You want to establish solid and friendly relationships with your clients, but you have to be very careful of how far you take it. Completely letting your guard down can be a mistake, especially in the current environment where technology offers the opportunity for everybody to know everything in an instant. First and foremost, never do anything that's going to compromise your client’s view of you as a professional.
Don't assume that your client will overlook something you do or say, simply because the relationship has been ongoing for a long time. No matter how close you may think you are with the client, always be on your best behavior and don't share too much information. Here are some tips for navigating these social interactions:
1. Be cautious on social media.
Because you can be judged by not only by what you post but what your other connections post, social media presents a potential minefield.
If your client has a business Twitter account and Facebook account, follow those accounts to show your interest and monitor what's being said.
Connecting on LinkedIn, which was designed for professional interaction, is also worthwhile. But keep business connections away from your personal account. Think about all the things that end up on your timeline and in your news feed. Do you really want your clients to see photos of you at a college keg party that one of your friends decided to share as a fun Throwback Thursday post?
2. Don’t mix your worlds.
If you're planning to take out a client or even invite him or her to your home (and this shouldn’t happen until your relationship is well-established), limit the other guests to other business associates related to this client.
Steer away from inviting your fun neighbor or sister-in-law, who, after having a few beers will start regaling your client with tales about the night you both decided to smoke some pot while the kids were asleep in the other room.
3. Be on guard at personal functions.
If a client invites you to a family function such as a wedding, Bar Mitzvah or confirmation, do your best to attend. Make sure your gift is generous (although not overly so). Arrive on time and don't be the first to leave -- or the last.
Although this is not officially a business event, in reality it is for you. Keep conversations with other guests very light and do not under any circumstances pitch your business to anyone. Should another guest want to discuss your services, provide a business card, suggesting this person call you at your office at his or her convenience.
4. Decline invitations delicately.
Saying no can be dicey, but sometimes it must be done. Going out for an occasional drink after work is fine, as long as you don’t get drunk. But some clients will use you to try to support their social budget. If they start to invite you out repeatedly within a short period of time, it is fine to politely decline some of these requests.
It's acceptable to say, “I’m sorry, my husband and I have a function.” Or try, “Can we do it another time? My wife is just returning from a business trip.”
If the client is inviting you to do something you find objectionable like going to a strip club or a poker game, have a gentle conversation that will end those invitations entirely. Don’t be bullied. Some people like to see how far they can push you.
If you stand up for yourself and don’t give in to requests that you really don’t want to go along with, the client will likely respect you more. And if the person doesn’t, consider if this is a client you really need.
5. Travel together carefully.
Occasionally you may need to attend a conference or go on a business trip with a client. Fully relaxing in this person's presence is completely out of the question.
Think you may be end up at the pool? No dressing in thongs, Speedos or bikinis. In fact, avoid showing up in a bathing suit.
Hanging out at the bar to unwind? Give yourself a two-drink maximum. Your client doesn’t need to have funny stories about you on the road -- especially since that may prompt him or her to share them to a new vendor after firing you.