My first client came by chance, prior to me making the decision to start a business. They are a non profit organization and the owner is my friend/past co worker. Because of this we started with no clear rules or barriers. Now that I am putting structure in place, the client gets uncomfortable at times. Should I feel bad for adding formality/professionalism where there was none? —Patricia, PMB Admin Services
Oh gosh, no! You have nothing to feel bad about. These are normal growing pains and you are doing exactly as you should be—instilling structure, standards and boundaries. These things are critical to the improving health, continued growth and financial viability of your business—and your own self-care, I might add.
This is a very common path for many of us in this industry. We start with a vague idea of being self-employed, come into a sort of accidental business to one extent or another, and become more intentioned and conscious about our business and what we want for it as we go along. Very, very normal.
It’s also very normal to outgrow some clients along the way. As we gain more and more clarity about what we want to do and be in our business and enact standards and improvements around those intentions, there will always be some clients who balk at your growth. A lot of times, it’s because we’ve spoiled them with unsustainable ways of working together in the beginning that ultimately don’t work for us in the long-run. As you’ve discovered, the business and relationship has to work for both you and the client equally, not one or the other, or it just won’t last.
And while we certainly want to be friendly and feel warm-fuzzies toward our clients, there’s also something to be said for keeping somewhat of a friendly-but-professional distance. I have seen (and have had myself) more problems with clients when they get too comfy in the relationship and feel like they are “more than a client, I’m a friend.” This is a slippery slope, and I find most people end up having more trouble keeping and standing up for their boundaries when they find themselves in that kind of a relationship with a client.
It’s one of the reasons that friends and past employers do not often make for good clients. With friends, there’s a sort of implicit or unconcious idea that they will be given special privileges and exceptions (“Can’t you do it my way, make this exception, just this once, for me? I thought we were friends!“). We hate to disappoint them and often find it more difficult to say “no” when we need to. With past employers, they too often come into the relationship mistakenly assuming that you will be working in the same employee/employer dynamic (which makes a proper, formal consultation even more important).
I’ve been there myself so I know exactly what you’re going through.
When you make changes and improvements in your business, some clients may happily stay and grow forward with you, and some may choose not to. That’s okay. Let those clients go who can’t get on board with how you need for your business to operate or they will stand in the way of your continued growth and evolution. Here are a few things you can do moving forward to help with these growing pains.
1. Start a living Client Guide. I say living because it should be a document that you continue to hone and develop throughout the life of your business. And what is a Client Guide, some may ask? It’s simply a handbook for clients that gives them all the information they need about getting the most out of your relationship and how things work in your business. It should outline your policies, procedures and protocols. It should include your standards and values for working together. It should let them know how work is handled and how work requests are to be submitted to you. There are a whole host of things you can include and these will become evident as you continue along in your business. Whatever they need to know about how to work with you should be documented in this guide and given to all your clients.
2. Have a New Client Orientation. Whenever a new retainer client comes on board with you, have a special welcoming meeting (on the phone or video chat) where you give them a refresher orientation on working together (how things work, what procedures they should follow, etc.)
3. Include the topic of standards, boundaries, policies and protocols in your consultation conversations. This discussion is important to finding fit with each other and helps ensure clients go into the relationship with proper understandings and expectations. Let them know that as your business grows and things change, you will always let them know ahead of time. It’s when clients are left in the dark and caught off-guard that they are most unhappy about changes.
4. Always let clients know of changes in your business. Whenever you enact a change in policy or protocol or what-have-you, be sure and let clients know. Depending on what kind of change it is, that can be in a formal letter, an email or your newsletter/ezine. Some may say it’s better to do so “in-person” over the phone. While it never hurts to have a follow-up conversation if clients need more clarification (like in your weekly telephone or video chat meeting), I think it’s important that a formal, written notice go out first to all your clients. Maintaining business formalities and protocols in this manner helps both of you remember that first and foremost, this is a business relationship.
5. Always follow your full consultation process and normal procedures. One of the biggest mistakes I see folks make in our business is taking shortcuts with their processes when it comes to friends, former employers as well as project/occasional clients who now are interested in ongoing retained support. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve had a prior relationship or how well you know (or think you know) a potential client, always, always go through your full, usual processes for consulting with them and bringing them onto your roster. This goes a long way toward helping instill proper boundaries and expectations with those clients right from the beginning so that they respect you and your business as a business. Remember, you might know each other, but they don’t know your business or how you do things in it. That’s partly what your consultation process and orientations are for. 😉