By Peter Klauser
Those running a service-based business inevitably find themselves faced with the opportunity to work with a close friend on an account. This can be tricky to navigate, especially if you hope to maintain your friendship, after mixing professional and personal relationships.
We’ve all had a friend offer to buy us a cup of coffee in exchange for a brief bit of advice (or take us to lunch to thank us for spending even more time that we could have spent doing billable work instead). While it’s nice to spend time with people you like, a 12-oz. latte doesn’t cover the overhead involved in maintaining your own business.
“Above all, maintain your personal relationship… it’s more valuable than anything else.”
So, how do we make working with friends work?
The easy answer is: Just don’t do it! Then again, for many of us, the goal in business is to work with people we enjoy, and we tend to get passionately involved in our clients’ success. This means we often become close friends with those clients. Whether we intend to or not, we end up working with friends anyway, as we develop those agency-client bonds.
Early on, my approach was to separate business from friendships and to treat the friend like a regular client. Once the professional relationship began, I would manage their project the same way I did for any other client. In fact, I wouldn’t even inform my employees of the distinction, so that my team would provide my friend with the same level of service we provided all our clients.
However, it’s not always that easy. For many friends, we want to offer above-and-beyond levels of service, or even extend the “good-friend discount” rate.
Eventually, I decided to establish a simple policy, which we still use today. When a friend calls for our professional services, I immediately inform them of our “Working With Friends” policy: If the friend needs help with a not-for-profit project, and we have the spare time (an important caveat), we’ll provide the service at cost. But if it’s a for-profit project (even for a cash-strapped startup), we’ll charge our regular rates.
Then, we adhere to the following five groundrules, to help guarantee that we remain friends:
1. Establish Expectations. Before you begin any work, talk with your friend to establish reasonable expectations on both sides. Identify each person’s role and outline clear goals and objectives of the work relationship. If you do offer a discount, then clearly communicate that this means the work may fall lower on your priority scale. And, most importantly, document it all in written form and develop a contract that outlines the process and defines the deliverables.
2. Charge Real Dollars. As enticing as a cup of coffee may be, your work is worth more than that, so don’t be afraid to charge your regular rate for your services. If you do decide to extend a discount, then be sure to cover your basic overhead costs. Alternatively, you could offer one hour of free consultation, then charge regular rates from there. In any case, be sure to communicate your policy before you do any work.
3. Communicate Throughout. We’re in the communication business, so this one should be easy. The best way to protect your friendship during the professional relationship is to communicate constantly throughout the process. If you must delegate the work to a team member, it’s good to check with your friend to ensure they know that you’re still involved and invested in their success. If things go off-track, then quick communication is the best way to set things straight. And ask for the friend’s feedback after the work has been delivered.
4. Establish An Exit Strategy. From the very beginning, review with your friend the option to cancel the work, and discuss what types of situations might lead to such a decision. Be willing to walk away if things aren’t working out as planned. Proper pre-planning and good communications will help alleviate any awkwardness later on.
5. Friendship Forever. Above all, maintain your personal relationship. Your friendship is more valuable than anything else. And have fun!
Peter Klauser is the co-principal (with brother, James) of Bullseye Creative—which won the award for the Best-Ever ATLAS ad in the publication’s 25-year history. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.