A decades-long friend of mine who owns a service-providing business made a mistake years ago: she began giving her cell phone number to clients. They almost never called her, of course. They texted her. All the time. Night. Day. Holidays. Weekends. Mind you, she had a normal business land-line set up in her office with a voice mail service that would do just about anything except walk your dog for you but after her clients had her cell phone number, they never called her business line. She may as well have disconnected it except for this one small detail: it’s the number that new clients would call before she gave them her cell number.
One evening when we were out to dinner, she silenced her phone but put it face-up on the table. In no time it began lighting up so much I thought we had somehow been dropped into the middle of Piccadilly Circus. She leveled a long look at me and said, “I hate my clients.” She began slapping herself on the head, neck, shoulders and arms and said, “I feel like I’m being eaten alive by fleas!”
As it happens, I am the person who convinced her to take the leap into entrepreneurship and what I was seeing right before my very eyes wasn’t what I had envisioned for her at the beginning of her career as a small business owner. I mean, hating what you do is for cubicle-dwellers, not creative entrepreneurs. So something had to change or she would begin to lose clients. Why? RESENTMENT.
When you have no boundaries with your clients, they begin to run your life. Don’t ask me why anyone would want to direct someone else’s life - I have enough to do with my own life but there are plenty of people in the world who, sensing an opening, will jump in and begin to take over. What I knew without asking her was that the people who had hijacked her days and nights only amounted to about ten percent of her clients but as I found out the hard way at the beginning of my business ownership, these people are the loudest, neediest and most demanding of all of your clients. Often, you actually have to chase them to collect your fees which makes you grind your teeth even more.
She could fire these clients, of course. I have fired clients myself. But firing ten percent of your customer base is not your best option, is it? The best option is to set firm boundaries from the beginning of your professional relationship with your clients.
Have you ever watched a toddler who has never been given boundaries by their parents? They are miserable little tornadoes, wreaking havoc with everyone, everywhere. In your mind, when you are watching them, you know exactly what they need and are often nonplussed at the parents who didn’t get the memo: set boundaries. Children feel insecure without boundaries and act out in frustration and fear. Adults without boundaries often behave in similar, yet more socially acceptable ways but they are delivering some serious crazy as well.
Would you describe a competent parent who has set limits and expectations with their child as ‘mean’? Of course not. They are executing a kindness because the child feels loved and more secure knowing where they stand within the parameters of the family. The same holds true for your clients. If you allow those noisy demanding clients to ride shotgun over your life, you are going to resent them. And as the resentment you feel for them builds, your relationship with them will be affected no matter how patient, empathetic and kind you are. Ultimately, this dynamic will not end well. Begin every relationship with every client, in the same way, setting clear and non-negotiable boundaries. Here are some examples:
Turn your boundaries into ‘business standards’. This can mean anything from not taking calls or answering texts after a certain time of day, not taking business calls on weekends or holidays and keeping to strict rules about letting clients yammer on about their problems. Identify where and when you feel stressed. THAT is where the boundaries need to be placed because where there is stress, there is no business-standard.
Learn to say ‘no’ and mean it. For example, if a client asks you to do something that they can easily do for themselves and the task does not fall into a category of service you provide, simply tell them ‘no’.
Do not buckle under to manipulation or guilt from a client. Backsliding from your new boundaries is so easy to do. Be on the lookout for situations that may morph into a boundary breach. It’s much harder to reset than it is to establish and hold to your standard.
Why is setting boundaries with clients an ultimate kindness? Because you won’t want to fire them and you won’t hate them and you won’t buy into their chaos and you won’t feel like you are being eaten alive by fleas. You are forcing them in the kindest way possible to give you what you deserve: respect.