Chris, fabulous mother of twins, called me several years ago for a portrait session with her and her family. She left me a message mentioning something about not being happy with her former photographer. As anyone who serves clients for a living knows, when a potential client starts off the conversation with a complaint about someone else they’ve worked with, it’s a red flag. I almost put that follow-up call on the back burner. But something in me had to know her story, and I wanted to see if I could meet her need.
Turns out, we had a great conversation, I showed up, took the photos, they went bonkers over them, and we’ve been friends ever since. They take me on family vacations to document their stories, and we’ve become like family.
Kinship is exactly that — when the people you serve become family. Maybe not every individual you come into contact with becomes a lifelong friend, but you share an affinity and a connection. One that allows you to make decisions based on strengthening that connection over strengthening your bottom line (funny how that bottom line tends to get stronger in the process).
Why would you want to be friends with your clients?
Most business wisdom would say to separate your personal and professional life. It’s not personal, it’s business. Don’t get too close or you won’t be able to make the hard business decisions later.
While it is difficult to make hard choices (that’s why they’re…umm…hard), distancing yourself from having a real connection with the people your nation is serving is not the answer. Kinship requires vulnerability (which can be scary), but it breeds trust, honesty, respect, and the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong. A little emotional risk is worth it.
The three things you need to know to foster kinship
First, I can only experience kinship with people who I have chosen to be in relationship with. That includes the client relationship. We may have a world of differences — if you were to stand me and Chris side by side and look at demographics, political and religious views, etc., you’d think that kinship had no chance — but the potential of a relationship between us needs to be important enough for me to take a risk.
Kinship doesn’t work when I take on a project that I’m ambivalent about because I need the money. It doesn’t work when I acquiesce to someone who is manipulating me or when I say yes to a job because it’s too uncomfortable to say no. I must be aware that I have a choice in who I work with. And I need to make that choice based on the kind of person I want to be and the kind of relationships I want to have — not based on obligation (even the financial kind).
Second, kinship happens when I stop complaining about my clients and start listening to them. Ouch. (I’ll pause while we all nurse our wounds.) It hurts because we’ve all done it. It’s so much easier to complain about how inconsiderate, oblivious, and demanding our clients are. It’s less easy to see how unclear, assuming, and prideful we’ve been.
If I keep having problems with people being late or not paying on time, is it possible that my boundaries are unclear? If my clients aren’t doing what I’ve asked them to do, is it possible they have no idea what my jargon-y instructions mean? If my clients don’t want to pay for work that I’ve done, is it possible that I wasn’t clear about the cost before I started the work?
You are the leader of your nation. You make the rules and you create the structures that need to be in place for everything to operate smoothly. Use every difficult client confrontation as a clue to a new problem that your nation can create a solution for.
Finally, kinship requires love. Love is the only thing that allows kinship to flourish, because its motivation is pure. You can’t fake it. In order to contribute to a client’s project (and their life) in a meaningful way, I need to feel compassion and empathy for the problems they’re experiencing. And that kind of emotional investment is something that can’t be conjured, manufactured, or manipulated.
What Chris needed wasn’t for me to come to her home and wield my camera. That’s just what the initial request looked like. What she really needed was for me to care. Care about what happened before, care about what she wanted, care about her family and the story they shared, and maybe most importantly to care about who she was as a person.
And when I care, I do great things, with the camera and without. Serving becomes less of a buzzword and more of a way of meeting a deeper need than what’s on the surface. And somehow, I get my own needs met in the process.