By Dave Mattson
Hidden in the uproar over Mark McGwire’s admission that he used steroids was a lesson for sales professionals. You might remember the moment, which has been replayed over and over: When McGwire hit his record-breaking homerun, Sammy Sosa—one of the Cardinal slugger’s opponents—raced in from the outfield to hug him. It “looked great on TV,” one of Sosa’s Cubs teammates said recently, but the other Chicago players “didn’t appreciate it.” Sosa forgot an important rule of sports, of sales and of business generally: Your meter’s always running.
For a while there, Sosa forgot that he and McGwire weren’t on the same team—except perhaps in these two multimillionaires’ joint pursuit of baseball immortality. Sosa crossed the line between friend and friendly opponent, just as sales professionals sometimes forget that they can have friendly relationships with their customers, but they can’t really be friends.
This can be hard to remember, especially when you are dealing with clients of long standing. No matter how tempting it can be, you can never let down your guard. Of course, you will become friendly with some of your customers. The good feelings that result will change the dynamics of the relationship, but they can never be allowed to change the nature of the relationship. No matter how comfortable you become with each other, your relationship is still that of buyer and seller.
As you and your customer get to know each other better, you will become more comfortable in each other’s presence. You will learn to relax together, and in many cases, it is probably a good thing that you do.
But the moment you forget the nature of your relationship, problems arise—problems that can destroy not only your business relationship but also any warm and fuzzy feelings you might have developed. Your customer, for example, will start asking for favors. They’ll want a break on price, maybe, and if you don’t give it, their feelings will be hurt. They’ll take offense. And once that has happened, it is almost impossible to get the relationship back where it was.
Some people, of course, take this to an extreme, especially in sports. The Cardinal pitcher Bob Gibson was so competitive he refused to make friends with his own teammates. He figured they might someday be on different teams, and he’d have to face them. He didn’t even share secrets with other Cardinal pitchers, because, if they were traded, he didn’t want them to use what they’d learned against him.
Extreme? Probably, but you have to admire his professionalism.