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The Nature of Strong Business Relationships

While there are similarities between personal and business relationships, they are significantly different in a number of important aspects. Many people have found this out the hard way and ruined, what otherwise would have been, a wonderful long-term relationship with a client. Following are 2 ways that business relationships are similar to personal relationships and 6 ways they are different.


  1. Time: They both require time to develop. Just as you can’t expect to have a strong personal relationship after one or two encounters, you can’t create a strong business relationship at a single networking event. Networking events are for introductions, not instant business.

  2. Mutual Respect: No personal relationship can survive without mutual respect and neither can a business relationship. When one party starts feeling devalued, it’s usually the beginning of the end.


  1. Value Exchange (Mutuality): This is the #1 difference between business and personal relationships. All business relationships are built on value exchange---usually money in exchange for a product or service. While there is some element of mutuality in personal relationships equal value exchange is rarely a reality.

  2. Boundaries: The boundaries of a business relationship are narrower. As personal relationships develop, boundaries tend to widen, but this is not as true for business relationships.

  3. Accountability: This is a prerequisite for business relationships---meaning both parties need to keep their word. While this is also important for personal relationships, friends and loved ones tend to be more forgiving.

  4. Reliability: This means being on time, being prepared, taking responsibility, etc. Again, some leeway in personal relationships, very little in business relationships.

  5. Emotional Support: Business associates are less apt to make allowances for your personal problems; especially if they interfere with the products or level of service you provide. If you don’t keep up your end of the value exchange (for whatever reason) the relationship is over. On the other hand, if you can find a way to maintain the same level of service through a personal crisis, you should expect support from business associates. Sharing some elements of your personal life is a good thing, especially those elements that you have in common. A good rule is that if you think you’re about to share too much, stop yourself. If you already have, let it go. Don’t apologize or over-explain.

  6. Loyalty: Friends and business associates can both be loyal, but with business associates, there is less certainty and there are more conditions. Loyal business associates will pay a little more for your products and services than they would pay to your competitors, but not much. If a competitor approaches your client with a much better deal, a truly loyal client will give you the opportunity to match the offer.

This is not to say that good business relationships are superficial. They most definitely are not. They are just different and that’s the way it should be. Problems with business relationships arise because one or both parties either don’t understand the differences or don’t know how to develop a business relationship at all. They expect that business relationships will fulfill their need for companionship; survive the ups and down in their personal lives; accommodate bad behavior, support a lopsided value exchange, etc.

Developing good long-term relationships with your clients is simple: maintain an even value exchange; don’t cross boundaries; keep your word; be on time; keep your personal problems to yourself; and know the limits of loyalty. The adage is Be friendly, but never a friend. The good news is that you actually can be a friend, just a different kind of friend.

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