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.

Are you Hard Selling or Wrong Selling?

“Sell” is a four letter word to most customers. And, less consciously, to most sellers as well. It is not an easy thing to pursue a profession that the dictionary—which after all simply documents what people really mean by a word—pronounces as mean-spirited.

Consider these entries and examples in the dictionary definition of “sell”:

· Sell out
· Hard sell
· Cheat, hoax
· To be employed to persuade or induce others to buy
· To force or exact a price for
· To accept a price for or make a profit of (something not a proper object for such action):
· Sell down the river
· Sell (someone) a Bill of Goods

Common to all those definitions is the root reason people find ethical issues with selling—the absence of a relationship context.

If you’re Robin Crusoe on a desert island, you can be said to live in a non-ethical environment (leaving aside animal rights activists and strict vegetarians for the moment). You cannot behave unethically if there is no relationship to an Other to be violated.

There are more than a few echoes of non-relationship thinking in sales: you can find it in people who define sales as “the fine art of separating the customer from his wallet.” You can also find it in technocratic, process-driven approaches to selling; they have sucked the soul out of sales by removing the relationship component entirely and replaced it with metrics and motivational incentives.

Such approaches go well beyond garden variety “immoral” sales behavior. If I know I’m tricking you, I may feel guilty, or not—but I know enough to pretend otherwise in most situations, I know enough not to admit it to certain people—I know I’m violating a serious social norm by cheating or hustling my fellow man. I am still rooted in relationships, even if I choose to violate them.

It’s completely non-relationship based selling that is non-ethical, or unethical. Those approaches treat the customer as Robinson Crusoe might treat a coconut—perhaps essential to his existence, but with no meaning beyond the nurturance of Crusoe himself. The customer as fodder, or as poker chips.

As the late Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute once said in typically outrageous fashion, “There’s nothing wrong with killing a million people; what’s wrong is killing them without thinking about it.” If you can stand his exegesis, the man had a point.

When selling is decoupled from human affairs, it is desensitized, sanitized, de-humanized; and it becomes an awful thing. The crucial human point of commercial contact—the sale—becomes an occasion simply for extraction of monetary value.

There is danger in over-metricizing process. There is danger in over-using terms like “human capital” which dehumanize humans. There is danger in the perversion of terms like “loyalty” and “relationships” into statistical detritus. There is danger in thinking that physicalist “explanations” like today’s neuro-noun buzzword are somehow more “real” than poetry.

There’s nothing wrong with hard sell. What’s wrong is wrong-sell, done without thinking. And selling without relationships is wrong-sell.