Have you ever said any of this about a client? “I’ve got this one client that is driving me crazy. They ask for more time, complain about more things, have me jumping through hoops, and I feel so angry and frustrated.” There is likely some part of this statement or something similar that you may have felt about a particular client. If you have ever felt this way then this may be an indicator that you don’t have a healthy relationship with your clients and if this is true, be thankful it is only one client so far.
If this was a relationship with a spouse, friend, or family member, you would likely do something about it. But when it is our clients, we feel we must give them what they want or they will leave us. Giving in to someone else all the time for fear of losing that person is not healthy. It is a form of coercion and makes one person feel inferior and helpless, and that person is you. If you have even one client that has put you in this position, whether intentionally or not, your entire business can be affected. You may be:
- Answering extra calls to alleviate their worries or answer additional questions.
- Putting time and resources (like paying admin assistants) to finding solutions for their problems.
- Repeating work already completed that they asked you to revisit.
- Print documents, mailing letters, or making calls on behalf of your client.
- Arguing over the cost of your services after the agreement to do the work has been signed.
- Petty complaints about transactions that should be straight forward.
- Feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by the work you have done, and still must do, and you feel used.
Some of these items may be part of your service. But when it is going above and beyond your service and you are still unable to appease their needs, it is time to take a look at the cause. When you have an unhealthy relationship with your clients you leave your boundaries open to interpretation. Your time, which you don’t charge for, has no value, and your clients will feel you are trying to take advantage of them, making them even more defensive.
A healthy relationship has mutual benefits, not just for your client, but also for you. Look in these five areas for the clues and solutions to these types of issues.
Setting Time Boundaries
When you use words like “unlimited” create something that is valueless. Allowing your clients to check in at any time says you have nothing more important in your life than sitting by the phone, waiting to help them. Never saying no does not tell your clients what you are unwilling to do. In fact, all these examples specifically devalue your worth. It is hard to add value if everything in addition to your service is free and available all the time. By setting your time boundaries in your contracts, your sales invoice, or your verbal agreements you ensure your clients don’t have an expectation of contacting you 24/7. They will know when you are available and you will feel good about picking up the phone, answering an email or saying ‘no’ to a request.
Defining Your Relationship Up Front
When we are dealing with a simple transaction, like purchasing a product from a retail store, the relationship is fairly straightforward. Your client picks what they want, pays for it, and it is theirs. If it does not perform the way you promised it would, they bring it back within a certain amount of time, with a receipt and they get their money back.
With service-based businesses, your clients cannot return their items because once learned or shared it has been consumed. They will always possess it. There are a number of thoughts on guarantees, which I won’t go into here, but I do want to go into how to define the client’s expectation of what they will receive.
If you are entering into a relationship with your client that will continue over time, then be sure you start with a contract. I know so many people think that because they know someone well or are not charging much for the service that it is not necessary. I find that contracts help solve arguments over expectations. They will hopefully not have to be used in court, but if your disagreement cannot be settled by revisiting the details of your relationship you laid out in your contract, then the contract can be used for litigation.
Do some brainstorming around what the relationship will look like and what could go wrong. Look for things that have not worked exactly right in the past. I had to revise my writing contract a few times before I got it right. What often went wrong with my writing contracts was that the client would miss deadlines. Usually, this does not affect me and I’m able to accommodate the changes. Sometimes, however, I have other commitments and my time is limited. Because of this, I cannot as easily accommodate the changes. Because my contract now clearly lays out the steps we can take to solve this issue, it has never really been an issue. Sometimes it takes me longer, sometimes I get paid more, and sometimes I can simply move on. The great piece about this is that the client is happy and we continue to have a long, ongoing relationship.
You will also want to have internal policies in place to manage the possible internal challenges that can occur when dealing with unhappy clients. Do you have a process for firing a client if they are unreasonable or abusive? Do you have a refund policy? Do you have a process for taking calls from them, the time you will allow, the hours assigned to your employees, etc.? When, and under what conditions, will you work to resolve an issue and when is it beyond the scope of your relationship? Are there any legal repercussions you must address to manage a relationship like this?
Work with your advisory board or mentors to help you identify the issues you may need to address, how to put together your contract and what policies you will want to have in place.
Taking on Their Responsibility
Taking on someone else’s responsibility as if it is your urgent issue is the fastest way to feel used and taken advantage of. It will leave you overwhelmed and stressed. You will likely be having angry thoughts about that person. It may even feel like you are being bullied. The challenge with these feelings is they don’t go away. You will be working with these feelings, eating with them, and maybe even sleeping with them. It will increase your stress levels and make you irritable and tired, which in turn makes it hard for you to be at your best for your other clients and your business. Have clear boundaries around what is your work and what is theirs.
Being Afraid to Lose Them
The old proverb, “If you love someone set them free; if they come back then they are yours…” is true in this case. Don’t spend time fostering an unhealthy relationship. If you have made your boundaries clear, defined your relationship, and stopped doing the urgent work that is not yours and your client still continues to abuse their relationship with you then say goodbye. Fire them! Let them go. If they want to work with you then they now know the rules. If you are afraid that letting one client go will affect the rest of your business, you are right. You will have more space to help your other clients. You will be healthier, with a more positive outlook. You can show up ready to give your clients exceptional value and they will appreciate it.
Deborah Alcock says
I just emailed a client that I would no longer accept calls from one of their employees. Out of the blue I got a call for help with the expectation I would drop everything and rush to conquer something that turns out to have nothing to do with the project I worked on and completed in 2011. It’s the first time since I started my business in 2006 that I felt I had to inform a client that this was unacceptable and I would not respond to calls from this person.
The interesting part for me was the mind block that took over when I read the phone message in my inbox. I read it and then it got submerged to some dark corner of my memory until one evening when I was falling asleep and woke up with an adrenaline rush upon remembering that I hadn’t returned the call. It has been almost 6 years since I spoke with this person and the reaction I had is clearly the part I need to address.
I read your article and felt it was serendipitous. Not that there hadn’t been boundaries set in the contract and verbal interactions, but rather an acknowledgement that it’s easy to get sucked into a vortex without those boundaries or shy away from asserting them many years later.
Wow, Deborah that can really be a horrible feeling having to almost reprimand a client (because of their employee). Good for you for taking a stand to be able to deliver a high-valued service and not just a patch-em-up type response. No one ever wanted to ban a client from specific services, but how else can you help them and everyone else if you are chasing rabbits instead of actually delivering great service. I know you set clear boundaries, but even then, sometimes we have to be careful about getting comfortable with other people’s boundaries.
Thank you so much for sharing that story.