We’ve likely all found ourselves being crushed under the weight of work-week overload, dealing with a client that makes us feel like a punching bag or eating the pistachios we found buried in our center console along with a packet of ketchup because taking time for lunch is a joke (*insert maniac laughter*). The truth is, business growth can be a painful process and while pressing our boundaries and putting in twelve hours days is part of that growth, many business owners struggle to draw the line in the sand between “expansion” and “burn out”. You know, the point at which we find ourselves saying things like, “F*ck it! I’m throwing my cell phone into a sink hole and going off the grid!”. Before you pack a crate of whiskey, your dog and your last cares about civilization into your car and head into the great unknown, try evaluating your levels of “yes man” syndrome and following these tips for avoiding catastrophic overwhelm in your business. (Because we’d like to keep you as a contributing member to this great thing we call entrepreneurship).
1) UNDERSTAND YOUR CAPACITY
Self-awareness is a pretty cool tool that can actually work wonders, so try a little in your business world. Figure out at what capacity of clientele you feel comfortable, pressed and overrun. If you feel comfortable, add more to your plate. If you feel pressed, you’re probably where you should be. If you feel overrun, nobody is winning in that scenario. Understanding what you can reasonably handle means getting real with the numbers (“How many clients can I successfully service at once?”, “How many appointments can I set in a day/week before I start speaking a hybrid language of regular and baby talk because I’m so exhausted?” “How many chucks could a woodchuck chuck?”...you know, whatever applies to your business). Once you have a number in mind, figure out if that number equals your ideal salary. If it doesn’t, get to work on leveraging some of your responsibilities, automating some processes or doing anything you can to increase your capacity. Resourcefulness to the rescue!
Solutions: Work out a referral system with someone who offers the same high-quality service you do. If you’re at max capacity and don’t want the client’s end-result to suffer because of this (which you don't, that’s just good business), refer it out to someone you trust for a small percentage and have them do the same in the opposite scenario. Make sure you clear any potential work with your referral partner before offering their services up to anyone.
Scripts for Clients: “I’m thrilled that you reached out about __________. Currently, my client load is at maximum capacity and I’m dedicated to only accepting work I can give my full attention and effort to. I’d love to work with you personally so let me know what your timeline is for this project; if it’s sooner than I’m able to take on, I have an amazing colleague I can refer you to. We’ve been working together for ______ years and he/she/they do incredible work.”
2) SET PROPER EXPECTATIONS
Get clear on what you’re willing to do and not willing to do, your hours of operation, your client process and your willingness to extend yourself without wanting to punch a kitten in the face (nobody wants to get to that point). These are all things that should be communicated clearly to potential clients from the beginning. If you don’t safeguard your time and your “burn out” lines, you can rest assured that nobody else is going to do it for you. This includes things like, not taking on something that’s not within your expertise, not accepting calls at 9:30 pm unless you’re willing to set the expectation that 9:30 pm is an okay time to call you, using voicemail and email messages that communicate that you’re at a family reunion/holiday event/weekend away and what they can expect for a response time. Believe it or not, people aren't monsters and are usually more than willing to let you take the weekend with your family or turn your phone off after 8:00 pm. It’s only when you set the expectation that you’re available 24/7 or don’t clearly communicate the process a client can expect to go through when they work with you that tensions will arise.
Solutions: 1. Use voicemail or email messages that let people know when you’re available and when you’re not (automated replies or voicemails that state what hours you return phone calls). 2. Clearly define your client process from start to finish and then create something VISUAL that the client can look at and keep that takes them through the steps, that could be as simple as a written list or you can get fancy with it. 3. In your initial conversation, find out the full scope of the client's needs, if there’s anything on their list that doesn’t fall under your area of expertise, talk about it upfront and offer solutions.
Scripts for Clients:
Communication: “I’m dedicated to showing up as my best self when we work together so I can offer the service you deserve. In order to do that, I reserve the evening hours from _:__ pm on for personal family time. Please let me know if that will be an issue for you in any way and I’m certain we can work something out.”
Client Process: “Here’s a list/graph/diorama of our client process. (Detail the process). Do you have any questions about the steps or what to expect? Is there anything we need to tweak or add to make this a great experience for you?”
Staying Within Your Expertise: “We don’t personally handle ________ as it doesn’t fall under our area of expertise and I want to make sure you’re getting the best possible product/service. Would it be helpful if I sent you a few referrals for someone who could take over that portion of the process for you?"
3) TRY BEING HONEST (*gasp*)
Transparency is a magical, sadly under-utilized business tactic. We seem to all be under the impression that if we’re honest with people, we’ll get horrible backlash and the skies will come crashing down! In reality, the opposite is usually true. Reminding ourselves that we're actually normal humans speaking to other normal humans who also have other things in their lives outside of this moment/conversation/interaction is important. Have a client who wants to meet on a Saturday when you’re supposed to be celebrating your mom’s birthday? Go wild and try telling the truth! Most people will appreciate the honesty and be more than willing to find another time that works, and if things absolutely can’t be rearranged and you have to push lunch with mom back, at least you've established that personal commitments and things that help you stay sane and connected to reality are a priority to you. Long story short: people aren’t the unreasonable bullies we make them out to be in our heads (most of the time).
Solutions: Calendar your personal time, family commitments and big picture events (like conventions or education opportunities) at the beginning of each month so it’s easier to schedule around them. If at ALL possible, see these commitments as set in stone just like work commitments. (Your family, friends, personal growth and sanity will thank you).
Scripts for Clients: “Thanks for reaching out, I’m excited to start a conversation about your project/need. The time you suggested meeting is a schedule conflict for me: I’m taking my mother out to lunch that afternoon to celebrate her birthday (or whatever your conflict is). Would (day) at (time) or (day) at (time) work for you instead?” (Note: See what they say before offering anything else, as mentioned above, if their original suggestion is the ONLY time that works for them, you can cross that bridge when you come to it.)
4) RESPECT THE BIG PICTURE
Before saying yes to opportunities, put your “big picture” thinking cap on and evaluate the following: “Am I/are my services honestly the best fit for this person?”, “Are they/are their needs honestly the best fit for what I offer?”, “Is there a better way to do this?”. These three questions will save you immense amounts of hair pulling out and unneeded bad blood. If you/your services aren’t the best fit for that person, even if you really like them and would love to work with them, you’re doing them a disservice by saying yes. If they/their needs aren’t the best fit for what you offer, you’re risking putting a negative mark on the reputation of your work and your company or accepting a business partnership with someone who isn’t within your culture and therefore will cause your attitude and other work to suffer. If there’s a better way to do it, suggest it. Presenting alternate solutions and more effective avenues of handling things is more valuable than a simple “yes” (more on this in item 6).
Solutions: If you need to “let a client go” because they either aren’t a good fit for you or you aren’t a good fit for them, try to do it over the phone or in person if at all possible rather than over email. This helps eliminate the potential for tone misinterpretation and feels less like a brush off.
Scripts for Clients:
You/Your Services Aren't a Good Fit for Them: “After taking some time to think about your needs, I’d like to be transparent with you and let you know that while I’d love to work with you, I don’t think I’d be the best fit for your project/need. It’s important to me to make sure every client I work with is getting superior service and at this time I’m not able to offer ________ (insert the need they have that you don’t feel you can satisfy). Please don’t hesitate to reach out in the future if you need help with ________ (insert things you could offer them moving forward).”
They/Their Needs Aren't a Good Fit for You: “After taking some time to think about your needs, I’d like to be transparent with you and let you know I won’t be able to pursue a working relationship with you. It’s important to me to make sure I’m exceeding client expectations and I don’t feel that I can match your needs in production time/vision/communication style/(insert whatever the issue is....in a nice way). I wish you the best moving forward and appreciate your understanding."
5) PROTECT THE QUALITY OF YOUR WORK
If you’re overwhelmed, it's not a matter of if it will show up in your work, but when. Whether it's in the molasses-style slowness that your work starts to take on, in the quality of your presence in face-to-face interactions or in the quality of what you produce. When you try to stuff too much in, the seam will start to rip somewhere and your client relationships will suffer. At this point, protecting your schedule and work load is to the benefit of everyone, not just yourself.
Solutions: Time block your work to avoid taking on too much, seeing your work visualized allows you to get a grasp on how much or little of it there truly is. If you're not sure how long something takes you, time yourself doing said task. Make sure to account for breaks throughout the day for things like, you know...eating, using the restroom, that kind of stuff.
Scripts for Clients: “Thank you so much for your inquiry about my services. At this time, I’m currently booked up and feel the quality of my service to you would suffer if I took on anything additional. My schedule should be clearing up next month, are you able to tackle the project then? If not, I have a great referral source for you."
6) CHALLENGE BAD IDEAS
When someone presents you with a proposition that you know is not the best way of handling it, is not effective for their goal or is genuinely not in their best interest, don’t stay silent. Own your expertise and offer alternate solutions that will benefit them. This may mean getting some push back from clients or dedicating some time and energy to explaining why you feel such-and-such is a better way. Be okay with that knowing that failing to do so is failing your clients. Be brave enough to say “NO” to business if someone isn’t willing to approach things in a way that makes sense to both of you rather than committing to something you can’t get behind. (Trust us, the likelihood of this scenario coming back to bite you in the tookus is very high, so reign in your "yes" impulse until you've thought it through and presented clear alternatives.)
Solutions: If possible, take a moment to think over your response when presented with an idea or proposal that you don’t feel makes sense. When we react too quickly, we can often come across as critical rather than constructive. If you have the opportunity, bounce a couple possible solutions/suggestions off of a trusted colleague and ask them if your ideas make sense, are presented well and how your language and tone are coming across.