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Create a Boundaries Plan for Your Business

When we don't have clear boundaries, we get ourselves in sticky situations where we said yes when we really meant to say no. The clearer you become internally, the more grounded and clear you will be with your clients.
Written Mar 31, 2010, read 2923 times since then.
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The biggest struggles I and many of my clients have had are around setting and navigating boundaries in business.

Examples:

  • 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.

Learn more about the author, Emma McCreary.

Comment on this article

  • Blogging Coach and Copywriter 
Seattle, Washington 
Judy Dunn
    Posted by Judy Dunn, Seattle, Washington | Apr 01, 2010

    Emma,

    This is indeed a masterpiece and will help so many people who struggle with this. It is a difficult thing to do, this boundary setting, but what a sense of relief when you figure it all out.

    Refining our niche helped so much because we can just say, "We don't do that. We specialize in WordPress blogs and websites."

    Beyond that, getting clear about other things—and communicating that to prospective clients—takes a ton of emotional stress and pressure off you. Things like, "It's our policy not to take projects over mid-stream." Because it's just too stressful and too messy to try to fix someone else's mistakes— to unravel things and put them back together.

    I think that sometimes we fear turning down a job or a client, but it just makes operating your business so much more fun, not to mention, as you pointed out, making your clients feel safer.

    Such great advice here, Emma. Thanks for writing this.

  • Yoga Teacher & Therapist 
Portland, Oregon 
E.B. Ferdig
    Posted by E.B. Ferdig, Portland, Oregon | Apr 01, 2010

    Thanks Emma! You've helped me so much in our work together regarding boundaries. And this article is yet more good food for thought! I think these issues are some of the most important info for solopreneurs.

  • Social Media Assistant for Small Businesses 
Cornelius, Oregon 
Kimberly LeRiche
    Posted by Kimberly LeRiche, Cornelius, Oregon | Apr 01, 2010

    Great article, Emma and very timely for me as I've move into make my boundaries more clear for myself and my clients. I appreciate your insights and will keep this in mind should I find myself "straying."

  • SEO Web Content Developer | Copywriter & Conversions Strategist | Professional Brand Consultant 
Bellingham, Washington 
Laura Crest
    Posted by Laura Crest, Bellingham, Washington | Apr 01, 2010

    Emma, You have so adeptly captured the internal strife that drains the entrepreneur who has difficulty with the word "No." What you say about owning your boundaries, and the warning signs that you have allowed their trespass through avoidance and procrastination, helped me to immediately recognize a few sticky situations for what they are, and my responsibility for preventing them in the first place.

    Thank you for articulating so clearly an issue that one so often fails to articulate for themselves!!

  • Holistic Business Coach 
Portland, Oregon 
Taylor Ellwood
    Posted by Taylor Ellwood, Portland, Oregon | Apr 01, 2010

    Good article on boundaries Emma. I think you definitely have that skill down really well.

  • Very Human Photography 
Seattle, Washington 
Anne Herman
    Posted by Anne Herman, Seattle, Washington | Apr 01, 2010

    Thank you! I agree that procrastination is a sign of something, I just hadn't thought of it that way. A really useful piece...

  • Web Designer 
Salem, Oregon 
Emma McCreary
    Posted by Emma McCreary, Salem, Oregon | Apr 02, 2010

    Thanks everyone! I am truly gratified that this articles speaks to people as it's something I had quite an internal journey with. =)

  • Marketing and writing for websites. 
Stillwater, Minnesota 
Lindsay Berger
    Posted by Lindsay Berger, Stillwater, Minnesota | Apr 02, 2010

    Really, this is all excellent advice and so empowering. I think a big fear with setting boundaries is the reaction you'll get from other people.

    But, like you pointed out, if you're clear on your boundaries and neutral while communicating them, others will respect them almost 100% of the time.

    From my personal experience, some of my best clients came after they tested my boundaries and I said "no."

    Thank you Emma, great and valuable article!

  • Small Business Consultant 
Seattle, Washington 
Karrie Kohlhaas
    Posted by Karrie Kohlhaas, Seattle, Washington | Jun 23, 2010

    Wonderful article, Emma. Definitely things I practice and preach to clients. Loved reading your take on this and so glad you are part of Biznik! You have a lot to share with this community. Looking forward to reading more of your articles!

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