How do you set boundaries in your business? Or maybe I should ask, do you set boundaries in your business?

A lot of people have trouble with that, whether they’re independent professionals serving clients directly, or they work for a big company.

What happens when boundaries are lax? We wind up doing more work than we intended to do. Or spending more time on a project than we planned to spend. Or making less money than we deserve for the work we’ve done.

People with porous boundaries also get frazzled and exhausted and cranky! And that’s no fun for them or for anyone else who deals with them. Colleagues, spouses, children…they’re all happier when we know our limits and stick to them.

A friend was telling me the other day about clients taking advantage of her legal expertise. One in particular came in for an hour-long consultation and left more than two hours later. Without an agreement to move forward!

So that was two-hours-plus down the tubes. It wasn’t going to bring any money into the practice. And it left her feeling resentful; she’d been taken advantage of. The whole experience was a time-suck and an energy-drain.

It also could not have happened if my friend hadn’t sat there, continuing to share her expertise and insights without compensation. You can hardly blame the would-be client for soaking up whatever she could get for free.

It’s not up to clients and customers to set boundaries for us, is it? Boundary setting is, as they say, an inside job.

So what gets in the way of establishing firm parameters and sticking to them? Three possibilities:

  • We need the client. A lot of independent professionals are on a tight budget. Especially when we’re starting out, money’s flowing out like crazy and not a lot comes back in. And that creates a lot of pressure to get every engagement we can.

Even in larger firms, individuals are held responsible for bringing in business. Keeping the lights on may not be up to you, but chances are good somebody’s paying attention to billing. And they expect you provide part of it.

  • We like the client. It’s easy, when we’re enjoying the conversation, to let the time fly by. We might agree to do a little extra work for someone who’s becoming a friend as well as a client. And when we have a warm, personal relationship with a customer who asks us to take less money, we’re more likely to agree. (The Friends-and-Family-Discount can wreak havoc on your bottom line.)
  • We want the client to like us. This is the tough one, isn’t it? What will they think of me if I end the session right on the dot? If I say no to scope-creep? If my rates really are firm?

What if they think I’m cold or selfish…or a bitch? Yes, I’m guessing this quest to be liked is more a problem for women than men.

You might have to do some inner work to address those issues, especially wanting to be liked. If you have a hard time getting past that, it may be that you don’t feel worthy of the money you’re charging for the work you do. Fixing that is definitely beyond my scope!

I do have a practical suggestion, though, for stating your boundaries once you settle on what they are. This is what I shared with my friend.

State your limit without explanation, justification or excuse. Repeat as necessary.

The more you explain, justify or excuse, the more openings the boundary-buster has to try to change your mind.

You say, “Our time is up because my next client is coming.” The B-B says, “I’ll just stay until they get here.” Or “I just have one more thing, this won’t take long.” Or “The traffic is terrible—they’ll probably be late.”

You say, “I can’t lower my fee because I have a kid in college.” They say, “Tell me about it. I have two college kids—you can give me a break, can’t you?” Or “I’m not asking you to change all your fees, just mine.” Or, well, you get the picture.

A better strategy is to flatly state your limit, giving them nothing to argue with.  “Our hour’s up.”  “That’s outside the scope of our agreement.”  “My fee is _____.”  And whatever their comeback is, you say it again, with a smile perhaps, but still flatly and firmly: “Our hour’s up.” “That’s outside the scope of our agreement.” “My fee is_____.”

To make sure your boundaries are honored, you’ll need three things.

  • Know where you’re drawing the line. (And give some thought to what you want inside that line as well as what you’re keeping out.)
  • Your business, your rules. Be sure to tell them in advance what those rules are.
  • Consistency. Let something slide one time, and people begin to expect it another break. And another. Better to keep the boundaries in place for everybody, every time.

You may have rock-solid boundaries—congratulations! And please tell us how you’ve made that work. Or, maybe this boundaries thing is a challenge for you? We’d love to hear about. Share it your experience in the comments below.