Thursday, October 2, 2008

"Nice" is a Double-Edged Sword

I've been thinking a lot lately about being nice--and how niceness affects my business. Is being "nice" good for your business, or does it hurt you? And are women entrepreneurs and businesspeople under more pressure to be nice than men?

A disclaimer here: I am not advocating being mean or treating people badly. I'm not even saying you can't get to know your clients better--or even have clients become friends. But in those relationships, business still has to come first, and things can get cloudy if either party doesn't understand this.

One of the reasons why I had such a hard time changing my mindset when I first started freelancing was that a lot of sound business practices jarred with my idea of who I was and how I was supposed to act. In those days, I knew myself as a friend, a sister, a daughter, a girlfriend. In all of those roles, niceness and kindness would get me ahead--and putting myself first, although necessary sometimes, was something I had to do diplomatically and usually brought at least a little guilt. I'd just graduated from college. I was just getting used to myself as an employee, and I didn't know myself at all as a business owner or service provider.

And a few things I knew I had to do in those roles didn't sit well with me. Take marketing and sales, for example. I felt weird telling people how great I was. In my past life as a student, I was used to doing a really good job and having recognition come to me in the form of good grades and awards. It never occurred to me that I would have to push people to give me what I wanted instead of working really hard to deserve it and hoping they noticed. But that's how people succeed in the business world.

When it comes to client relations, I've been thinking about niceness lately and its worth. I'm not convinced that being "nice" is such a great selling point. If I were hiring a writer, I wouldn't care how nice she was. I would care if she got results. And I'm not saying that we should all go around being rude to people, throwing rocks at squirrels and making babies cry. I never say anything to clients that's less than civil, even when I'm refusing a request or demanding a late payment. But I also don't back down on my business terms, don't give freebies, and don't cave under pressure.

These are qualities opposite of what you'd call nice. Nice people make personal exceptions all the time. Nice is unselfish. And although unselfishness is an admirable quality, you have to be careful when someone demands it of you. When people expect you to be nice or act surprised that you're not being nice, it's usually because they want and expect you to put their needs before yours. And in a business situation, sometimes that's not a great idea.

Sometimes I suspect that niceness and professionalism sometimes clash in values. Businesspeople have to guard against being taken advantage of, but friends should trust each other. This is why I never do business with friends. I do favors.

I've always been nice and friendly to clients. I like to have fun, let my personality show through, and get to know people. And often that solidifies the business relationship. But nice can be a double-edged sword, leading some to think you can be taken advantage of.

I'm sure if I say that women face the expectation to be "nice" rather than professional more than men do, I'll get a few protestations from guys. And I'm sure there are guys out there who have experienced the same thing. But it's a commonly held belief that women are more often expected to be nice, to grant favors, to smile. Friendliness in women is more often mistaken for an invitation to take advantage. And women are more often penalized as being "mean" if they're assertive.

What do you think? Have you faced expectations to be nice in the past? Has being nice helped or hurt your business? Are niceness expectations different for women? And what does "being nice" mean for your business?


Myric said...

There's a difference between "nice" and "pushover" but most people don't know the difference. Took me years to figure that out!
Generally, I'm friendly and nice with my boss, co-workers and clients. I will often give in to requests that will take me fifteen minutes or less to complete, and I'll usually do it with a smile (figuratively, anyway). A simple fix, tweak or bit of polish to something can often make the difference between a satisfied client and a satisfied client who calls you again for their next project.
Any requests that will take more that fifteen minutes of my time, I'm all business. I'm nice about it, but I've learned the hard way that if you let someone talk you into providing your time for free, even once, they'll come to expect it every time they want something.
By nature I'm a nice person, too, and I don't like having to sell myself and my skills every time I seek work. I went back to working for "the man" for my primary income so I wouldn't have to feel like I was shoving myself into potential clients' faces on a regular basis. I still freelance, but on my terms - at least until "the man" drives me nuts enough times again.
If you let yourself be taken advantage of, you most certainly will be. Conversely, if you stand up for yourself and your interests, and tell your clients/employers that your time is as valuable as theirs, they will respect you.
I think it definitely helps to develop a healthy ego, where you sound (and feel!) confident about your skills without being arrogant or egotistical.
Nice blog, just started reading it a week ago!

Kimberly Ben said...

Jennifer this is a problem for a lot of women in business I'd imagine. It's certainly something I struggle with at times. But My husband is a good barometer letting me know when I'm being "too nice" in business.

Mark Wiehenstroer said...

I wouldn't use the term 'nice' for a business relationship. I think nice should be reserved for family and friends as you say in this post. Also add to that the fact the definition of nice will vary by individual. Cordial, respectful, and professional are terms I would strive for in a business relationship. I do agree clients can become friends but need to be treated as clients ('good' or 'preferred') while conducting business. The bottom line is that it's a fine line.

Unknown said...

I'd say you are a nice person, Jen, but I don't want to piss you off. LOL!

Nice has helped only when I'm interviewing people. They seem pleasantly surprised that I engage them beyond the questions and befriend them in a way. It's my secret weapon - they open up like a bag of Oreos in a kindergarten class!

Cordial helps. Cordial is what you want to project because cordial people will treat you with respect, but they have boundaries and it's assumed that they'll cordially rip your heart out if you stiff them on an invoice... ;))

Nice women get hit on. Plain and simple. I found this out through too many years of being friendly to male colleagues only to then fend off unwanted advances or crude propositions. Not all men react that way, but a nice woman is a magnet for men behaving badly.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Myric: It's funny, but I am not an aggressive marketer. I market maybe once a year and it consists of a Google search and a few cold emails, and I usually land a client from that who turns into a regular and gets me through a dry patch (knock on wood). Granted my overhead is really low...I don't own a house or have kids. Most of my business comes from regulars, referrals, and people who found me online through one of my articles or this blog. Do an article marketing campaign sometime and see what happens--maybe you can escape "the man" sooner than you think!

@Avid: I talk things like this over with my bf a lot too. By now he could probably write his own blog on freelancing.

@Mark: it really is, and I have to admit I get nervous doing projects for friends because I'm afraid they'll expect something I can't deliver for free, get all huffy if I need them to sign a contract or give me a deposit, and the relationship will get ruined. I usually do small things for free for really good friends. So far, nobody's asked me to do something so big I'd have to charge.

@Lori: I totally agree, cordial is the way to go. It's tough when you're outgoing and kind of gregarious and you meet a client who's the same way, but I've found I need to keep reminding myself not to be TOO friendly. It's all about keeping things professional.

Star Lawrence said...

Interesting. I would say I have a rep as being outspoken, which isn't always nicey-nice. But I try to be pleasant when dealing with people, email right back, casual, readable. I would want to work with me! But I do ask for half on deposit on non-article jobs and very nicely use the word dealbreaker. Recently, I turned down some pay on pub stuff--said it didn't fit my business model, which involved eating daily. Re some other comments, I have problems in working with friends--something you tell them with your friendship hat on can slam back at you when it comes to the business side. Very tricky. But I do believe one hand washes the other--for another cliche. If you are nice to me, send me a job listing or clipping, or interesting article, I will do the same.

Anonymous said...

I think women are expected to be "nice" and cave in to exceptions (or be called a bitch), while men are supposed to be cordial.

I look at it this way -- I'm nice to the people important in my life, and to the people with whom I interact on a daily basis, like the newsstand vendor or the deli guy.

I'm polite, professional, and assertive in work relationships.

At the theatre, I'm known for being the nicest person in the world - until you cross me and are unprofessional. And then the Hellbitch comes out. Backstage is always a mix of personal and professional because they're so closely intertwined.

In freelance writing, it's much easier to delineate, especially with business clients. It can get murkier in fiction settings, such as conferences, workshops, or writing groups, and more of a tightrope.

It's all about boundaries, common sense, and, again, clear communication.

Anonymous said...

Women especially, we're raised to be "nice" because the only other alternative is that word that rhymes with witch--it's a double standard!

That said, I believe that you get more flies with honey, yes, but that there are times you've got to be strong!