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How to Stop the Time Suck of Customer Relationships

Implementing strong client boundaries helps keep everyone focused.
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They’re the clients you love to work with because they pay on time,compliment your work and amplify the creative energy. There’s just one problem: They also take a ton of your time, turning what should be a quick phone call into an epic discussion, sending multiple emails when one would suffice or requiring multiple explanations every time something new arises.

The adage “You teach people how to treat you” isn’t just for families and friends. It’s also for clients. If you want clients to have stronger respect for the boundaries of time, you must set the tone for the relationship. Here’s how to set impose stricter bounders with clients in the following scenarios: 

Related: Protect Yourself: How to Structure Your Consulting Contracts

1. The "quick chat” always turns into a lengthy call.

Set boundaries for the start and end times. When scheduling a call, let the client know that you’ll have another appointment right after hers. Then about 10 minutes before that next appointment, say, “We have about 10 minutes remaining before I have another call. Why don’t we focus on X before we wrap up?”

Some clients might not actually realize that they’re going on and on, and these audio cues will help you end the call on time. If there some agenda items don't get addressed on the call, offer to follow up via email.

2. It takes multiple emails to get one little thing done.

Be thorough in the emails you send. With every email, consider adopting the framework that public speakers use: Tell the client what you’re going to say, say it and tell him what you said. For example try this: “This email will cover the options that you wanted me to research for October’s awards gala and I believe that options 3 and 7 are the best. The options are [list them out]. I believe that options 3 and 7 are the best for October’s Awards Gala.”

If you type out “October” and “awards gala” as full words without abbreviations, you’ll improve your client’s ability to search his inbox for an email. That may mean that she won’t email you later to ask a question that you’ve already answered.

Related: Don't Let Your Business Be Held Hostage by a Nightmare Client

3. A client is disorganized and needs things sent over -- again.

Be extra organized from the get-go. Sometimes clients need their consultants to help them with organization. This can happen particularly with email, when a client quickly scans a list of items and misses something important, which she then feels the need to ask you about later. 

Try focusing each email  on just one subject at a time. For instance, send one email about “Friday’s appointment time.” Dispatch a separate email about “new budget projections.”

Additionally, empower your clients to find for themselves the answers they're seeking. A live Google Drive document with project specifics can be helpful for clients to consult and can be updated easily every time new questions arise. 

4. The client misunderstands things -- again and again.

Keep records. While it’s easy to blame clients for confusions and misunderstandings (“Why don’t they get it when I’m being so clear?”), it’s possible that your explanations aren’t as clear as you think they are. Invest the time in creating how-to documents that cover the basics that a client would need to know when working with you. Chances are good that they can be adapted for use with multiple clients.

Finally, it’s becoming more commonplace to talk via Skype or Google Hangouts. Even record these type of calls and deliver a copy to the client afterward for her to reference.

5. The client wants “just one more thing."

Determine your limit for the deliverables to be rendered and after receiving a request for more than that, offer to submit an additional proposal with a budget. It’s a best practice to overdeliver for clients, but this can quickly turn into a client’s constant requests for little extras that go far beyond the terms of the initial project agreement. As a first step, clarify what would feel good for you to give to clients because giving clients your best is part of providing great service in business.

Then as a second measure, if a client makes multiple requests beyond the scope of the project, indicate that this is what's happened and offer to send a proposal or quote for additional work.

The final step? If you haven't been charging for all these little extras, be prepared to explain why you’re going to start charging. 

When time feels like a vortex with some clients, you can easily feel overwhelmed and frustrated by having your attention drawn away from other aspects of your business or deserving clients. Face the fear of speaking up by taking total responsibility for setting forth effective client boundaries from the beginning of every relationship.

While it might feel intimidating for you to enact these boundaries, any client who is a professional will understand that you’re doing only what’s in service of arriving at the best possible way to work together.

Related: 3 Steps to Recovering Stolen Time: Confront Your 'Time Bandits'