Healthy Business Boundaries
I started writing this article with new bookkeepers in mind, who often struggle with saying “no” to business owners’ demands. It is a common challenge that newly qualified bookkeepers talk to me about: how to organise themselves around their own needs and those of their clients. But quickly I realised that in fact I have at least as many conversations about healthy business boundaries with experienced bookkeepers—and other professional service providers.
Many businesses that deal with physical products have their trading hours defined, and customers have no option to transact with them outside these hours. But for service providers it can be a different story.
The Three Biggest Factors
I speak to many bookkeepers and other service providers who are always stressed and anxious but somehow believe that this is normal for a business owner and “that is just how it is”.
The three main factors that I hear about are, firstly, time management, and by that I really mean honouring your own time as separate from the business time. Secondly, bookkeepers in particular, but I suspect many other contract and freelance professionals, have the tendency to take on your clients’ problems as their own.
Thirdly, service professionals often get pulled into delivering more than they agreed to initially.
Honouring Your Own Time
So you deal in services rather than goods—why should that change the need to define business time as separate from personal time?
Many service providers find that existing clients and potential customers ring at all hours and they feel compelled to answer the phone.
If asked, other business owners would generally respect that service providers are business operators too and need to schedule work according to multiple deadlines, other customer bookings and their own business administration needs. On the other hand, as there are many business owners out there working all kinds of hours, they may have the expectation that you do too. But just because a business owner is ringing you at 8.30pm, doesn’t mean they actually expect or require you to answer the phone, nor does it mean you have to answer it!
It’s up to you to be clear about how much time you devote to, and when you choose to work on, your own work and business. It’s not required to live up to every client’s expectations.
It’s important to be clear about what works for you. What is manageable and sustainable for me may be unworkable for you. I am not advocating that we all work the same hours or commit to five-day working weeks. I am all for flexibility and individually appropriate work hours. The point is, is it enjoyable? Is it sustainable? Does it give you a proper break each week? Is it efficient and effective for running a business?
Recently I was coaching a business owner who was extremely stressed; she was distressed that she was getting upset over trivial things and forgetting important things. It turned out that she was working seven days a week and it was many months since she had taken an actual day off. Some days she was working a very long day, others just a few hours, but nevertheless, she ‘showed up’ for work every day. This was such an ingrained pattern for her that it is still a work-in-progress to rearrange her mindset so that she allows herself time to relax and do things for her own enjoyment on a regular basis. However, she already feels a lot better for committing to taking one day off each week. No surprise—she is functioning better in her business for having dedicated time that she can truly relax and let go of thinking about the business—something that just requires a little training and perseverance.
You don’t necessarily need to let your clients know what your hours of operation are. It may be appropriate to let them know what your hours are for communication purposes, but you may choose to work other hours in addition to that. Regardless, decide what your hours of business are and stick to them.
There are many tips available about how to organise your work time, more than I want to write about here. But here are a few tips to think about:
- You may choose to answer emails in only two windows a day, leaving the rest of the day for project work.
- You may want to set aside windows of time in which you will answer phone calls, but let all other unexpected calls deflect to voicemail.
- Schedule your own administration time within your agreed business hours; it’s easy to let this important part of running your business creep into your personal time.
- Schedule professional development obligations within business hours.
- There are tools you can implement like online calendars that integrate with your website, or automatic responders.
- You may even need a support platform to manage your clients’ requests.
- Use online note-taking, time-allocation and project management tools to streamline your own operations.
- Investigate other technology solutions that may assist you with the practicalities.
Time for You, Time for Business
There are some operators who can successfully and happily run their business on a very ad hoc basis, making the most of quiet days and working a lot when there is the call for it. Especially for those who live and work their passion this can be satisfying. But I don’t see this much!
Most people operate a lot better with boundaries around work time and personal time. Most people do not actually want to have all their time and energy taken up by their business, and yet they behave in ways that perpetuates exactly that.
If you find yourself in this category, it may be time to take a good look at whether the way you interact with your clients directly, or indirectly through technology, is actually giving your clients permission to take your time for granted.
Your Clients’ Issues are Not Yours
It is not helpful to the client to take on their business issues or legal obligations as your own. Not only is it damaging to your own wellbeing, it allows the client to side-step their responsibilities and they may not have a realistic understanding of their own business if someone else is taking on their stress for them!
Be honest with yourself—are you creating drama and stress for yourself by taking on clients’ issues because you want to feel important and needed? Or is it because you are addicted to being ‘on alert’, ready to jump to clients’ demands at a moment’s notice?
Being of service to customers is one thing, and that is why most of us are in business, after all. However, being a slave to customers’ demands is not required! A colleague of mine likes to say “Your problems are not my emergency.”
Delivering More or Less?
Do you routinely deliver more than what you agreed to? This may be in the form of extra time given to a pre-paid job, or completing tasks not agreed on in the scope of the job. Or it may be that you are actually delivering high-end consulting type work for your base hourly rate—another form of over-giving.
If this is a pattern or tendency for you, think about what the motivation underneath this behaviour is. Is it only certain types of people for example, or certain types of projects that pull you in like this? Is it a perception that offering more than you have agreed to is somehow ‘good business’? Are you delivering ‘more’ because on some level you think that you are not worthy of charging the hourly or project rate that you have set?
There may legitimately be times when you decide it is good business to deliver more than you promised—fine. But if this is your default pattern then you need to reassess your client agreements or charge rates or your own work organisation.
Delivering more may in fact be delivering less overall. You certainly devalue your time if you are always delivering more and working longer than agreed.
It is not practical for your own wellbeing if you are willing to answer calls at all hours and to work whenever you can.
- The emails are not going to disappear if you don’t answer them right now.
- The phone messages are not going to be deleted if you leave it until tomorrow morning to reply.
- The client is not going to leave you because you have left their Friday afternoon request for assistance until Monday morning.
- Be willing to say no to work, meetings or extra requests that interfere with your work schedule. Respect your own schedule as you would another professional.
There is another factor here that I won’t go into detail about here—but something to consider in the boundaries picture is addiction. Are you addicted to your clients’ attention? Are you addicted to the drama of always being overworked and underpaid? Are you addicted to being needed? Are you addicted to your gadgets and being online? This is of course a bigger topic, but if you are struggling with boundaries in general then this is something to consider. Addictions are never sustainable and will always throw you out of balance eventually.
Think about what is sustainable and manageable for you. For some, business hours are organised around the needs of young children. For others, it is defined by international customers in different time zones. For others it may be industry norms that govern the hours. You have to also factor in personal commitments to family, study, exercise and social time.
By organising your working hours and committing to looking after yourself you will reduce feelings of overwhelm, frustration, stress and inefficiency that you may be thinking is ‘normal’. It may be ‘normal’ for many to feel overloaded… but that doesn’t make it healthy! You can operate with effectiveness, ease and wellbeing within the parameters of what is appropriate and sustainable for you. Set your own ground rules and then respect them consistently and run your own business with elegance.