(This article published in The Portable Business, our weekly ACA ezine for business owners and clients. Subscribe here.)
When you are a solopreneur service provider and the craftsman in your business, illness can have a direct impact on your clients and finances. That is, it will if you don’t set your business up with intention and a bit of foresight. There are ways in which you can operate and work with clients so that the occasional sick day (or two or three) has little or no affect on your daily operations. Below are my secrets and advice for building a solo practice that is practically illness-proof.
1. Be an expert, not an assistant. There’s a HUGE difference. Stop working as if you were a telecommuting employee to clients. It’s great to get to know a client’s business really, really well. But that doesn’t require you to involve yourself in their daily operations. When you do that, you don’t leave yourself any room to get sick, which means when you do get sick (and trust me, you will), it will be that much more of a disastrous prospect.
2. Only take on work that can be scheduled. That means, only work that has some leeway by at least three days, which is my rule of thumb. You don’t want to build a practice based on providing instant assistance and same-day requests (not to be confused with providing responsive attention when customer service issues arise). As an independent professional–not an employee–you are there to provide strategic support and expertise, not daily assistance. And you’ll never be able to support anyone well if you are constantly interrupting one client’s work to deal with the next client’s last minute request or “emergency.” Sometimes the client just needs to do it themselves or wait their turn. It’s that simple.
3. Establish workflows and turn-around policies that give you plenty of space to move around in. Require clients to follow work request procedures that you devise–not them. Give yourself room to breath in your turn-around times. This will allow the occasional hiccup in work (such as when illness occurs) to be a non-issue; you simply bump things to the next day or so. And don’t work with clients who can’t operate within your protocols–they are not ideal for you.
4. Avoid anchor clients. Once you start working with a client for more than 20 or 30 hours a month, you become more like an employee than a strategic service provider or support partner. Anchor clients bog your business down to the point you have no room to grow or move around in your business, much less get sick. Stop doing that. Know when to tell clients that they need an employee. You’re doing both of you a favor. You never want all your eggs in one basket anyway, and as a general rule of thumb, each client should represent no more than 15-20% of your business. Illness has far less of an impact on any one client this way.
5. Empower clients, don’t make them dependent. You love your clients. You love helping them succeed. And it’s fantastic and commendable that you’re always seeking to improve and give them your very best. HOWEVER, as an independent service provider (and contrary to the latest ridiculous buzz word of the day), you are not part of your clients’ team. No client should be so dependent upon you that if you were to get sick or need to close up shop for any amount of time, their business falls to pieces and they can’t do anything themselves. If that’s how you are working with clients, you are setting yourselves BOTH up to fail. Work with clients in ways that empower them and keep them wanting to work with you, not feeling enslaved to you because they’ve been allowed to abdicate responsibility.
6. Work with an administrative partner. Contrary to what most people think, being solo does NOT mean being alone and doing everything yourself. It simply means you are the craftsperson who works directly with your clients. No one can do everything themselves. By partnering with an Administrative Consultant, you get someone who can help you with many of the administrative functions in your business, keep it running smoothly AND give you some breathing room should you get sick by assisting with client work or notifying clients when necessary.
7. Practice excellent self-care. You can’t take great care of others unless you take great care of YOU first. That’s what all of these tips are about. You have to have a high standard for taking great care of yourself and your own business, before you can extend that great care to others. Acknowledge that you are human; you WILL get sick or need time away on occasion. Let clients know this at the very start of the relationship and how this is handled in your business. This standard also helps you realize that when clients want what you can’t or shouldn’t provide them with, they are not ideal. It’s practicing self-care and integrity when you let those folks know that you can’t help them and what they really need instead.
8. Put together a risk management/disaster recovery/business interruption plan. We’re talking about incidental, non-serious illness in this article, but more catastrophic illnesses and events are another story. God forbid anything terrible befalls you and that your livelihood becomes as risk. Taking time to put together a disaster recovery/risk management plan will help mitigate any interruptions in your business and service to clients. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece and it’s something you can add to as you go along. Whenever you identify a risk, add it to your plan and then outline what you are doing now or would do to prevent or minimize the impact. For example, one risk for being in business is that a crazy client could say an error you made caused them a problem. One solution would be to have business insurance that would perhaps pay off these claims. Another solution for this risk would be to formalize your strategy in writing for how you would respond to unhappy clients and attempt to rectify things before it ever got to the point of a lawsuit being filed.
Policies and procedures aren’t only about instilling systems in your business. And they certainly aren’t about being inflexibly militant with clients. Ultimately, they exist because they are the very things that enable you to take fabulous care of your clients–all of them equally–consistently and reliably. In my guide Plush: Red Carpet Strategies for Providing Luxurious Client Care, one of the secrets I share with you is a workflow and turn-around policy that takes great care of clients, gives you room to breath (and get sick should that happen), and creates a practice that affords more freedom and flexibility for LIFE than you ever imagined possible.