Set Boundaries with Clients to Improve Effectiveness
Myth: If you want to be successful in business you must be immediately responsive to client requests, no matter how inconvenient or unreasonable. If you don’t you’ll lose business. Truth: If you want to build a sustainable business, you have the right to establish guidelines that enable you to respond to reasonable requests in a reasonable time frame. The best clients for your business will understand and respect reasonable guidelines.
When business owners are feeling stressed about client demands, I encourage them to establish guidelines for “The Way We Do Things Around Here” (TWWDTAH) to remind them that this is their business, and therefore their right/ obligation to clarify best practices. TWWDTAH guidelines can cover the following situations:
- Responding to requests by existing customers
- Responding to requests from prospective customers
- Establishing working agreements with new clients
- Billing, payment and invoicing
- Pricing services and packages
Three Owners Upgrade TWWDTAH and Improve their Results
The owner of a growing financial planning firm was doing very well, yet was overworked and frustrated by his inability to get a handle on his to-do list. Upon revisiting his business revenue model, he decided it was time to institute an entirely new fee schedule and establish guidelines for 2 distinct levels of service. It took him 3 months to decide upon the new rates and service levels - and to fret and worry - before he launched the year-long endeavor to communicate with clients about these changes.
His biggest fear: upsetting clients he cared about and losing more revenue than he could afford.
The result: Many more people accepted the new fee structure than he anticipated, and the business revenue increase exceeded his expectations.
An accountant who prepares annual reports is establishing new turn-around criteria for long-standing clients. A chronic illness means that she can’t afford to over commit her time and energy. In the past, she’d feel the pressure to respond immediately, and turn it out in 2-3 days. She commented, "I used to make promises, which I could not keep...caused by a lack of energy (almost 80% of these promises failed)." Now she asks clarifying questions so she can find out what is actually needed before establishing a by-when date. In addition, she’s proactively reaching out to a few clients who have treated her like a dedicated assistant or employee, and is establishing new rules of conduct. If they accept, they get to remain clients. If they don’t she’ll happily refer them elsewhere.
Her biggest fear: Clients would see her as weak and unresponsive, and that word would get around and she’d lose business.
The result: Once clients understand what is required and become more realistic about what they’re asking they feel well served, and even express happiness about the turn-around promise. The clients who were treating her like a "personal assistant" are asking for another chance.
A marketing consultant, new in business, realized that if she was going to be successful she must become firmer with setting client expectations and giving feedback or direction. Historically, it had been difficult for her to know what is reasonable. However, motivated by her wish to be successful without compromising her health or time with children, she recognized the importance of slowing down and defining her boundaries. We outlined a list of "checks and balances" for 3 different scenarios.
Her biggest fear: Clients would see her as ineffective and unresponsive, and she’d lose business.
The result: When she uses the “checks and balances” to guide her responses to a new request, or sets out to give direct feedback to a customer, people are both responsive and accepting. She feels more confident and better able to manage often-changing priorities.
Managing Expectations Starts and Ends With You
Not everyone I've coached has been successful in implementing new standards for response. The difference seems to be the degree to which an owner is able to take a breath, first, then ask questions, and WAIT. Once the pressure to respond NOW yields to do, do, do, it's extremely difficult to slow down long enough to become reasonable, yourself.
Those who succeed report that when they institute such guidelines that their stress levels decrease, the quality of work increases, clients are happier and their business is far more sustainable.