clients who come to you to seek your services whom you have known for years. Be very careful not to let that cloud your professional judgment. I often tell students not to let their client’s problems become their problems. Too many attorneys have been disbarred because of violations of the canons of ethics and as a result of attempting to cover for the wrongdoing of their clients. Take your clients to lunch, but don’t let them”take you to lunch”, if you know what I mean. You can be friendly, but do you really want to get to the point that you are in weddings, sent birth announcements, participating in graduation ceremonies? Some of those relationships are unavoidable, but some are better left at the doorstep. This is particularly true when your clients deal in areas of business which are legal, but “on the edge” and near the “cliff of the legal norms”. Be friendly, take them to lunch, but not to bed. . . .

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One Comment

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