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Customer Or Friend? How Social Media Blurs Lines, Undermines Expectations And Threatens Profits

By December 18, 2013July 1st, 2015Social Marketing
Customer Or Friend? How Social Media Blurs Lines, Undermines Expectations And Threatens Profits

Call it a 21st century problem. We’ve gotten so good at marketing that we can slide under the radar and into the lives of our customers before they even realize they’re being marketed to.

We tell stories, we share, we connect, we engage, we socialize and we build relationships. And somewhere in there we hope to create enough value and engender enough loyalty that it translates into revenue.

The human side of marketing is one of its greatest rewards – and biggest liabilities. There’s a reason why the old adage exists: don’t mix business and pleasure.

Of course, that’s a virtual impossibility in today’s marketing environment. We have smart phones that keep us constantly connected to our businesses with always-on access to email and our social networks. We fan/friend/follow our customers and learn things about their lives, kids, dogs and Sunday dinners that companies could only dream of knowing a few years ago.

And yet it comes with a double-edged sword. All this social intimacy is blurring the lines between our business and our personal lives. And that makes it increasingly difficult to set boundaries, manage expectations and ultimately drive revenue.

Would you turn down a friend in need if he called in the middle of the night? Would you take money out of her pocket if you knew she couldn’t make her mortgage payment?

And yet you run a business. You provide value and expect to earn value in return. So where do you draw the line? And maybe more importantly, how? Especially when you’ve cultivated a relationship in which you’ve set the precedent that you’re the value provider? And anything you get in return is sort of a perk but certainly not guaranteed or even expected?

I’ve had this conversation with a number of small business people and solopreneurs recently – the ones who are most immersed in the relationship economy – and the opinion is the same. It’s a bit of a Catch-22.

Relationships help us do some amazing business.

And relationships make business a whole lot more challenging and oftentimes less profitable.

The Difference Between A Friend And A Friend

It wasn’t until recently that I changed my “personal friends only” Facebook policy.  It was the one place I reserved solely for long-lost elementary school friends, Great Aunt Bertha and people I would have a beer with on a Friday.

When clients “friended” me I mostly took an ignore approach. Sometimes I explained that I only connected with “real” friends.

But I run a marketing business. I am my business. Closing myself off became more and more untenable. So I decided to make Facebook public and now I’ve got clients, prospects, colleagues and even total strangers who tweeted me once or just like my haircut.

It’s fun. I’ve learned a lot. Sometimes I help people.

But every Facebook post alerts my clients that I’m online and either available to chat or clearly not working on their project (nobody really digests the idea of pre-scheduling so it doesn’t help to explain).

Every time I sign on – which is frequent considering I market my own and other clients’ businesses there – my little green light is like a beacon just begging someone to ask me a “quick question”.

In a business relationship I might say, “I’m in the middle of a project. Can we schedule a call for 3PM today?”

But for a friend… and whether you define a friend as a friend or not, that’s the perception… I stop to help.

The consequences if I don’t? Bad perception. Damaged relationship.

And yet a real friend would not react the same way. A real friend lets you off the hook. Our newly created, redefined friends? They stop working with us, stop paying us, maybe tell other people about our unresponsive ways.

We’re inventing a whole new class of “friend” and subsequently creating heightened expectations… a whole problem unto itself.

Giving Until It Hurts… Your Profits

As the value-provider, we’re expected to keep giving and there’s no “until”. I suppose the “until” is until we get cranky enough to walk away from a relationship, but that has a whole new potential to backfire because our social customers can be quite anti-social when we don’t fulfill their expectations.

These days, clients create their own expectations with no help from you and your cute little archaic contracts. The most ironclad contract has no weight against a disparaging tweet or a bad review.

In our business, we set out terms and conditions on all of our contracts. What to expect. What you’ll get. What you won’t get. How we work. Why we do it that way. How we communicate.

Our customers sign our contracts and initial each and every page stating that they have read and understood it.

Ask me how much that matters when my “friend” wants us to change the blue on the logo just one more time… just once… I mean, can’t we just change the blue? We’re asking for a lot of money and we only changed the blue five times. My friend just had surgery. Her kid needs a new school uniform. She just sold the cat to pay the electric bill. Come on.

In a business relationship you remind people of the terms of your contract. You stick to them. If necessary you call attorneys or send out collection letters.

In the new social relationship economy? That would be business suicide.

And if only it were that clinical… because if you truly have built a relationship with someone then it’s impossible to discard empathy and be purely profit-driven. That’s why we hate big corporations. And why small businesses suffer.

The Business Lunch Vs The Friday Beer

I love sharing meals with people. Well, I love meals… and sitting down with someone over eggs benedict or pumpkin pie is a great way to get past the stuffiness of purely business and relate to people as people.

But the business lunch has slid into the afternoon cocktail and the evening dessert and the weekend baseball game.

Many times there truly is no line between business and personal because what may have started out as business becomes a real friendship.

I became friendly with a client once and we spent a lot of time “working” out of my living room at odd hours of the day and night. I met his kid. I learned his story. We drank beer.

A lot of the “work” that we did fell under the umbrella of what we in the business like to call “free consulting”. You know, just a chat among friends.

Some months later, three quarters of the way through the project, four bottles of wine and one Christmas gift later, he ran out of money and killed the project.

And do you know what I got paid? Zero.

Zero. Point. Zero. To be exact.

I may even have been in a deficit at that point for money I’d shelled out for ancillary services we required.

I can’t entirely blame the client for that. But I can blame myself for deferring payments. For sympathizing with overdrawn credit cards. For liking the damn kid.

At what point do you strong-arm someone who you’ve sat in your living room drinking beer and quoting Pulp Fiction lines with at midnight on a Tuesday? Who can’t make the mortgage but has to feed his kid?

Social media did not come to the rescue. Nor did the “relationship”.

When the lines blur between business and personal, which one wins?

The Social Conundrum: A Friend Does Not A Friend Make

It occurred to me as I wrote this that a real friend would probably be more inclined to pay me for work than a business “friend”. Yet I’d donate my time to a real friend any day… but not feel as forgiving toward a business friend who prioritized my invoice somewhere at the same level as “pick up dead bug that fell behind desk.”

So the bottom line is that social business is different. It’s as different from “business as usual” as it is from true relationships. And that leaves us with a whole new genre of people to contend with.

People who act like friends when it suits them. People who love you as long as there’s something in it for them. People who draw a thin, dark line between what they’re willing to pay for and what comes as part of the relationship package.

Like I said, it’s a new economy that rides an awkward middle ground between amazing and “holy cow, why didn’t I just decide to stuff envelopes?”

There are ups and downs and many small businesses continue to struggle with adjusting to the demands and expectations of a plethora of new “friends”.

I don’t have all the answers (or any answers, for that matter) but I do think that it’s important to be aware of the evolving nature of social business and to think long and hard about our role in it.

What do you think about the pitfalls of social media and business? Have you experienced its dark side, or are you still in the honeymoon phase? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • And don’t forget “the friends and family discount.” Back when I had a graphic design biz (a loooong time ago) everyone always asked me about that. And this was before Facebook even took off. I learned pretty quickly that I had to eliminate that little perk forever. Everyone was a friend! Obviously, this means this issue existed before social media came on the scene.

    As for today, my personal Facebook profile is open to the public…And I’ll accept friend requests from peers, colleagues and even clients — but never from people I don’t interact with in some capacity first. For me, it hasn’t been an issue. I’m pretty good at not posting or saying anything online that I wouldn’t want my own mother to see. And I’m helpful to folks when I have a moment. Most of the time, if I see someone is standing in the virtual middle of the floor wringing their hands, I’ll point them to my website where I offer a free 20 min consult for prospective new clients. And many times, those have ended up as paying clients. No dark side for me (yet), knock on wood!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Yeah, the “friend and family” thing has always been an issue, but that was (at lest for me) always more about real friends. So we sort of adopted an unspoken policy that for friend-friends we would help, but beyond that, regular hourly rates apply. Knowing someone does not make the work any easier. In fact it tends to make it harder!

      I also don’t post anything online unless it can be said in public because even if you lock your accounts down there’s no guarantee something won’t get “hacked” or some privacy policy won’t change.

      The new problem arises when people – even people who have been clients for a long time – infiltrate our personal lives and then we get “friendlier” and it gets harder to be hard-line about things like deadlines and invoices when you know intimately about the things they are struggling with. So we start to let things slide in the interest of empathy and relationships. We do that thing for free. We pick up some of their slack. Totally our fault! But I make a better bleeding-heart liberal than I ever made a business person 🙂

  • Mario Nguyen says:

    Great article Caroline. Who ‘to’ and ‘not to’ connect with is an area I still dont have an answer for! My facebook account is private – friends and family I grew up with, my linkedin account is specific – business acquaintances, colleague, ex-colleague, my twitter account is the only open account – anyone who wants to connect and has the same interests as i do.

    It’s not that i have anything to hide but its more to do with what i think people are interesting in hearing. I ask myself, do my ‘facebook’ friends want to know what i’m doing in business? are they interested in articles i read on marketing/leadership/management? Do my ‘linkedin’ care about what i did on the weekend? or look at all the food photos i took on my last holiday?

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      You’re right, there are different audiences in different places. Even though I invite anyone to connect with me on Facebook, it’s still a place I post the “personal” things – my interests, fun things, photos, etc. I don’t post much there in terms of business as I would on, say, LinkedIn. So people can choose where to find me and what they want to see. But it can be challenging to get social with customers especially when they start to view you as more of a friend. It has its good and bad sides!

  • Katherine Kotaw says:

    You are quite the sage, Carol Lynn. Your insights are spot-on, and the issues you describe are ones that are growing in importance.

    I wish I had answers that would help clarify the boundaries between friendliness and friendships in business, but I don’t.

    I do think it’s critical that small business owners find a way to protect themselves against faux friends who turn out to be real deadbeats.

    When I figure out how, I’ll ping you!

    Thank you so much for giving voice to a perplexing problem that is — or should be — on the brain of any socially-minded entrepreneur.

    And thanks, too, for putting me in the mood for pumpkin pie.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Yes, when you figure it out I would love to know! I wrote this mostly to be speculative of course, because I don’t think there are any good answers at the moment. Every business is contending with a new game but that’s the nature of business!

      • Katherine Kotaw says:

        What’s important is that you started an important discussion. I don’t think many business owners are thinking about this yet, but they need to be!