Why small business boundaries are important

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Small business is at times, heartbreaking. You bend over backwards for clients. Always going above and beyond behind the scenes which clients don’t see. You work 24/7 including weekends to get things done on time. Perhaps you initially didn’t set clear boundaries as you want to help so bloody much.

You explain the same thing what feels like 57 times – and then the client will send you yet another rude, abusive and disgusting email. Why? Why oh why do people treat us that way?

When I first started my business, I thought I could get some clients to see my point of view. I thought I could change them and help them to truly understand their cash flow and their financial performance.  We anticipated a small transition period for them to understand why we do the things we do, why we ask for receipts/paperwork, why we keep track of emails, why their accounting software has to reconcile properly, and why we don’t just make shit up. My boundaries were clear (or were they?).

And then when clients didn’t understand why we did those things, the abusive emails would start.

“Just lodge it with the ATO, just do what I say, who cares about the paperwork, you are wrong, your team is useless, you don’t know what you are doing. You are ruining my business. You clearly don’t care.” The list goes on.

Now, thankfully over the years we haven’t had many clients like this, but they exist. And always, every time, I was made to feel like their inadequacies were my fault.  Somehow it was my fault they paid a supplier multiple times (despite us not having bank account access), somehow it was my fault they ran their own reports without asking me. They then made assumptions on the data for the wrong periods, which again was my fault. Somehow it was my fault bills were not paid which were not uploaded to accounting software nor emailed to us. Somehow, I was made to just feel totally useless.

“There is only so many times you can be someone’s punching bag before you just can’t cope any more. And this week, I  hit that threshold.”

Sometimes, you just have to learn the hard way that how others act is a reflection on them, and not on me.  And sometimes you realise too late that you haven’t set clear enough boundaries, as you were just so excited to help them that you thought it would be ok to sort that out later.

So here are my top tips on setting (and sticking to) clear business boundaries so you don’t become someone else’s punching bag.

1. Put it in writing.  Now I don’t mean plastering your boundaries on your office door, or in your email footer or anything crazy. But when you get a new client, stating those boundaries in your engagement letter, or terms of trade are vital.  So these should not just cover payment terms, but your expectations on the client.  How often you need information, how you want to receive the information. what level of involvement you expect of them, what your involvement is, what your working hours are and most importantly, what work or services is not being done.  This is just as much for you as it is for your clients. You need to be on the same page.

2. What are your deal breakers? We all have them – things that we simply won’t stand for. What does that look like for you?  Now these, I totally suggest writing them out/printing them out and plastering them all over your office wall.  Next time you receive a new lead and have a phone chat – look at your deal breakers.  Are they already breaking any – and if so the alarm bells should start to ring.  Remind yourself of the standards you expect your clients to abide by.  My number one = honesty and trust.  As soon as clients lie to me, we are done.

3. What are the hours YOU want to work?  So not the hours your clients want/need you.  What hours do you want to be contacted? Be upfront about this from the start.  You can’t take calls on weekends the first month then just not answer the second month as it will send mixed signals.  If you don’t answer calls after 5pm, great.  But put your phone on divert so that if clients do choose to call then, they can at least leave you a message. Or better still, invest in a virtual reception service to answer your calls during those times you are not working.

4. Have some balls. It is all very well to set boundaries and put them in your terms, but if you don’t stick to them, then your clients will potentially just walk all over you.  If you say you won’t work weekends, then don’t answer client calls on weekends. If you say you won’t start work until payment is received, then don’t start work until you see that cash hit your bank account. Your terms, stick to them.  This is the hardest part…as we all just want to please people.  But for your own sanity, be consistent and stick to your boundaries. Don’t get sucked in to doing things just because a client asks you really really nicely.

5. Have an “A” team around you. For support. Perhaps even a shoulder to cry on. This “A” team should be people you are confident enough to explain ugly situations and get an independent view. A second opinion. Are you being rational, are you being treated poorly, is there an alternative solution. Your “A” team is not there to judge, but to guide and support you.  They are also not there to just “take your side”. Sometimes, they will say things that you might not want to hear. But you know what, that is exactly what you NEED to hear.

6. Have a get out clause. So sometimes, we end up being the punching bag.  For all our good intentions, we simply can’t get clients to stick to our boundaries.  In that case, you need to have a get out clause and break up with the client.  Hanging on, could do damage to your mental health, not to mention lost cash flow, unhappy staff, brand reputation, etc. So always know when the tipping point is, and be confident that by letting that dis-respectful client know where the door is, you are opening another door for a more ideal client.

As a small business owner, we want to help, but sometimes we are just too trusting and nice for our own good.  Sure, we have all the good intentions in the world to put specific actions in writing, or assume clients will pay, or assume they are only rude as they are having a bad day. But we will simply not tolerate verbal abuse. At all. Ever.

“Our staff should not have to feel threatened and ring their family and cry,  because clients are “having a bad day”.”

So please, for your own business, review your boundaries.  Make this a priority.  Make yourself a priority. Review your level of acceptance of client behaviour.  Make sure that the way you are being treated, is the way your would expect to treat others.  If there is a mis-match, make sure you do something about it. Sooner rather than later.

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