Donald B. Stephens is a 30-year senior customer service engineer with the Xerox Corporation. In this guest post, he shares a few things he learned the hard way during his time on the field. 

Early in my career, I had a client who was the dream customer. “Bill” was always cordial and understanding when things got busy and response time suffered. “That’s the way it goes sometimes,” he’d say when experiencing more problems than normal with his equipment. We were soon talking more about sports than service. Then a dangerous condition came over me, one that would teach me a lesson I would have to learn again and again: I had begun to view Bill as a friend — not as a customer.

I was shocked when my boss called me into his office to ask why Bill had asked for another tech, since I wasn’t giving him the priority he deserved. It was untrue, but Bill had misconstrued my openness and expectation that, as a friend, he’d understand as a lack of empathy for his equipment problems. Don’t stumble into the same trap as I did. Here are five tips to balance customer relationships and company obligations:

1. Keep it Light

In my line of service, we see the same customers day after day. You get to know them very well, and they sometimes become more like coworkers than clients. Sharing personal struggles is sometimes unavoidable, but keep it in check. Never turn to customers as the first outlet to share a tragedy or a stressful situation. It will lead to vulnerability, which could cloud your perspective.

2. Don’t Make Excuses

This is where I went wrong with Bill. When we connect with a person, we want to please them, and that can lead to guilt when we can’t provide prompt service. Don’t let this become an excuse for why you can’t get to your “friend’s” problems quickly. Customers want an ETA, not an excuse — no matter how valid.

3. Call a Coworker — Not a Customer — to Vent

You just found out that your workload has doubled and your benefits will be cut. Your manager messaged you and wants to discuss “questionable expenses” on your expense report. To top it all off, a traffic jam has caused you to be late to your next job. DO NOT EXIT YOUR VEHICLE. Call a coworker, spouse or therapist. Everyone needs to vent, but customers shouldn’t be involved in the process.

4. Remember: You Are Your Company

Because we let our guard down around friends, we tend to give them the scoop on things that affect our jobs. Avoid giving TMI, especially company-related, to customers. Confiding that your boss is on your back about parts usage will only create doubt in the customer’s mind as to whether you are skimping on their equipment.

5. Friends Won’t Fire You, But Customers Might

A friend won’t fire you. It’s an axiom intended to convey the customer retention power of friendships, which is sound advice. But it needs a balanced approach that includes good business sense and perspective. It’s then that we can begin to create healthy, lasting relationships with our customers.