Three diplomatic ways to set boundaries with clients
Setting limits is a popular topic these days, and for good reason. So many people feel overloaded or caught up in a cycle of burnout, so the desire to dismiss a quick “no” to protect the limits of time and attention makes sense. But how do you say “no” successfully in a professional environment if your business says yes to customer service?
A reader contacted me recently. Let’s call it Amber. Amber runs a rapidly growing communications agency of around 20 people and the work tends to be under high pressure. Taking care of yourself and avoiding burnout are important values for the staff and for the culture of Amber’s agency. The tricky part is keeping the balance with the tempo of the work.
About a third of Amber’s staff have been with the agency for less than a year. As the organization continues to grow, Amber wants to be smart about sustainable staff retention. “We’re not in danger of quitting en masse, but one of my managers let me know that some of the staff have spoken out about how exhausted they are. They asked for help setting boundaries with customers, ”Amber said. So I sent her three customer management tactics that I use to push back when customers try to ignore boundaries.
1. Be clear about the communication standards and reinforce them. Limits are reinforced by behavior. It is important to maintain consistency in the way staff engage and communicate. We have dozens of ways to connect, with technology that enables impulse reactions and responses. This is the challenge and a big part of the reason why borders are eroding.
One way to protect staff boundaries is to set clear expectations for key communication channels and standard working hours. Also establish a definition of emergencies and how that translates into communication during non-standard working hours. Defining these protocols should be part of your customer’s onboarding process. If not, consider setting them as soon as possible.
For example, Slack or a similar collaboration platform can be used in a workflow to share versions of a document or design. Email can be used for updates and everything. Regardless of the communication channel, make sure that a platform or channel is designated as “primary”. This is where non-urgent communications are sent, processed and tracked.
They set the protocol for an emergency. It may appear to be flagged and alerted in a notification. This can be a text message, if it is customary to share cell phone numbers. If the job involves an emergency or an immediate response, it is essential that expectations and protocols are clear so that messages are not missed.
The tricky part of this is sticking to the process. The line blurs when people stop following protocol. So maybe a customer is worried about a potential problem, but there is no break-up situation. So they text on a Saturday, or they text after normal business hours. Or a staff member has made a breakthrough on part of the project and is texting the client outside of standard working hours. The two behaviors only weakened the limits of each.
Mistakes will happen or an emergency could arise, but again, limits are reinforced by behaviors. So, assuming a standard work situation, stick to the agreed protocol. If the client sends a non-urgent communication that is out of range, respectfully respond within project standards, on the preferred channel. For example, if a customer sends a text message on the weekend, respond by email the next business day, not immediately by text.
2. Offer compromises instead of an outright “no”. Customer services are profitable thanks to billable hours. Giving an emphatic “no” to a customer’s request could risk damaging customer relationships. So think about actively listening to the customer’s request, and then come up with a set of compromises or options. Then ask the customer to choose an option. This reinforces the limits of the project while keeping the client in the decision-making seat.
In practice, it might look like the following. A customer engagement involves running two social media platforms with a set number of hours per month. The client decides they want to add two more platforms to the project. The staff member should calculate the overtime it would take to manage the new platforms. Then the staff member could present the client with options that stay within the budget of the work plan. New platforms may take too long or stray from the original project goals. The employee must guide the client towards a strategic use of the fixed time of this project.
A simple script to use is: “I understand you want to add [the new items] to the project, in addition to our current plan. The project budget is set for [fixed number of hours.] What should we prioritize? ” This script will either prevent new deliverables from being incorporated into the project, or it could open discussions for additional budget. But it is anchored in the initial scope of the budget.
3. Use your manager as a shield. Your supervisor should be a staff advocate and is the best negotiator against border blurring and scope drift. In fact, the previous two tactics should be led and applied by managers. Managers are likely to lead the onboarding of new customers, including guiding conversations about communication standards and protocols. They should also support staff in using tradeoffs in response to a client asking for things outside of the project plan.
The best partner in maintaining boundaries is a manager who supports you. This involves working together to maintain strong communication and transparency between manager and staff. For people just starting out in their careers, it can be difficult to ask for help as it can make them feel like they can’t handle a situation. But encouraging staff to feel comfortable bringing a manager into situations of friction can be good for the project and great for staff cohesion. The most powerful phrase to protect boundaries might be to encourage staff to say “let me handle this by my boss” so that the manager can issue a protective “no”.