One of the fascinations of working with clients and agencies (more broadly, service buyers and service providers) to improve the performance of their business relationships comes from how and where to draw the line between a personal and professional liaison.

Clearly, in strong relationships, connections are formed across a range of touchpoints that embrace both work life and real life. But there can undoubtedly be perils in not recognising some key differences between these two modes of engagement.

For a start, remuneration typically forms part of a business relationship, often leading to a power imbalance or to asymmetric responsibilities for maintenance which cannot be ignored. There is a dramatic difference between service and servility (the latter should not feature in any meaningful association) but the intrinsic equality of a personal association may not be present in its commercial equivalent.

In addition, business alliances are driven by different goals with critical timings, accompanied by clear accountability, even if this is shared collaboratively among the main parties. Our personal alliances tend to arise from the basic human need for love, connection and belonging.

Personal bonds can also last a lifetime, unbound by the regime of the statutory review, unthreatened by the disruption of an organisational restructure. Marriages and the like are not subject to a re-pitch. Maybe they should be! Would this add the spice so often craved within, missing from long-term unions?

As an aside, from a marketing standpoint, the rising divorce rate among over 50s must in some way be linked to marriage, as a product, being designed and launched when we all died aged 45. Today, we are asking this complex item to extend its natural lifespan by as much as 100%. In many instances, this proves impossible.

In the consideration of business and personal relationships, similarities tend to outweigh differences, however. Many of the fundamentals for success are common to both arenas.

Active engagement is key, never taking a relationship for granted. This requires all parties to communicate generously and genuinely, to seek common ground, to ask questions, to listen to the answers, to be adaptable, to look for win-win outcomes, to do what they say they’ll do.

Even constructive conflict, where it stimulates greater empathy and understanding, can play a role in healthy personal and business relationships.

This is how rapport and trust form. When they are in place, anything is possible because the loftiest dreams (and the darkest fears) can be shared in safety.

As such, drawing upon my experience as a consultant, the best approach always is to seek out a commercial relationship first on a personal level. We all prefer to work with people who are capable, from a rational appraisal, but superficially softer criteria must not be underestimated.

In her excellent book, Presence, Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy reminds us that people quickly answer two questions when they first meet us: Can I trust this person? Can I respect this person? Psychologists refer to these dimensions as warmth and competence, respectively, and ideally you want to be perceived as having both.

Most people, especially in a professional context, believe that competence is the more important factor. But in fact, warmth, or trustworthiness, is more significant in how people evaluate us.

“From an evolutionary perspective,” Cuddy says, “it is more crucial to our survival to know whether a person deserves our trust.” In the early days of human evolution, it was more important to ascertain if your fellow cave-dwellers were going to kill you and steal your possessions than if they were skilled in fire craft.

Another helpful distinction, with a focus more on improving existing relationships, is between commitment and satisfaction. The latter, in truth, merely indicates an absence of negative (‘he/she hasn’t shouted at me this week’) rather the positive signs of loyalty which make a relationship special and mutually rewarding. It is ironic that the generic description of the measurement tool for business relationships is ‘customer satisfaction’. Wrong!

I saw this brilliantly captured in a recent issue of The Week, by Esther Perel, a Belgian-born psychotherapist who now lives and practises in New York specialising in couples and family counselling. Interestingly, she has written two best-selling books, one on maintaining desire in well-established relationships (Mating in Captivity), one on infidelity (The State of Affairs). Basically, Esther has it covered!

For her, modern personal relationships come with ever higher expectations, in step with our increasingly demanding culture. In an interview with Miranda Sawyer for The Observer, Perel said: “We have a service model of relationships. It’s the quality of the experience that matters.”

She commented further, with subtlety and insight: “Divorce happens now not because we are unhappy but because we could be happier.”

Stay close to your clients. This is where the bar is being set for some business relationships too.