69. Client Relationships: Boundaries in Business Leadership, Part 5

In the fifth part of our boundaries in business leadership series, Mary and Sarah dive into establishing boundaries with clients. They discuss the importance of defining clear expectations as a business leader, including setting both working and non-working hours. The conversation highlights establishing specific terms of service to prevent overcommitting and potential resentment.

Furthermore, the conversation delves into the importance of knowing one’s ideal client and the courage it takes to decline opportunities to work when necessary. They explore recognizing signs of a toxic client relationship and discuss the advantages of implementing boundaries for sustained business success. They provide practical tips for communicating clear boundaries, suggesting the use of a clear and kind boundary sandwiched between respect and common ground.

Learn more about Sarah HERE.

Main Episode Takeaways

  • The difference between customer service and customer satisfaction. 
  • As the business leader, we set our boundaries and determine our success. 
  • Successful business leaders know who their ideal client is.
  • Business leaders must vet their clients to make sure they are a good fit for their business.  You do not want to serve just anybody who is willing to buy from you.

Want to learn more about boundaries?

– Boundaries Awareness quiz HERE
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– Do you want to overcome your hurdles of people pleasing? Book a free call with Mary!

69. Client Relationships: Boundaries in Business Leadership, Part 5

Mary: Let’s talk boundaries. I am here with Sarah Stokes, and this is a part five of our Boundaries and Business Leadership series. Today we are focusing on boundaries with our clients and maintaining those client relationships with boundaries. Oh, hi Sarah. 

Sarah: Hi. This is perfect for you, Mary, isn’t it? It’s like, oh, the epitome of boundary practice. Yeah. I love, ’cause what have we always heard? The client’s always right. Right?

Mary: Oh, I love it. Is the client always right? 

Sarah: Well. Are you a boundaried? Then maybe they are. If you are not boundaried the client is going to be a whole different opportunity for you to learn and practice and grow. Mm-Hmm. But you know, that’s, we’ve used, the client is always right as a one size fits all. Meaning we gotta over give and they’re, they get to dictate our life. Right? And boy, is that just not sustainable. 

Mary: Mm. Yeah. When I hear the client is always right, what comes up for me is that as business leaders, sometimes we get confused, our customer service and our customer satisfaction. Because customer service is a measurement of did I provide the service that I contracted to provide. Yeah. And customer satisfaction is, and did the customer like the service that I agreed to provide. And those things are very different, and we oftentimes make customer satisfaction the measurement of our success. Mm. And what’s the problem with that?

Sarah: It’s subjective. It’s real subjective.

Mary: So subjective. There’s lots of things that come into play and make it subjective. And some of those would include things like their expectations of what the servicer products would be their general mood and outlook on life, their own previous experience, and what they’re going through, what their struggles are. Because our customers and our clients are regular people having human experiences and their perception of our services and products is going to be a reflection of that.

Sarah: Absolutely. Really good point. Mm-Hmm. And whose job is it to set that container of expectations? Clear is kind and it’s our job as the business leader, the business owner to say, this is what I am agreeing to provide. And then they can opt in or opt out of that. But when we don’t have any expectation, we don’t have clarity around that service, we’re delivering, maybe we got excited on a sales call or we over-promised and then whoops. And now we’re in a people pleasing, like messy never ending story with them. And that happens so often and it’s a lose-lose for everyone because you are not happy and they can probably like not have a clue of what is the like actual service you’re supposed to be providing. So they might be a, you know a never-ending opportunity for you to keep pouring in and pouring in and pouring in. So it’s on us from the get-go with the client sales experience, expectations, clarity of what we are delivering so that it’s a win-win. Instead of this messy like relationship where you feel like you’re always chasing their satisfaction.

Mary: Mm-Hmm. Yeah. And I, I do want to acknowledge that it’s normal and natural for those of us who are providing services and products that we want our clients to be happy. That’s a normal, natural, like we want five-star reviews. We want positive feedback. We want them to like us and the service. Like that’s just part of providing a business service or product to someone. So there’s nothing wrong with wanting that, but I think the distinction is around what we are willing to do and what we’re not willing to do to chase that. That’s where the people pleasing comes in. Mm-Hmm. And the boundary opportunity is around my measurement of success. So my measurement of success is gonna be, did I keep my side of the contract? Did I show up for our scheduled meetings? Did I provide the expertise that I have to get the result that it usually gets for most people, right? Yes. Did I do my part of our contract? That’s what I have control over. And the customer, how they receive that, they have a part in that too. 

Sarah: Yeah, they have their side of the agreement. They need to show up in the way that we have hopefully outlined, Hey, this is how I will show up, this is what I need you to do as the client. And again, this will be all very unique to how you show up in your business. If you have a product, if you have, you know, a service, but the basics are the same. This is my agreement, like you said so perfectly, and us being totally grounded in that. I am going to deliver on my promises. Right? Then that client gets to show up or not. But when we’re clear and when we’re not graspy in that, I wanna like, it’s a total public service announcement right now in the sales process, we can be so like hopeful that we get that sale. Maybe we really need it, that we might over promise and then we’re resentful later. So it’s actually an highest service to be so clear first and like what Mary said, what are you willing to provide and what are you willing, not willing to provide.

And be so clear and kind with them that they know exactly what they’re getting and you both are happy. That’ll solve all of these problems moving forward unless you know you have an outlier, which really is the case. I mean, most of us don’t have unhappy clients as a rule, thank goodness. But when you maybe chase that sale on the get-go, and you’re not boundaried with yourself, and you maybe squeak in an extra service that they aren’t even paying for because you want them to say yes so badly, you’ll end up having a little bit of premeditated resentment because you just wanted the Yes. And they don’t even know that maybe they’re getting a $3,000 bonus there and you’re expecting them to know that. Like, I just see this all the time where we over give trying to get that. sale and it bites us later. And so it’s actually in their best interest, it’s in your best interest, it’s in the best interest of your clients to come who pay a different amount, right? Mm-Hmm. That we’re really boundaried and we’re clear and grounded in what it is we offer and for how much. 

Mary: Yes. I love that. I love that. So some areas that I see kind of boundaries coming up with our clients are around things like our working hours. Have you seen that before? 

Sarah: Oh, absolutely. How many times, and it doesn’t have to be a new business owner, absolutely not, I’ve seen people who’ve been doing their business for 30 years, contorting is the word I like to use for this. Mm-Hmm. Contorting themselves, their schedules to accommodate a client. That client has no idea you just shoved off your niece’s bridal shower because they asked for Saturday morning. They don’t have any clue. But we don’t even try sometimes to say, you know what? I actually don’t work Saturdays, and I’m using Saturday as an extreme example. If your Friday is Friday off, that’s what I do. I actually don’t work on Fridays. Mm. So I will just simply say, I’ll address this on Monday, but old me would’ve a hundred percent given away every Friday because I wanted my clients to feel tended to, right? Mm-Hmm. So sometimes our clients don’t even have a clue that you’re contorting and you aren’t even taking a minute, taking a beat, a breath to say, do I wanna participate in this or not? And sometimes you might be a heck yes to come in on a Saturday because maybe this client, and you only can cross every once in a blue moon. But if you’re actually a no, don’t do it. Right? Just don’t do it. 

And contorting is the word, and I choose it on purpose because I see it more often than not. Mm-Hmm. We will not honor our schedule. We will not honor that boundary we made because if it’s, if it’s just our day for us, how often do we give that away? Mm-Hmm. And pretty soon you’re like, why am I tired? Why am I always working? Your kid looks at you and goes, mom, you’ve been on the computer for days, I thought you didn’t work on Thursday, or whatever it is. Mm-Hmm. We don’t even realize it sometimes until it’s pretty far down the track. And our clients are wanting our wellbeing too, so they’re not gonna be mad. Just have that boundary. You know what, a lot of times they might be like, good for you. You know what? I need to get better at not working Friday or whatever. Mm-Hmm. And they’re clapping for your boundary. 

Mary: Yes. So making exceptions about your working hours, or sometimes I even see us like trying to set our working hours, but then not upholding them ourselves, so checking our email when it’s after hours or, you know, getting back to people during our non-working hours. I see that a lot. The other thing that I see often is around choosing who we work with and who we don’t work with. And being intentional from the beginning and throughout our work with them about if it’s the right fit for each other. 

Sarah: Yeah. Oh, yes. And how, oh, this can get so muddy. Mm. Right. Because we hear messages like, stretch yourself. Mm. But if that client has more work than your firm can handle right now, you know, what’s a stretch and what’s a snap? We try so hard to be everything to everyone, and it’s actually just a poor business model in the end. Again, ask me how I know. We had a full service marketing agency and we would do everything to, to like be everything to our clients. And we were supposed to be doing marketing and not fixing the fax machine, but guess what, right? That, that slippery slope becomes so big. And so knowing the kind of client that is gonna value what you do in the way that you do it, will matter on the onset and it’ll set you up for success for the life of that business relationship. 

But when we, again, contort and try to be everything to everyone, and if you have that, I like to have us tune into that intuition, however it works for you, some people hear things, some people just know, don’t ignore it. If there’s something that says, this is not actually a good fit for me, be honest. And then a lot of times, maybe it’s a slow sales month and you, and you think, I’ll just take this client. I’ll just do it. I’ll figure it out. But you have that knowing it’s not a heck yes for them or you. It’s not fair to that client to pay you when maybe this isn’t the best fit either. Just know that 60 days from now, you’re still gonna be living in the consequences of taking a client that wasn’t actually a heck yes. Mm-hmm. Right? And then guess who ends up being the one unsatisfied too. Mm-Hmm. So it is a really smart business leadership decision to know who your ideal client is.

Mary: Even more know who you do not help? Who do you not serve? Who do you not provide services to? 

Sarah: Wow. Do you think people even ask that question? That’s a powerful one. 

Mary: Well, I think that sometimes we end up asking that question once we’ve had an experience of trying to help someone. And we learn kind of the suffering that comes with serving someone who wasn’t a good fit for us or someone who we didn’t really vet as ready for the service that we were offering to them. Or you know, someone who comes into a group coaching program and disrupts the learning for the others, that’s a hard lesson that I learned early on. Or someone who you have the skills to help, but maybe don’t feel called to provide that type of service right now. I learned that lesson early on. Yeah. And I think it’s, it’s a hard question, but it’s an important one. Like I don’t help people who aren’t ready to be helped yet. And I provide coaching services, so I don’t help people who are not coachable, they don’t have a growth mindset, they’re not ready to learn, think differently, try some things out. That’s not a person who I’m gonna choose to help. I don’t help people who aren’t able to pay for services, right? So those statements have taken a while to get to, but they really are necessary for me to continue to love my clients and love the business that I have built, and love the services that I’m able to provide to people and to have a sustainable business.

Sarah: Yeah, and it’s a brilliant brand strategy move. Might I just put my old marketing and branding hat on? Because Mary, when you have heck yes clients who are doing the work, who are loving the service you’re providing, guess what happens? You’re filled up. You are serving at a higher level. She’s going to a marketing or a networking meeting, singing your praises. She’s doing the marketing for you. And this is a real story. I was in a networking meeting and Mary’s work was highlighted by one of her clients, unsolicited, but your boundaries around who you do and do not serve, end up being your best marketing tool in the end, because a happy container of satisfied clients is, I mean, it’s priceless in marketing. It’s priceless, right? Not only you get the social proof and all of that, like I could go on and on, but when we’re nervous to have that boundary, we have to think big picture leadership. It’s in the best interest of my brand for the long haul to have clients that make sense. Have clients that do the work, have clients that are excited and value what we do, they pay me. Right?

This is all a part of your ideal client avatar, whatever you wanna say. I always include that. Right? They value what I do, they pay. They happily pay. I added that. They happily pay because I want them to feel so incredibly transformed and blessed when they make that investment in themselves and they tell their friends and they do the work. Those are the four like musts for clients and so know yours. Whatever business you provide, what are the things that make that client a heck yes for you? And then you knowing your services and the boundaries around it, then they can opt into their heck yes for them. And I always say truly I, I don’t wanna work with somebody who thinks they should work with me or they have to, or that I will fix it for them. It just doesn’t work. I say, please be a soul yes. Bring your soul yes to this. And I, I get a little spiritual about it, but I want that because then they are committed and firm in their decision. They trust themselves enough. And when you do this work that we’re talking about in these podcasts, it actually is the long term health of your business. And I mean, you can pay a brand strategist all day, but when you do what Mary just said, you are making your business like hundreds of thousands of dollars by having ideal clients participating in your work. It’s it invaluable.

Mary: Thank you. I appreciate what you say. And one thing I think maybe we need to kind of talk a little bit more about in this episode around client relationships is what do we do when it’s not working? And we have to have some boundaries around having a relationship with this client. And maybe we haven’t been really clear about what’s the best fit, and maybe we did agree to take on a client that wasn’t the best fit. And maybe they’re not getting the results that they want, or maybe we’re not feeling great about our, our relationship with that person, and we need to have kind of some boundaries in the middle of a client relationship. How do we know? Really is my first question and then how do we handle that? As kind of the next question? Mm-Hmm. What are your thoughts about that? 

Sarah: I, I have had two fire clients in my previous life as a marketing agency owner, and we let it go way too long. Mm-Hmm. Right? We were not boundaried. We put up with bad behavior, frankly, from thankfully, it was like two clients over the lifetime of our tenure in business there. And don’t wait is what I wanna say there is when you first start to see the warning signs, and if you start raising an eyebrow and you start not wanting to pick up the phone call, that was our telltale sign. Mm-Hmm. If we did not wanna pick up the phone, if we did not wanna open that email, we knew we were beyond the boundary conversation, right? Because we were starting to dread it. That’s how we knew, hey, something’s gonna change. 

So then, you know, you put on your crucial conversations hat if you wanna keep that client, if you wanna mend the relationship. So then you talk about it. But you will know because you will want to avoid them. Mm-Hmm. And then you make that decision. Do I wanna repair this? Do I wanna attempt to repair this? Or is this too far gone? And unfortunately, I would wait to fire a client until they did something so egregious, so beyond what was okay for us, like yell at one of our staff members. No. That’s finally when Mama Bear kicked in, right? But until then I was people pleasing all day and I’m not proud of that. My leadership was not in effect. Because I was worried about the account so that we could pay payroll. Right? That’s real. I have a lot of empathy and compassion for all of us who are like worried about payroll and putting up with bad behavior. Mm-hmm. But having looked back, here’s what I know to be true. The bandwidth we spend on clients that are not a fit eats up so much of your precious business energy that when you release them, when you say this is no longer a fit, you end up opening up so much more opportunity for growth because you can probably fit three clients in the space that person took up, right? Mm-Hmm. Because you’re, ugh, it just wasn’t a fit. And so when we remember, I’m actually doing the right thing for my business here, not just, not just setting a boundary and being a good soldier on that, literally, ROI wise, look at how much expenditure of energy and team member time and outlay of resources. It’s probably way disproportionate to what they pay, right?

Mary: Mm-Hmm. Yes. And I love how you said when you start to feel dread or when you start to not want to take their calls or not want to engage with them. It, it’s reminding me of a time when I was doing a training for a group of realtors and they were talking about how to have boundaries and real estate is an industry that there’s kind of, high customer service expectations and it’s kind of feast or famine, if you’re, the commission’s really high and you either get it or you don’t. And what they were sharing was that there were people on the team who were taking calls 24 7, and then there were a couple people on the team who wanted to have some boundaries around working hours. And so I was doing a training about kind of work-life balance and how to have boundaries and, and some people were more on board with it than others. And one of the things that I remember one of the realtors saying, I don’t wanna answer my phone because if I do answer my phone at 10 o’clock at night, on a weekend, I end up hating my clients. Right? And the example of when she felt like she was at the beck and call of this client and chasing this high commission and and having some resentment for her teammates who were doing that as well, and that she didn’t want to hate her clients anymore. She wanted to feel good about her clients, right? She wanted to have a positive and a healthy client relationship. But when you’re doing things that are not within your own boundaries, not honoring your own working hours for whatever reasons. If it was, you know, pressure from someone else, or you’re shoulding on yourself, or it’s an expectation in your industry, or whatever it is. And you’re not following your own guidance around what you’re willing to participate in and not willing to participate in, you end up feeling resentment and we don’t want to resent our clients. 

So I think my kind of gut check would be, I wanna work with people who I enjoy working with. Yeah. Who I have generally positive feelings about, that I like them, that I understand them, that I have compassion for them, that I want to see, I wanna see their face on my Zoom call. I wanna see their text message, I wanna see their email. I want to have a positive and a healthy, nurturing relationship with them and, and not feel like I’m being taken advantage of and not feel like I have to serve them in ways that aren’t serving me as well. 

Sarah: Yeah, yeah. So true. It’s, It’s the most loving thing to do, to know who is a good fit. It really is. It’s loving for that person because you don’t wanna have, as a client, would you want that person silently resenting you? No. No. 

Mary: You’re not doing them a favor.

Sarah: You’re not. And you know what I like to think about every time I have to say no, ’cause I know it’s not a fit? You are blessing someone else’s business who they are a fit for, right? And that really motivates, I always look for that thing that’s gonna motivate me outta my own squirm and blessing someone else’s business, having that referral person, if you know, like if you’re a social media company and they want websites, have website people you can refer them to and feel great about it, that’s a win-win too. 

And so the other thing that was coming up for me when you were saying that is I remember this time where we had a, he’s a near billionaire, come and he wanted our company to do marketing and it was exciting ’cause we were like, wow, right. Mm-hmm, this guy is legit and he is flying all over the country. Private jet. And he was so fancy. And us knowing our red flags. So this is my like, hope for the listener is you need to know your telltale warning signs for when it’s not a fit, and you’ll probably have some hallmarks, right? It’s, maybe they complain about the last three firms they used. Guess what they’re gonna do? I’m sorry. I know people can change, but that’s the vibe they’re bringing. Please don’t expect it to be different with you. That’s our ego. Like I used to think, oh, they’re, they’ve complained about the last four marketing agencies. We’re different. Guess what they did with ours? Complained right? Then I finally got savvy. I’m like, oh, this is one of my hallmarks of a no. And I would not push them off onto somebody else’s company. I would literally, if they’re not a great client, I would just say, you know what? We’re not a fit. And they might get mad at that. We’re just not the right fit for you at this time. We made it about us. Right? So listen to them in the sales conversations. Check their language. Know your signs for something like, if you’re excited to show up, work with them. You’ll know. If you’re already starting to dread it and you’re barely into the first day working with them, it’s not too late to complete that relationship. It’s not too late. Save yourself the suffering, but if you can know the, the red flags for you, that will save you a whole bunch of heartburn. Yeah, 

Mary: absolutely. Mm-Hmm. So kind of lastly, what do we do, I know there’s some listeners that may be tuning into this podcast episode wanting some kind of practical tips about what do we do, how do we handle it if we need to uphold a boundary, we need to set a boundary, we need to have a boundary conversation? And I think what I wanna offer, I have tons of tools for this, but I think what I wanna offer is just the simple kind of Oreo cookie analogy, right? So most of us know what an Oreo cookie looks like, what it tastes like. Most of us who you know, especially I think if you’ve grown up in the US and I’m not quite sure about other countries, but it’s kind of a staple that we have here. And an Oreo cookie has a chocolate cookie on the top and a chocolate cookie on the bottom. And then a creamy filling. It’s kind of the cookies and cream cookie sandwich. And I love to use it as an analogy for how to communicate a clear boundary. 

And so the way we do it is the cookie part is some kind of connection. It’s respect for, it’s appreciation for, it is a commonality, it is gratitude for, and the cream is a clear and kind boundary. A clear no answer, a clear, this is my decision, a clear this is what it is. And then the bottom cookie is more connection to the person, to the business, to what you have in common, to the gratitude you have for them. And so sometimes when we’re trying to have a boundary conversation, it might sound something like this. Here’s an example. It might sound like, Hey, I understand that you would prefer to meet on Saturdays, I don’t work on Saturdays, so I’m not available to meet with you. I would love to continue working with you Monday through Friday, and these are the times I have open and I certainly understand if that’s not gonna work for you. 

So that’s just an example of what it could be like, right? Yeah. And and respect for commonality. Another example could be, and I really appreciate the work that you’ve been doing on this project. I have decided to focus my time and attention somewhere else. Mm-Hmm. And I really wish you all the best in completing that project. So there’s a couple examples of how you could use that Oreo cookie to sandwich a clear boundary. We want to respect people. We wanna respect what we have in common. We want to appreciate people, and we also want to clearly communicate what our decisions are and what we’re willing to do and not willing to do, and what we’re able to do and not able to do. And, and we also wanna kind of have a softer foundation for how we can continue to have respect for them and how we can continue to move forward. And as leaders, it’s our responsibility. We have the opportunity to. And what I wanna say, I kind of think like, my kinda last thoughts about this are I have the best clients, I love my clients, and it’s because of the boundaries that I have. In place, and it’s not necessarily right or wrong, it’s not the boundaries you need to have in place, but it’s because I have boundaries that work for me and my business and my life that I’m able to show up with love for my clients.

Sarah: Yes, I completely agree. I am so excited to show up and help my clients because I’ve crafted that container that has boundaries around it, and I don’t over give anymore. I deliver what I want to, when I want to. And sometimes people are like, whoa, this is amazing. But it’s all from a place of want to not should. And if I were to just say anything to those listening right now, it’s the long-term health of your business thanks you. I know it’s uncomfortable to be boundaried sometimes, and if you’re a pro at it, cool. I am not. I work with Mary because of that, I am learning to be more and more boundaried but every time you do it, you are richly rewarded with a healthier business ecosystem, and it’s so worth the squirm. It’s so worth it. So I just, I hope that this inspired somebody to say, you know what? I’ve been avoiding this situation, but when you think long-term sustainability and health, so worth it.

Mary: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s possible friends. Boundaries is a learned skill, and so it’s possible for you.