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How to Be a Good Consultant When Clients Are Friends

Heidi Thorne is an author and business speaker specializing in sales and marketing topics for coaches, consultants, and solopreneurs.

The Toughest Consulting Gigs You'll Ever Get

One of the best things about being in a consulting business for yourself is the opportunity to create new friendships within your network. But when those "friends" decide to become clients, these relationships enter a whole new, challenging dimension.

Drawing the line between what is friendly conversation and what is "consulting" can be tricky. Brain picking or "I just have a quick question" requests can back a consultant into a corner. Answer the request, forfeit the fee and save the friendship? Or stand firm, charge and possibly jeopardize the friendship and the sales?

Why I Might Not Want Coffee With You

It's no secret that I love hanging with friends at popular coffee shops. But that's also where I can get myself into trouble when I meet with business friends.

The atmosphere is friendly and the conversation easily meanders from family and fun to business. Then a "What I should do about...?" question enters the exchange. This is a little like a brain picking bonus round. This is consultation without compensation.

Best defense is to be prepared for the "coffee consult" request. Kindly suggest that the topic would be better addressed in an official engagement.

Sign Off or Sign Out!

If a friend is amenable to officially doing business with you, you may be tempted to dispense with some of your normal procedures and paperwork. DON'T! Always get a sign off from your friend on whatever paperwork you do with non-friend clients. If things ever go awry while working together, you'll be glad you did.

Keeping Friends Accountable

Another tough aspect when clients are friends is holding them accountable for payments, performance and deadlines.

As friends, you may be aware of some financial challenges your client friend is facing. So it may be tempting to be flexible on payment due dates or forego prepayment requirements. Beware of these situations:

  • Services easily lose their value once rendered. Clients who are financially challenged can sometimes slip into "Well, I don't think it was worth that" mode when an invoice arrives. A prepayment policy can help prevent some of these situations.
  • Pay to play. If you're aware of a client friend's financial difficulties, be honest about your expectations for payment for what you are offering. Again, a prepayment policy might help your friend become both financially and emotionally invested into working with you.
  • Discounting dangers. If you feel inclined to offer a friend discount (hint: a discount is never required!), make sure that all invoicing clearly shows the regular price and that it was discounted, as well as why it was discounted. The danger in discounting is that your friend could mentally peg the value and price of your services to be at the discounted rate from here to forevermore, not to mention that she may tell her friends what she actually paid. Then your client friend's friends may be expecting that rate, too. When discounting your services, you yourself may also slip into thinking that you won't provide your standard level of service to make up for the lower payment. Don't automatically discount for friends without considering the consequences.
  • Setting boundaries. If your client has had anytime cell phone, email and texting availability with you, you may need to set some boundaries and procedures on access during your engagement. Be clear about what will and will not be allowed. If you do wish to continue to have regular "friendly" chatter while consulting, then be very careful to call out when the connection veers into consulting territory. If not, you may find that you'll be giving away hours of unpaid consulting time.

Setting expectations for performance and deadlines and, more importantly, sticking to them, can be challenging with friends. Sometimes addressing payment for services helps put client friends into work mode since they don't want to waste their investment. But you may still experience some friend backsliding in terms of meeting deadlines and accomplishing tasks. Be honest about performance and progress throughout the engagement.

Bartering Boundaries

Another difficult, but related scenario, comes up when a friend asks to "barter" for your consulting services. Sometimes this can be a win-win for both parties (I've had some very successful arrangements). On other occasions, it can be disastrous, especially if the bartered services from the friend are something you don't really need or want... or, worse, something you'd rather purchase from someone else other than your friend.

While it may be difficult to tell your friend when a barter is not an ideal fit for you, it's usually better than becoming resentful about providing services for less than you feel you're worth.

As noted for all consulting arrangements when clients are friends, don't forget to go through your usual procedures and paperwork for bartered services. As well, bartered services can carry tax ramifications. Consult with your CPA or accounting professional on bartering tax rules that will apply to you.

Don't "Friend" Out On Your Responsibilities Either!

In addition to friends expecting unpaid perks and privileges, consultants can also easily slip into thinking that "it's just a friend" mode and not provide the same high level of service that they offer to regular customers.

Just as clients can be more invested into an official business relationship when they pay, when you get properly compensated for services you offer, you'll also be more inclined to do your best.

Can Clients and Consultants Just Be Friends After Working Together?

I miss some of my past coaches and consultants. I truly enjoyed my time with them and appreciate their insight. I would love to get together with them for a friendly chat. No, I’m not looking for free coaching. I don’t even really want their input on anything that’s going on in my business. I just want to learn what they’re up to and find ways we can work together in our post-coaching relationship.

But I’m honestly afraid to connect. Why? Because I worry that they’ll think I’m trying to get a freebie or brain pick. As well, I honor the value of their time and know that they could be making money working with someone else instead of networking with me.

This situation presents itself even if I’ve never formally worked with some coaches. I feel that if I ask these folks to meet up, call on the phone, etc., they’ll also be sacrificing their time that could be more productively or profitably spent with client work. I also wonder if they’ll feel they need to turn our meeting into a sales conversation.

Yet I still would like to spend some time networking on a non-engagement basis with these people. Not only am I looking for some insight on their businesses and industries since they are my target market, I’m just interested in building our relationship as fellow resources.

How to connect and keep the relationship without crossing that professional line? I’ve tried to keep connected with them on social media so that I can follow their work, share their content, etc. It works, even if it’s a bit distanced. If I get up the nerve to ask them for a one-to-one meeting, I’ll definitely have to be clear about the boundaries that I (and I hope they) will not cross during our interaction.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Heidi Thorne

Comments

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 28, 2016:

Thanks, Denise! I think we all need a reminder now and then. Thanks for visiting and have a great day!

Denise H on July 28, 2016:

Great words, Heidi! Lesson learned years ago and a needed reminder for now! Thanks!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 29, 2016:

Billybuc, that tightrope of friend-into-client is a treacherous one indeed. Glad to hear you've been able to keep them as friends AND clients. Even if they ever fall away due to some tough advice you've given, they may reflect on what you said later when it all becomes crystal clear for them. That whole "When the student is ready..." philosophy applies here, too. Happy Tuesday to you, too! And thank you for stopping by!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 29, 2016:

FlourishAnyway, keeping friends accountable is always tough, whether they're clients or not. But when the biz element is added, it really is critical. Thanks for starting out your week here! Make it great!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 29, 2016:

This really is a great topic and timely for me. I advise friends, at times, on their writing. They pay me....and it is hard to do. There is a tightrope walked when you take on friends as clients....I'm happy to report they are all still friends...so far. LOL

Happy Tuesday, Heidi!

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 28, 2016:

What a great topic with excellent advice! Keep friends accountable too!