Dear Danielle: I’ve Lost All Boundaries—Is This Relationship Salvageable?

I've lost all boundaries. Is this relationship salvageable?

Dear Danielle:

I have a client who signed a three month retainer which will end next month. The client is a publicist in Los Angeles. Working with this individual has become a job. I work 50 hours a week. The reason being that I have become an assistant vs. admin support. I like this person and it is clear that she needs help. My challenge is how to steer this so that she’s working within my business model and not the other way around. I’m not making nearly what I should be. I took less to build the relationship. Is there a way to bring this around or should I just thank her for the wonderful experience (while frustrating at times, I’ve learned a lot) and move on? —TK

This is SUCH a great question. It’s a common pitfall for so many Administrative Consultants. I’m sorry you are going through this, but on the positive side of things, as you recognize, it’s a super valuable learning experience.

There are so many business concepts this touches on so I’m just going to enumerate things to consider (not in any specific order). You may have figured most of this out yourself having gone through this now so it may serve more as validation that you’re getting on the right track from this point forward.

1. YOU set your fees, not clients. By allowing clients to dictate what they will pay, you abdicate leadership of your own business. As you have experienced, this sets a very poor precedent in the relationship from there. This client nows acts like and works with you as your employer, not your client.

2. Never bargain with your fees. You never want to make bargains with the very thing that earns your living. All you do then is teach clients to devalue the work and the relationship, and give them the idea that everything is up for negotiation.

And really, it amounts to bribery.

It’s saying, “I am not worth what I’m charging so I need to bribe you with discounts and freebies in order to get you to work with me.”

That’s a horrible, powerless way to start a relationship and attracts all the worst kinds of clients.

Discounting is such a common practice in our industry, but I want to be crystal clear about this: Just because we see it a lot, doesn’t mean it’s working. ;)

There are a whole lotta people out there who are NOT making any money and whose businesses are going nowhere due to this instititutionalized lack of professional self-esteem and putting themselves on sale.

If what you have to offer is valuable and worthwhile, it’s worth charging fully for right from the get-go.

There will be more mutual respect, and your business and relationships will grow more successfully and healthily from there.

There are other–better–ways to start new client relationships and make it easier for them to say yes that don’t entail discounting or otherwise bargaining with your fees.

2. Avoid anchor clients. An anchor client is one who ends up monopolizing all your time and energy. They are called “anchor” clients because they weigh your business down and keep it from going (and growing) anywhere.

It doesn’t help that we’ve got virtual assistant training programs teaching folks that these kinds of clients who hire them for 40, 60 or more hours a month are the bee’s knees.

If you are someone who is only doing this work as a side income and more of a hobby, then that’s fine and dandy.

But it absolutely does not work at all for those who are trying to build a real business that earns a real, full-time income (and more!) that they can actually live on.

That’s because working with those kind of clients doesn’t leave you the room or energy to work with others and grow your business.

I can’t tell you how many people in our industry I personally know who are struggling because they are working like full-time assistants to their clients.

They aren’t making enough money to live on and they barely have any time to think or do anything else.

They’re definitely not living the freedom and choice-filled life of the self-employed they dreamed of when they first started.

If you have read my blog for long, you’ll frequently see me referring to this as “operating and working with clients like an assistant in ways that aren’t sustainable and don’t give your business room to grow.”

A good rule of thumb is that no one client should make up more than 20% of your business.

If you are working with one client for 40-50 hours a week, you’ve got yourself an anchor client who is probably making up 75% or more of your entire business.

You aren’t making the kind of money you want and need, yet you haven’t given yourself room to work with anyone else.

And what happens if that client says bye-bye? There goes almost all (if not all) of your entire income.

On top of things, you’ve been so busy working with this one client, you haven’t had any time to market your business to keep those prospective client pipelines open. Not that you had any room to take on new clients anyway.

Quite the dilemma and not a good place to be, right? So this is what you do…

3. Recognize when what a client really needs IS an employee. As you’ve stated, this has become a job and it’s time to let this client know that what she really needs is an employee, one who can be solely dedicated to that level of workload.

You want to always remember (and tell this to clients, too) that you provide strategic support which is an alternative to employees, not a substitute or replacement for them. That means there is necessarily going to be a difference in when and how you work together as well as what work you take on (and what you don’t).

There are going to be many clients and many workloads this simply isn’t a fit for–and isn’t supposed to be.

There are a lot of people out there who just aren’t going to understand this (sometimes folks have to be a little further along in their business for certain things to make sense), but I gotta say it anyway: When a client starts needing you for more than 20-30 hours a month, what they really need is an employee.

Because once you start getting into those kind of hours for one client, the work starts to require more constant, daily monitoring and it overwhelms everything else. And that is a condition that will not only lead to burn-out and keep you chained to your desk every day, more importantly, it will limit your ability to work with others and deprive you of the “space” you need to move around easily in the work and work on your business. Daily on-demand work causes crowding which also leads to poor performance and inconsistent delivery.

The more profitable, sustainable model that also allows you to keep the higher value, one-on-one, true partnering relationship is to work with a few retained clients whose individual workloads don’t exceed 20-30 hours a month.

It’s a much easier business to manage, it gives you space and leaves room to grow and offer additional services and project work. In that model (and as long as you are also charging properly), it only takes a handful of clients to do well financially. And because you have “space,” you can supplement your lines of business in many different ways.

4. YOU need to set the parameters and the definitions. This is where I’m always saying that being an administrative expert and being an assistant are not one and the same thing. And if you’re a business owner, you aren’t anyone’s assistant.

What I want those two statements to do is help people get conscious and intentionally define their role. You can be an administrative expert without having to be anyone’s assistant. Problem is most of the information you get in the VA industry today is telling people that they have to be assistants. And that’s not a new paradigm whatsoever. It’s just a different name for the same thing:  employee.

When you get clear about that, you understand that your value isn’t in being and doing everything for that client. You CAN focus on just the administrative support in your clients’ businesses without being an assistant and instead being an administrative expert. If you want to also be an assistant, that’s up to you, but like I say, they aren’t one and the same thing. You get to choose, but understand this—your value isn’t dependent upon also being an assistant. It’s all in how YOU define the work and your role in your business.

Likewise,  you need to define what administrative support is. And the reason this is important is because so many people are giving everything away under the administrative support umbrella.

So you want to define what kind of work is administrative support and what work logically falls into other categories of business.

This will not only help you define parameters, making things more manageable and leaving you room to grow with that client as well as others, but you also create additional revenue sources by charging separately for those things that don’t fall under the administrative support umbrella.

Obviously, I can’t say one way or the other if this is a salvageable relationship. I can tell you, though, that once you’ve spoiled a client and allowed them to have expectations that you can’t sustain and that keep your business from growing, it’s often really difficult to wean them off those things.

As you grow and your standards change and improve, always expect that you may lose some clients. It’s just natural that you will outgrow some of them.

If it’s a relationship you’d like to try to keep, all you can do is be open, honest and direct about the changes that must take place in your business and how you work together in order for it to grow.

Let the client know that you hope she will come with you. But don’t be invested in the outcome beyond that.

If she chooses to come with you and accept the adjustments you need to make, great! You can now move forward on more mutually beneficial footing.

If not, it just leaves you room for more ideal clients to come into your business.

UPDATE: Read Part 2 of this post here:  How Working More Hours Can Mean Less Money

16 Responses

  1. Deidra says:

    Great advice for any entrepreneur, no matter what service they provide. I retweeted and posted on Facebook. Thanks!

  2. Verleene says:

    Great advice to follow!

  3. Mirna Bajraj says:

    Great article Danielle! this is really good advice. I made myself a big mistake: after a client of mine was so disappointed from graphic designers he requested the design of his companie´s logo, I myself designed one, just to show him something that came to my mind. He liked my design so much that he said he will use mine, instead of any of those he paid for! I was totally surprised. Now I regret that I haven’t made it clear before deliverying the idea, that this was not included in the services we agreed on. I feel totally embarassed now to say, “hey! I forgot to mention that is not for free”… I ralize this was a huge mistake, and don’t know if there is a way to amend it, without crating some noise…

  4. Danielle G says:

    Great advice Danielle! I had the same problem with my first client, and after the third month I had to say Thank you and move on because I didn’t start my own business to be treated like an employee who’s payments was late and returned every month!

  5. Oh, don’t you just love those “learning” experiences, Mirna? :)

    Don’t be too hard on yourself–we’ve all done similar types of things. In our eagerness to help and be of service, it’s easy to give away the farm instead of simply letting folks know “I can help you with that” and not doing any actual work until there’s been some agreement (and payment) to move forward.

  6. I must be missing something here. How can someone be working 50 hours a week and NOT be making money?

  7. Michelle says:

    Wow, does that sound familiar, really great advice Danielle. Thanks for sharing everyone. I am actually working with my first client after opening the doors a couple of months ago. It was starting to get out of hand and I recognized the beginning of his interpretation of a business relationship. I reeled him back in though and things are better than ever. I am looking forward to working with other clients and have learned the valuable lesson well.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Great advice Danielle! I know I have been falling into the same trap since I am new to the industry and wanting to build my client base.

  9. Felicia T. says:

    The information that I’m reading on this blog of yours is amazing and could not have come at a better time. Thank you!

  10. Ninki says:

    Wonderful advice here Danielle, and great clarification for the newer players in this game. I made the same mistakes with my first client, and it took many months for me to see it and then try to fix it.

    Our working relationship didn’t survive my re-framing, but I learned so much along the way, I consider I was paid in wisdom rather than dollars.

    Thank for your wonderful posts. I consider them both insightful and invaluable.

  11. “Paid in wisdom rather than dollars.” That’s a great phrase, Ninki!

    And so true… these experiences can be painful and frustrating, but I never consider them mistakes because we end up learning so much.

    I went through one of these clients myself back in the early days and I tell you what, I never made some of those missteps ever again, LOL. Just made me and my business smarter and stronger!

  12. Robyn says:

    I can not THANK YOU enough for the advice you emailed to me and for sharing the links to the most informative articles I have read yet regarding the VA Profession. I find myself in this exact situation but now I feel more confident to go forward and rectify the issue with my client.

    I have purchase your Time Analysis and I look forward to looking it over and applying to my business for the New Year!

    Again thank you from the bottom of my heart for the advice, confidence, know how and just a good plain kick in the butt that I needed!

    Robyn
    Ross Virtual Admin Consultant Services

  13. You are so welcome, Robyn. :)

    Keep in touch and let me know how you progress.

    Be sure and join our Facebook community and introduce yourself to the group, too: https://www.facebook.com/AdminConsultants

  14. Tanya Daye says:

    Ohhhhh my goodness. This article is very helpful. I am in the process if redesigning my business and this article has answered a few questions, as well as setting a foundation to built upon. Thank you.

  15. This was a great question and your advice was spot on. It’s easy to get sucked into this type of relationship. Especially when you are starting out. Its always best to evaluate each client and spell everything out ahead of time.

  16. Regina A. says:

    This is such an important topic and it really does need to be addressed more often because the distinction is not clear at all. And then difficulties arise when these businesses need to be set straight either by the current consultant, as you say, or the next. I really appreciated this, thanks!

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