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Selling To a Friend

Sell to a friend? Or not?

Maybe your firm would like to sell to XYZ company and it turns out you have a college classmate who works there.  Maybe you’ve become friendly with someone in a client company for which you’d like to do further work elsewhere in the organization. Maybe a neighbor down the street works for an organization you wish you could sell to.

Can you sell to a friend?  Should you? And even if the answers are ‘yes’ – how do you go about doing it?

The Ethical Quandary

Let’s face this head-on. The reason you’re reading this article in the first place is that you feel somehow squeamish about the prospect of selling to a friend. Part of you feels it’s unfair to take advantage of a friendship for the sake of sales. Or that it cheapens your friendship. More importantly, you’re concerned you might put your friendship at risk by appearing to use it for your own commercial gain.

Worst of all – you’re worried what your friend might think of you.

Well, rest assured: there are some times when it’s wrong to sell to a friend – and there are some times when it’s right. There are ways to tell the difference. And there is a way to do it that minimizes any risk. And when you follow these rules, any ethical quandary disappears.

Let’s be clear. If you’re coldly using a personal connection solely to get business, but you pretend otherwise, and you don’t truthfully much care about the consequences to your friendship, then you are indeed behaving unethically. And we struggle not only to be clear about our own motives, but with how it will appear to our friend. So, how can it be done ethically?

The Brother-in-Law Test

Imagine you’re watching football (your version of ‘football,’ of course) on the couch with your brother-in-law who is over to visit for the holiday weekend. At a break in the action, he asks you, “Listen, your company works in the widget services business. We’re thinking about buying some widget services; who do you think we should be talking to, and what should we be careful about in talking to them? And should we be talking to you guys?”

Most likely, your first response is not “Boy, have I got a deal for you!” You’d probably say something like, “Well, there are several things to think about. We do widget services of course, but there are others as well in that business. The first thing you need to think about is the scale of involvement you want; and next is probably the complexity of your customer base. Depending on those answers, you might want to talk to us, or to someone else.”

In other words, you’d probably approach your brother-in-law in the manner of a trusted advisor – someone who applies his expertise with the best interests of the client in mind. You place the long-term interests of a close relationship (family in this case) over the short-term interests of your business.

And, if you knew your firm wasn’t the best choice for your brother-in-law, you’d probably tell him as much. The point is, you’re more attached to your long-term relationship with family than you are to a sales transaction at work.

So – what’s the difference with a friend?

Selling to a Friend

The correct answer is – there shouldn’t be any difference. If your services aren’t the best fit for your friend’s company, then you shouldn’t be pitching her. And if you really do have the best solution for your friend’s company – then you should be selling it, if only because you’d like to see your friend and her company do well.

The real question isn’t whether you should treat a friend like a brother-in-law – it’s why you would treat any customer any differently?

Making the Sale

Notwithstanding all the above, it can be socially awkward to sell to friends – as much for the friend as for you. Relax, you don’t have to jointly take an ethics course. All you have to do is Name It and Claim It.

Acknowledge the issue out loud, and the elephant in the room disappears. You might say something like, “Look, I realize it could be awkward for us as friends to do business; I have no intention of jeopardizing our friendship, so I’m making this suggestion very mindfully.” Or, “I initially hesitated to raise this given our friendship, but realized I’d be cutting you off from something valuable if I didn’t speak up.”

In sum: if you wouldn’t sell it to your brother-in-law, don’t sell it to your friend. And if you would sell it to either one, say so, and say clearly why you’re doing it. If it’s the right thing for your friend to buy, then it’s the right thing for you to sell – to your friend as much as to anyone else.

Filed Under: Sales

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Trust Hero: Brad Katsuyama, on CBS 60 Minutes

Illustration: Truth and LieMichael Lewis’s new book Flash Boys goes on sale at Amazon this morning, March 31. The headline, as he put it in Sunday’s exquisitely timed CBS 60 Minutes – “The stock market is rigged.”  And it’s rigged in favor of high-frequency traders.

Complaints about high frequency trading are not new. What is new, to nearly all of us, is the story of an unlikely trust hero that Lewis profiles, and the amazing response to HFT that he is developing.

Brad Katsuyama, a Canadian employee of Royal Bank of Canada, ran the New York trading desk for RBC. He noticed that the trading action was as if someone was constantly front-running him, causing him higher prices to fill orders, and thus higher costs to his customers. He soon found the problem was endemic in the industry.

He teamed up with an Irish fiber networks expert. The two of them and their team figured out how it all worked. Firms like Spread Networks had figured out how to lay enough fiber cable to allow just milliseconds of advantage – enough to notice an order from someone like RBC, then quickly get in front of that order at other exchanges, and buy-then-sell the same stock before the victim’s trade, running on slower networks, could get filled.

It is, as Lewis says, “legalized front-running.” And it was clearly worth billions.

Trust Motives

Now comes the trust part. Katsuyama and his team figured out how to beat the front-runners by spreading their orders to all arrive at the same time at different exchanges.  But he wasn’t done yet. He wanted to change the rigged market. Why? “Because it just didn’t feel right. Customers of pension funds and retirement funds are getting bait-and-switched every day.”

Katsuyama quit his million-plus job and set out to found a new exchange. What motivated him – the chance to earn multiple millions more, in good capitalist fashion? No. In his words, “It felt like a sense of obligation; we’ve found a problem affecting millions of people, blindly losing money they don’t even know they’re entitled to.”

They founded IEX, a competitive exchange; using 60 kilometers of cable to disadvantage the HFTs, they beat them at their own game. The exchange is off to a good start, though with lots of powerful enemies.

Selling Trust 

Katsuyama himself is a bit giddy. “To think that trust itself is actually a differentiator in a services business – it’s kind of a crazy idea.”

Of course, it is anything but crazy. As Michael Lewis says, “When someone walks in the door who is actually trustworthy, he has enormous power. And this is about trying to restore trust to the financial markets.”

Exactly. As anyone who’s been reading this blog for years knows, trust sells. Trust scales. Trust creates value. Trust is an enormous competitive advantage.

If you can drag untrustworthy practices out into the sunlight, customers overwhelmingly prefer trustworthy practices. Key investors like David Einhorn agree; Einhorn figures IEX is a winner.

More power to Katsuyama and to IEX. It’s good to have someone you can trust on Wall Street. I would not bet against him.

Filed Under: Trust and Culture | Trust Economics