The biggest struggles I and many of my clients have had are around setting and navigating boundaries in business. The client that asks for extras–and you feel queasy inside as you say “Ok…I guess that wouldn’t be that big of a deal”. The person who wants to trade with you and you say yes…even though you don’t really want what they are offering all that much, but you don’t know how to say no. The person who asks for a discount and you reluctantly agree and then kick yourself later. The project that just keeps growing and growing, and you charged a flat fee. The client who always shows up late and you end up giving them a full hour session but part of you doesn’t want to but you didn’t know how to navigate the situation.
These situations all involve boundaries.
In every relationship, boundaries are what make it healthy and functional. Business is the same; you have to know who you are and who you are not, what you will do and what you will not. You need to know how to set, reset, and negotiate boundaries. Boundaries serve to keep your business functioning smoothly, and keep you from burning out.
Don’t underestimate how hard setting boundaries can be. A plan helps.
The clearer you can become internally, the more solid and clear you can be with your clients. I suggest writing down your boundaries in a “Boundaries Plan”.
Here are some examples of business boundaries:
- My minimum project fee is $2000.
- I customize WordPress blogs, but don’t work with other blog software.
- I’m not open to trades at this time or I only take on one trade client at a time.
- I see people for a minimum of six visits.
- I fix bugs in my software free for six months and then charge my normal hourly rate of $X.
- You must notify me 24 hours in advance to cancel, otherwise I will charge you for the session.
Your boundary plan can include more subtle boundaries as well.
- I will turn down clients who want a rush job; my project turnouround time is 4-6 weeks.
- I will turn down clients who ask me to sell myself to them; I let my work samples speak for themselves.
- I will gauge where people are in their process and suggest X if they are not at least at stage Y.
- I won’t work with people who communicate only via phone or who can’t provide a written spec for their project.
Your boundary plan can also include boundaries you make between your business and your life, such as:
- I don’t work on Sundays.
- My max client load is 3 active projects.
- I won’t answer the business phone line after 6pm, or if I’m eating lunch.
- I don’t do trade shows.
Some people will test your boundaries. Most just won’t know where they are until you tell them.
Most of the trouble people get into is not actually from someone pushing their boundaries. It’s the fear that comes before you even set them. That fear can keep you from spelling them out clearly enough to be understood. It can also lead to defensiveness when you state them–which muddies the water and makes people uncomfortable.
Sometimes people will push, but I’ve found that the stress and awkwardness of that is directly proportional to how clear you are in yourself. If you can stay neutral when you communicate your boundaries, then they will nearly always be respected.
Writing them down and really owning them for yourself will help you stay neutral and communicate them clearly without defensiveness or other sticky energy.
For tricky boundaries, create procedures and policies that you lead clients through.
When I did web design, I had a “Designer’s Readiness Checklist”. It outlined everything people needed to have in place before they contacted me. Then I had a worksheet people filled out that asked them key things about their project. In essence my boundary was, “I don’t take on strategy or organization, I just do the design part”. What my clients saw was a clear procedure they were led through that helped them get organized and think strategically.
My clients appreciated the structure and it served to weed out clients who were not organized or didn’t yet know what they wanted.
For in-person situations, practice your replies.
I spent several years learning how to say no to people who wanted to work with me but I didn’t for whatever reason. It was really hard for me, and then I got really good at it. What helped me the most was finding the right wording–the kind nobody can argue with and I didn’t have to explain:
After reviewing the details of your project, I don’t think we’re a good fit to work together. I recommend …
I had a few different wordings and list of recommendations for different occasions and I kept them stored as snippets in my email program.
Another area I practiced was not giving off-the-cuff project quotes over the phone. If someone asked how much they thought I would charge I would give my standard range (the same one listed on my website) and say I would have to review their project in more detail before I could give a more accurate quote. If they pressed, I would state that I made it a policy to not give quotes on the phone because I know from history that they are not accurate.
When you use the word “policy”, people usually get the hint. If you say in some way, “This isn’t about you, this is for everybody”, then it becomes much harder for them to take it personally.
Pay attention to queasiness, dread, procrastination: these can indicate a need for a boundary.
The more aware we are of what is going on, the more we can do about it. If you are not aware of your boundary, your unconscious will follow its usual patterns–procrastination and avoidance. These are not usually very clear or effective, and take a lot of energy.
Sometimes you have to find boundaries from the outside in. For example, I learned to notice that if I had a client inquiry email that I was procrastinating for more than a week on replying to, that meant that I probably didn’t want to do the project for some reason that wasn’t immediately obvious to me. Procrastination became an indicator to check in with myself , validate that it’s perfectly OK to be choosy, and make a decision that worked for me. (This was a much better strategy than letting it sit there for another week and have my subconscious struggle with it while I started to feel guilty about not getting back to them.) I learned to notice the early warning signs that I was feeling uncertain about setting a boundary, and then just get it over with.
Set boundaries early and often. And don’t hesitate to renegotiate.
When appropriate, work your boundaries into your website and client emails. Don’t assume people will know where they are, and don’t get offended if they assume a different boundary: just educate them in a calm, neutral way. Usually their response will be, “Oh, I didn’t know!”.
And if you forget or slip or are just having a bad boundaries day (stress can cause us to get weak about our boundaries), it’s always OK to say, “Hey, I apologize, I made a mistake when I said …. What I should have said was ….”.
Your boundaries are yours alone–they are what fit you.
Every industry and culture and family and human grouping in general has standards of behavior, and most people tend to assume they are shared. If you don’t share them, feelings of being wrong can get in the way of asking for what you need and setting up clear expectations.
It doesn’t matter what works for someone else, or what someone else expects. What matters is what works for you so you can serve your clients and stay happy. Get really honest with yourself–what do you need to feel nurtured and healthy in your business? What do your clients need to know so your work together goes smoothly and serves you both? It’s OK to ask for that.
Outer boundaries stem from inner boundaries.
Before you can clearly state to another what you want and need, you have to validate and own that your needs and wants are OK. If you don’t have that internal validation, you will not be able to communicate clearly to others.
If you struggle with this, invest in self-care, and evaluate your beliefs about what you have the right to ask for and expect from your life. Is it OK to be 100% happy and satisfied with your life and your work? Or does that make you selfish? What do you really believe, and does it support you?
Having clear boundaries will save you money, stress, and time.
Having a good niche is the first step in finding perfect customers: it’s the attractor. Boundaries are the other side of the coin. They redirect the “not a good fit” customers and make it clearer who your ideal customers are. They provide your business with integrity and keep everything running smoothly. And they take care of the human vessel that is making all of this happen.
Boundaries also make your business more appealing, because you come across as professional, “together”, and have some structure for people to interact with. Think about interpersonal relationships–we are all wary around someone who is not clear on their boundaries. The same is true in business–the more clear, communicative, and neutral you are about your boundaries, the safer your clients will feel. They’ll know what to expect, and be able to make clean choices.
What kind of boundaries do you need to set?
Thanks so much for writing this– the more experienced I get, the more clear I become on my boundaries with customers. But I still have to practice letting go of the outcome of communicating my boundaries– I know what happens when I don’t pay attention to them.
I also think that sometimes it takes experience for me to see where my boundaries are, as in “I won’t work on a $1500 website again”.
I think it’s a great idea to have a written boundaries plan!
Erin Donley says
I can’t thank you enough for this… boundaries in both personal and professional life is something I am constantly learning about and experiencing the impact of my choices. It feels SO GOOD to say, Hey this is my own business, so I am going to serve others in a way that works best for ME. When I encounter other business people’s boundaries, it actually makes me feel more safe and secure in doing business with them. Brings a grounded nature to running a heart-centered business.
Lara Zuehlke says
Thank you so much for this insightful article (and others on your blog)! My business partner and I just went to the SBDC yesterday to begin our journey in taking our business from idea to incorporation. So the timing of this article is so perfect and gives us even more to ponder as we develop our framework for growth and service.
Great, great, great article! This definitely came at the right time for me, and a few specifics hit home. I am totally procrastinating on a project at the moment and didn’t realize that it could mean that I just really shouldn’t be working on it. I like the idea of having a list of boundaries, and also the list of responses to have after talking with a future client. It is not easy saying no, but having responses prepared is a great approach.
Thanks for the great article. You obviously put a lot of attention into it.
Thanks so much for the comments! I’m glad it resonated for people, it’s a post that has been a long time coming. =)
@Lara – congrats and good luck with your new biz!
I wish I’d found this years ago! Most of my custom work ends up being trial-by-error when it comes to customer interaction–it seems I learn something new about how to tweak my business policies each time I take on a new client–but now I have a better idea how to approach those sticky situations and maybe avoid them altogether. Thank you!