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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Warning! Are you too close to your customer?

It is hard to argue with the positives of a close working relationship with your customer.

It can deliver value, innovation and efficiency for the taxpayer and the contractor.

But there are dangers as discussed in my last blog that reviewed a Washington Post article about the relationship between a government official and one of his contractors.

A commenter who described him or her self as a “retired consultant” said close relationships are bound to develop and “that is good. But the legal boundaries are CLEAR and failure to respect them is clearly and simply WRONG.”

David Frenkel, of Reston, Va., blamed corporations for not taking their ethics policies seriously.

“When professional relationships don’t pass the smell test they should be reviewed and actions taken to reduce the chances of embarrassment to the company or worse,” he said.

Both comments sparked several questions for me:

First, what are the warning signs of a relationship that is too close?

Second, what do you do about it? Especially, if it is an important customer and your employee is a big earner?

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Aug 10, 2009 at 9:53 AM

Reader Comments

Fri, Aug 14, 2009 PQ Washington metro area

Should one befriend their cusotmer on the social sites, i.e. facebook, twitter, etc.?

Tue, Aug 11, 2009 Bill Howard Maryland

There is a well defined business development approach using the "customer intimacy model" -- that implies a full understanding of what your customer is trying to achieve so your company can better serve that client. That model does not include intimacy in most widely understood manner. Having served (volunteered) as a county ethics commissioner for eight years I have a clear understanding of ethics laws, federal, state and local and they do not focus on morals - they center on conflict of interest and financial responsibility. Government ethics offices have tended to "over interpret" ethics laws to the point that they intimidate government personnel -- with the result that they make the government workers feel like criminals when they are not. I would be very careful to concentrate on how well a government contract served the client, rather than attempting to smear people who have spent their career making a contract work. Clear ethical guidance and training is needed on both the government and contractor side, but let's keep the real intent of the ethics laws in mind while offering that guidance.

Tue, Aug 11, 2009 Retired Consultant

I find this topic fascinating, not because it is complex, but because so many people try to pretend it is. Someone else used the phrase "the smell test" and I have to concur. We know it when we see it! 1. Further, it is definitely in the interest of both customer and company to find an appropriate balance. BOTH parties can find their reputations damaged as well as legal ramifications if they cross the line. 2. A relationship is too close if after-hours communication and activity is the norm rather than an exception. An occasional, GROUP luncheon, picnic, happy hour, or dinner event is reasonable. Emails, phone calls, and get-togethers at home, after hours and on personal topics are all warning signs. While they may occur occasionally for good reasons, they should not become routine. If they do, something is wrong. It is always good to remember that if you have a contractor who is really good at what they do, they will have no problem re-competing for their work and they will not need help to do it.

Tue, Aug 11, 2009 Charles VA

The key to any relationship in this arena is to remain professional and act in an ethical manner. When the relationship becomes personal, which often they do, both parties have to understand the boundaries and abide by them. Attaining a competitive edge through professional relationships is perfectly acceptable behavior for a contractor and Gov't representative. This type of relationship facilitates good communication and exchange of information that are critical to delivering what the customer needs in the way of contractor support. Common sense should be used by all parties. Unfortunately, common sense is not a common virtue in some of these scenarios.

Tue, Aug 11, 2009

This is a rediculous comment. A company can not ever be too close to a customer. If a realationship becomes "too close" it is up to the buyer/agency to back off. Companies should do all they can to grow a relationship -- that's the way the game is played. And if a company doesn't play that way, they might remain "clean" but also without business.

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