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Career Q&A: When a client wants to be your best friend

Q: I am having an uncomfortable boundary issue with a long-time client who has recently insisted on becoming a close friend.

This client and I worked together successfully for years as friendly long-distance business colleagues. The occasional dinner on business trips was the extent of our in-person socialization. Often we would not communicate for a year or two, but when work brought us together, we always enjoyed working together.

Recently, my client had to move to my city for work. We've gone out with my family a few times. Now I'm informed we are among this client's only local friends, and the client insists on spending social time with us, actually going into an extended pout when we decline invitations.

I want to say, "Look, we have a friendly, collegial business relationship, which I treasure. But we were never friends outside of our business relationship." However, I'm afraid of damaging both the business and the personal relationship.

I'm sure I bear some responsibility for this situation, but it was never an issue until this client moved to my city.

A: If only client contracts included personal relationship clauses, with price-adjusted tiers based on degree of closeness. Then you could negotiate whether to stay in the "occasional dinner out" tier or upgrade to "best buds" status.

I understand why you blended your business and personal spheres to give your valued client a warm welcome. And I can see how a lonely newcomer might misinterpret and cling to your hospitable gestures as a social lifeline. But that doesn't mean you have to cave to over-the-top petulance.

Try transitioning back to business with the "no, but yes" strategy. Start countering or preempting your client's social requests with invitations to, say, a trade show or a local networking event. It will take planning and effort, but actively managing your interactions is how you send the message that this is at heart a business relationship.

If the client forces a conversation on the topic, your response should likewise be business, not personal: "Of course I enjoy your company, and I've been happy to help you settle in. But if you recall, when you were living out of state, we were really only able to get together once a year, if that. Even though we're geographically closer now, my schedule here hasn't changed, and I'm not able to socialize as much as I'd like." Tweak that script to your liking, and be prepared to kindly, warmly stand firm.

With luck, your client's clinginess will ease up over time. If instead things deteriorate to the pout — I mean, point —where you can no longer work together, you may have to hand off your client's business to a well-regarded colleague on the grounds that you're no longer able to fill this client's need(ines)s.

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