Is Sharing Caring When it Comes to Clients?

Q: The client of a close friend and member of my networking group approached me about a consulting project. If I take the project on, am I poaching? Should I give my friend a heads-up to give her a chance to revive what may be a fallen relationship?

A: It’s not your job to perform CPR on a colleague’s business relationship, friend or not. However, before moving ahead, make sure everything in this situation is what it appears to be. Information will help clarify your ethical responsibilities.

Ask the potential client where things stand. Did the previous project conclude naturally, with the scope of work completed, including a wrap-up meeting with your friend? If so, let your friend know her old client just tapped you for a project—but keep details to a minimum. It isn’t uncommon or unethical for companies to sample talent by hiring different people.

But if the project your friend worked on had a messy ending—or is ongoing, and the client expects you to step in to finish (or redo) it—there are ethical issues to consider. Would you be compromising your values around trust, integrity or relationships by stepping in on an unresolved situation, especially when a friend is involved? How has the client handled the situation—would accepting the job make you look like you betrayed a friend and took advantage of a relationship stumble? How would you feel if you were dropped from the networking group? That may sound overly dramatic, but until you clarify what’s really going on, you leave yourself open to criticism.

After learning all you can, if you still want the work, call your friend. Tell her you were approached by one of her former clients and you’re considering taking the job. Listen to what she says and go from there in terms of your decision. It is far easier to avoid ethical problems when we look at the total picture of an issue, viewing it from multiple perspectives to see beyond our self-interest to the larger impact.

Q: We signed a contract to deliver a new application of our product. My partner was upfront and said we hadn’t done this type of work before, but after checking with our tech team assured the client we could handle it. I am concerned we can’t deliver.

As a startup, we succeed about 80 percent of the time when taking on new kinds of work. We don’t disclose the risk to clients because we don’t want them to amend contracts to protect their interests. I’m not worried about being sued if we fall short, but I am uneasy about the ethics of our process. What do you suggest?

A: This sounds like an ideal time for your leadership team and investors to sit down and look at the pros and cons of your current system, which hands all the risk to your customers. This undermines whatever other efforts you may be making to promote ethical behavior in the organization. What if the focus of the meeting, to borrow from leadership guru Stephen Covey, is “Think win-win”?

Some items you should discuss when thinking about an ethical work environment and customer trust: What threats are likely to emerge from the current way of doing business as you grow? What collaborations, resources, approaches or standards could be leveraged to increase the tech team’s ability to successfully build experimental products? When leaders give assurances to customers, what should that mean? What values do you hold yourselves accountable for as you develop products and client relationships? How can more transparency benefit your company and your customers?

Taking a leap of faith is part of the entrepreneurial DNA, and “thinking win-win” makes it enduring, increasing the likelihood of a sustainable business and fostering customer loyalty.