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How Your Brand Can Set Clear Boundaries

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

Those of us of a certain age were taught that the customer always comes first. Now we are realizing that the employees must come first to serve the customer most effectively. During this shift, how can your brand strike a balance between the two (often competing) priorities of customer and employee? The answer lies in how your brand sets clear boundaries for itself.

Clear boundaries are built on empowerment, self-worth and self-respect. This is true for individuals, but it is also true for brands. A brand that is needy enough to let just any old customer into its circle will quickly experience the shock and damage of low brand esteem.

If It Quacks Like A Duck…

I absolutely detest the phrase “fire the client.” Sure, it feels like reclaiming our power, especially we were abused and disrespected by a customer. However, no customer can take from you what you didn’t willingly give away. You failed to maintain a boundary from the beginning of the relationship. But it isn’t too late to set the boundary – you just might have to let them go.

We might not recognize the signs of a client that demands discounted rates the first time. But we certainly can recognize it the next time – and the next, and the next. Not only that, we quickly learn how to lower our standards of work to meet their budgets. Our pride and sense of value goes right out the window with the income we sacrificed. This is what I call “the scarcity client.” Let the scarcity client go.

This is true of the customers that expect 24/7 access and immediate responses as well. These are the individuals and organizations that operate in a perpetual crisis. They might pay well for the privilege of taking you and your team hostage, but the these are golden handcuffs that will burn you out very quickly. There is no award for destroying your personal wellbeing and missing your children’s lives over a client who can’t strategically manage themselves. This is what I call the “hostage-taking” client. Let the hostage-taking client go.

And lastly, there is the client who is never satisfied. They are seeking a scapegoat for their own failure to make the mark. This customer micromanages everything, instead of focusing on strategies and vision, then delegating to competent team members. They have a lot of rules and processes, but have difficulty meeting their own deadlines because they are paralyzed with fear and lack of consensus. The result is the entire project is infused with dread and negativity. This is the just plain unhappy client. Let the unhappy client go.

Instead of firing these customers, simply step down, without blame. Admit you accepted the work for wrong reasons, missed the signs, own your lessons and move on. It is not only possible, but far healthier, to maintain full respect for your former client, who must grapple with their own issues.

Know What You Stand For

Happily, dysfunctional customer relationships can often be repaired. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, take a look at what your brand actually stands for, then actually stand for it.

The first, and best, place to begin is with your brand’s core values.  I advise my clients to keep it to 3 or 4 core values at most. This is because it is a memorable number. You will need to remember them, since to have core values means to live them out in everything your brand does.  

So if you are dealing with a client who is always demanding financial concession, for instance, take a look at how that is impacting your values. If you value creativity or service, for example – there is a cost involved in bringing them to life. You owe it to yourself, your brand and your team to hold the line on those values, and stand firm in asking the customer to honor them too – by paying an appropriate amount.  If they decline, you may have to let the customer go. But many times it actually helps them to feel better about the product or service they are receiving when they are asked to pay an amount that is in better alignment with its true worth.

This also means your employees will realize that your brand stands for something they can believe in and benefit from. Slowly you will see any individual who doesn’t resonate with your values depart from the team, and those who do will be thrilled to join.

Clearly Communicate Your Boundaries

Unfortunately, when we feel we have been burned, we tend to become defensive in our communications. We also project our fears of repeating the past experience onto our next customers or employee. So we create rules, and legal documents that put everyone on notice that we won’t stand for that sort of abuse. I feel dirty just thinking about when I did that myself. It keeps us in a victim role, expecting the worst of everyone.

We loudly proclaim: You won’t take advantage of me like that!

However, that’s really not the most effective communication plan, as you might have guessed. First, recognize that boundaries are something you set for your brand, not something you set for customers or employees.

You see, they aren’t the ones who actually cross your boundaries. You are.

You cross your own boundaries when you neglect to have a clear plan of action if someone is disrespectful of your boundary.

When you have that clear plan, you let everyone know what to expect.

So, if you need a down payment to begin work, when you send the invoice, say, once we receive your payment, we will immediately begin work. (Then don’t start working until you get it!)

If you charge a certain amount for a product or service, and the new customer wants to haggle, you can certainly discuss what to remove from the project or product to meet their budget, or stand firm on the initial amount. But anything else is crossing your own boundary.

Another big one is setting a boundary around your work schedule and accessibility. If you set a boundary not to work on weekends or after 6pm, for instance, without prior agreement, then don’t answer emails/texts during those hours, and alert clients that to do so will have a financial up-charge.

Communicate your timelines, don’t take on work that is outside of the project scope with addressing it in advance, and provide project updates. This is how you – and your customers – will be able to quickly tell if boundaries are in jeopardy.

Communicate these things as soon in the process as possible, and do it kindly and warmly.

Why Would Anyone Cross Their Own Boundaries?

We erode our own boundaries because we are afraid. Period.

We are afraid we don’t have enough business.

We are afraid we aren’t good enough to ask for higher fees.

We are afraid we aren’t growing fast enough.

We are afraid if we don’t, a competitor will.

We are afraid of failing.

The price of letting this fear run our brands is putting our power into someone else’s hands. It might not kill your brand, but it will certainly relegate you to a dissatisfying,

overwhelming process. You will feel like a victim, hampering your ability to grow and adapt.

Boundaries are healthy. They help individuals and brands move forward with purpose and power.


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