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Can You Be Too Friendly With Customers?

What happens when a friend becomes a customer or a customer becomes a friend? Here's how three business owners navigate the thin line.
January 15, 2016

By 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator, according to a recent Customers 2020 Report. Increasingly, customers of small businesses may be expecting owners to know their individual needs in detail and go out of their way to personalize offerings and the shopping experience. When this is done properly, repeat business can be the result.

But what happens when you please the customer so much that your relationship becomes personal? Claudia Mora, owner of The Beauty Vault salon in Fairview, New Jersey; Jeanne Nohalty, founder of design boutique Alley Cat Décor in Oak Park, Illinois; and Jason Sherman, CEO of dating app Instamour in Philadelphia reveal how they manage this situation.

Briefly tell us about an experience where a friend became a customer, or a customer became a friend.

Claudia Mora: Owning a beauty salon is a tough job. You have to be a best friend, a therapist, a stylist and so much more. You see the same clients at least once a week and they become friends, almost family. You talk to them about life, business and, of course, love. I go out for drinks with customers, and they often text me to make appointments instead of calling the salon.

Jeanne Nohalty: We’ve for sure had customers who have turned into friends. It’s wonderful and validates that you are doing your job well. Our key business focus is outstanding customer relations. We treat our customers exactly like friends and therefore see no difference in terms of how we provide service to a friend or a customer who walks in off the street.

We treat our customers exactly like friends and therefore see no difference in terms of how we provide service to a friend or a customer who walks in off the street.

Jason Sherman: Often, when my friends need help with their businesses, they turn to me. I tend to be careful, as one wrong move could end the business relationship as well as the friendship. In one case, I agreed to help a friend work on a new product website. 

What were the challenges associated with this situation, and how did you cope with them?

Sherman: It was challenging because she wanted a great deal of customization. The situation became very difficult. During this process, we became less friendly and more like business acquaintances. I even tried to reinforce our friendship by building a custom site for her anyway to show her how it would look, but she ended our contract anyway.

Mora: When I first opened up shop, I offered all my friends the "friends and family" discount, and sometimes I'd comp their services. One day, one of my best friends, who was a customer, said, "I don't need money off. Charge me as a regular client. I should pay the same price I’d pay anywhere else.” That was the last day I offered the “friends and family” discount.

When a relationship begins to straddle the customer/friend line, what should business owners do to keep the situation from getting awkward?

Nohalty: The only time it could get awkward is if your friend/customer was not paying a balance due. It could also get awkward if your friend/customer was unhappy with your service. Although, again, the way we respond would be no different. My advice is to always strive to be personal and do your best to ensure a positive experience in your shop and as a representative of the business.

Mora: I think you just have to have the attitude that business is business and you have to pay your rent. I truly believe that your real friends will understand that you are running a business and won't expect discounts or preferential treatment.

How should business owners resolve disputes that may arise?

Sherman: I really didn’t want to lose a friendship over conflict. Because of strong communication, we were both able to move past it, and we are still friends to this day.

Nohalty: Disputes should be handled in a very direct yet professional and friendly manner. At the end of the day, you should never feel like you are being taken advantage of or treated badly. You are running a business and are not in the business of giving away your services and/or products.

Read more articles about customer engagement.

Photo: iStock