Volume 39, Issue 5, May 2004
I'll Be Your Best Friend
Making and Keeping Real Friends in Business
by Dez Farnady
When my children were young I would occasionally hear one of them or their friends whine when they wanted something. When there seemed to be no other way to get what they wanted, the final plea was to offer the bribe of all bribes: “Please, I’ll be your best friend!” Clearly, the value of friendship was established as the greatest bargaining chip. It took them only a few years to realize that kind of friendship was the least valuable thing they had to offer.
Throughout our lives we all have to learn the value of friendship and as we get older we find out that true friendship has to be earned and it is a two-way street. Harold Witkin, a legend in this business (see the January 2002 USGlass, page 12), always told his salespeople to go out and make friends. Easier said than done, but after all the years I have spent in this business I am fortunate enough to be able to say that I have acquired some pretty good friends.
Lunchtime, Sales Time
Back when I was still pounding the pavement and knocking on doors we had the benefit of some pretty healthy expense accounts. Part of the sales dollar and the process of making friends involved sales calls at lunchtime. This ritual was perceived in many ways. Some customers and some purchasing agents felt as though it was not only an inalienable right but also some sort of tribute paid by the salesman for the privilege of being allowed to take an order. There are some guys to this day who feel they are entitled to choose the restaurant and then pick the wine.
There are customers and salespeople out there who value the time and enjoy the opportunity to talk business in a casual environment without the interruptions of the office. It is pleasant to talk without the phone ringing and avoid the call that cannot be ignored. I have a long history of customer lunches that, over twenty-some years, probably number in the thousands. Some memories are more forgettable than others. There was one former customer who always enjoyed the free meal and acted like a friend but never picked up a tab or bothered to give me an order. Lucky for me others in his firm were regular buyers and his lunches were written off as a political necessity due to his position with the company. Then one day I stopped buying and was not surprised that he really was not much of a friend.
And then there are the businessmen who still have not figured it out. I am sure you probably know some guys out there who want to do business with you by promising to be your best friend.
I quoted a nice project to a good customer one day only to get a call a few days later from some unknown company asking for a price on the same project. There were some discrepancies and inconsistencies between the two requests so I called my old customer for some clarification. He was not a happy camper when he told me that the job had been pulled from his scope of work by the general and evidently the general was shopping the number. We clarified the discrepancies and I quoted the new customer based on what he was asking. Quite a bit later the new customer came back asking me to do him a favor. I was not sure what the favor was to be based upon until he told me that if I solved his problem he would be my best friend.
The old customer and I had a long chat about who was going to be whose best friend. It turns out that this clown shopped all of us and came back because he got the job with a bad number and was blown off by every other supplier. It was a tough job and we were the only one who understood it and were willing to do it. Of course he needed help with the terms, the contract and the money, and if I could do it he promised to be my best friend. Nobody needs friends like that.
On the pleasant side is the long list of customers who would give you some orders and not only pick up the tab now and then to show their appreciation, but also became friends beyond the workday and the business lunch. On occasion, some of the lunches continue to this day, even if we are no longer in the position to do much business with each other.
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