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” (but you know that it is).
- The person who wants to trade with you and you say yes…but you don’t really want what they are offering.
- 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 and then feel cheated.
These situations all involve boundaries.
In every relationship, boundaries are what make it healthy and functional. Business is the same. 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 become internally, the more solid and clear you will 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.
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 in place before contacting me. Then I had a worksheet that asked them key things about their project. 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 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.
Finding the right words is invaluable. For example, I struggled to learn how to say no to prospective clients that weren't right for me instead of getting involved in projects I didn't enjoy. What helped the most was finding the right wording–the kind nobody can argue with:
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 a list of recommendations that 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. It communicates: “This isn’t about you, this is for everybody”, so it becomes much harder for them to take it personally.
Pay attention to queasiness, dread, procrastination: these can indicate a need for a boundary.
Awareness creates chocie. If you are not aware of your boundary, your unconscious will follow its usual patterns–procrastination and avoidance. These are not clear or effective, and are draining.
Learn to notice the early warning signs of uncertainty about setting a boundary, and then just get it over with.
For example, I noticed that if I had a client inquiry email that I was procrastinating on replying to for more than a week, 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.
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 unconsciously assume they are shared. If you don’t share them, feeling wrong can get in the way of asking for what you need and being clear on what you expect.
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.
Some people will test your boundaries. Most just won’t know where they are until you tell them.
Sometimes people will push, but the stress and awkwardness of that is directly proportional to how clear you are in yourself. If you stay neutral when you communicate your boundaries, then they will nearly always be respected.
Writing them down and owning them will help you communicate them clearly without defensiveness or other sticky energy.
Outer boundaries stem from inner boundaries.
Clarity comes from internal validation of your right to ask for what you want.
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 they protect the human vessel that is making all of this happen.
Boundaries make your business come across as professional and “together”. 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 boundaries do you need to set? Write it down.