For a service based business, the amount of communicating you do is directly related to your income. If you’re not getting enough clients to fill your schedule, you’re probably not communicating enough. The fastest and easiest solution to business drought is to talk to more people.
Not all communication is equal, though. While some types of communication directly influence your income, some may actually be taking time away from billable work. It’s all about finding that balance with the “just right” amount of communication. If getting too many messages, phone calls, and social media comments is stressing you out, this is for you.
In a service-based business, there are 3 types of communication that happen in relation to your work. Some are essential, and some can be cut back a lot and save you lots of time and mental energy. Let’s start with the most important one.
1. Service delivery communication
Emails, messages, phone calls, video calls, and in-person meetings with a paying client that is directly related to the work you do together is “billable” communication.
Those who charge for appointments (medical and personal care services, training, coaching, consulting etc.) have a clear way of assigning value to the conversations with their clients. You may charge in hourly blocks, or have a price list with specified fees for different services you provide (regardless of the time it takes).
It’s challenging for a business owner to draw the line between a paid appointment and evaluation/free advice. (More on that later.) It’s even more difficult if you’re on a friendly basis with your client, so it’s hard to sort out the time you’re providing a valuable service from general chit chat. Drawing clear boundaries around your appointment time and having a somewhat formal way to initiate them can ensure that you’re paid each time you’re dedicating work time to a client.
This may look like only booking appointments in advance, and not allowing drop-ins. Or every time a client emails you with some questions that would require more time to respond to, instead of providing the answer immediately via email, you can say “Those are great questions, I’d be happy to answer them all in our next session!”
Communication is also an essential part of the creative and technical work some of us do for our clients (design, development, illustration, video editing, architecture, interior design, any kind of engineering and research). Unfortunately, creative and technical professionals often forget to account for this in their project fees. I made the same mistake when I started my business, and only accounted for designing and coding time in project quotes. It was only when I realized that on average communication and admin take up 20–25% of total project time (!) that I raised my prices accordingly.
Even if we’re getting paid to talk to our clients, we still need to ensure that it leaves us plenty of time to do the hands-on work that we were hired for.
If you’re constantly answering emails and taking calls, it eats into your production time, and so you may be working late to make up for it, or working in the evenings when you’re less likely to be uninterrupted.
We also need to draw boundaries around our communication so we can focus. That may look something like this:
- Answer email at set intervals 2 times a day (and turn off email notifications on all your devices).
- Divert all of the project-related communication to your project management tool.
- Schedule phone calls with clients instead of picking up the phone whenever it rings.
- Or if that doesn’t work for you, keep your phone on “do not disturb” for a few hours a day and respond to any messages and calls at a later time.
The important part here is to set expectations for your clients when you’re going to be available, so that they’re not caught off-guard. I do this in my Welcome Guide that I send to each new prospect, which covers my design methodology, as well as my business policies.
If you didn’t set this in advance, you can explain to the client that you’ve made a decision to install some boundaries around the focused production time. Here’s an example of what this might look like:
as a part of my effort to continually improve my services, I decided to make some changes in my availability for calls, emails, and meetings. I need to reduce the impact of interruptions on my focused work time for [design/development/writing/whatever your service is] so I could ensure the highest possible quality of the work that I do for you and other clients.
Starting from today, I will be reading and responding to emails twice per day at 9 a.m. and noon on workdays, so if your email arrives later in the day I’ll respond to it the following morning.
I’ll be available for calls and meetings between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on workdays, and I’ll be responding to missed calls during that time as well.
Thanks for understanding, and I’m certain that your project will only benefit because of this.
Is it scary to send such an email? Absolutely. Drawing boundaries is never easy, that’s why we’re avoiding it so bad. Most of us have an urge to be kind and pleasant to others, so this sounds like being the opposite of that. It is not. Besides, you don’t have to tell them what you’re doing—you can just start doing it without explaining yourself.
Let’s put it this way. If all the emails and phone calls make it impossible for you to do your best work for your clients, then you’re essentially giving your clients a worse service. If you want to give them an awesome service, then you need to take whatever steps you need to protect your production time.
There are careers where a delay of a minute makes a difference between life and death. In some industries, minutes of network downtime can mean millions of dollars lost. Most of us consultants don’t work in these industries, and should not be held to the same standards. When time is of the essence, people do triage and are forced to opt for less ideal solutions to get things done in time. We’re in the business of providing excellence, so we can’t rush things and cut corners. We need to give ourselves more time.
Not responding to your clients on your days off is not poor service.
Honestly, any client who expects you to respond to them during weekends, vacations, and public holidays is unreasonable. I know that our smart devices have trained us to always be online, but come on, you need a break!
Back when people only used landlines, it was totally normal that if the office is closed, you can’t reach people by phone. (Unless they’ve given you their private number specifically so you could reach them during off hours—some doctors and therapists do that for health emergencies.) Now that everyone has a mobile phone, folks think it’s fine to call them at all hours. This is ridiculous.
If you have a separate work phone number, just keep it turned off when you’re not working, and keep it on silent when you’re focused on production. If you use one number, make a favorites contact list for family and close friends so they can reach you in an emergency, and turn on “do not disturb” whenever you don’t want to be interrupted.
If you have a separate work email address, don’t look at that inbox outside of work. I used to have all my email addresses in the same Gmail inbox and that was horrible. If a work-related email came in, I couldn’t leave it unread. And then I’d agonize whether to respond immediately or not. Now that my work email is in a whole separate inbox, I don’t even look at it over the weekend so I have no idea what’s going on in there until Monday morning. It’s bliss. Try it.
Yes I know, there are services where you’re expected to work during a weekend or evening hours (anything event-related). Be available for people that you’re providing a service for on that very weekend, and unavailable to others. Also, do schedule days off during the week when you can because you do need to rest no matter how much you love your work.
If you have ongoing client engagements, let them know when you’re leaving for a vacation and will not be available. Tell them to either save their requests for when you come back, or write you an email, but not to expect a response because you won’t see it. If they call you, do not answer and send them a text later that day: “I’m on vacation, I’ll call you when I get back on August 20th. Take care!”
This is not rude. It’s rude to interrupt people’s weekends and vacations.
Want to be at everyone’s beck and call 24/7? Then charge for it.
If you love working all day long, or if your clients are in an industry where immediate service is expected, you can choose to do that, but charge accordingly. This is a premium service and it needs to cost your clients a premium. Make it worth it for you. Charge an obscene amount of money so that when you inevitably burn out, you can take a whole year off to rest and figure out the next phase of your life. I’m serious. All those vacations and weekends you’re not getting right now? Your clients need to pay for you to take them some time in the future.
Also, hire capable people to share the coverage with you. You do need to sleep.
Next, let’s see what to do with our would-be clients.
2. Sales and onboarding communication
Sales and onboarding covers any communication that happens with the prospects before they sign the agreement to become a client. As you probably know, not all prospects will become paid clients, but usually more sales conversations leads to more clients.
A sales conversation can be one-on-one, like a chance meeting at a networking event, but it can also be a presentation you’re giving to a group of people who fit in your target audience. A free talk or a workshop in a place where your right people gather can be a great way to meet potential clients, and so are free video webinars and livestreams.
If you’re more comfortable talking to people one-on-one, you need to work on initiating conversations with people you’re interested in working with. This can happen in person or online. Some people swear by Facebook groups and LinkedIn conversations as a great way to meet clients.
It’s clear why this type of communication can be valuable: it’s a direct source of clients. But we still need to be mindful of the time we spend on it. If you currently don’t have a full client roster, spending a bit more time on meeting new people and talking to them about your work is a great way to fill it. But if you’re already booked out, you need to find a way to fit in those outreach activities without adding too much to your plate.
Sometimes it may make sense to take a break from engaging in active sales, like if you’re winding down before your vacation, or you have ongoing client work and are not looking to add more right now. But you can still be on the lookout for really interesting opportunities that may show up on your path. The best time to sell your service is when you’re not in a desperate need for clients. Your confidence and sense of ease will come through and make you appear more charming and trustworthy. Those ongoing projects may stop some day, and it’s good to have something else lined up when that happens.
Optimize your sales communication for quality over quantity
If most of the client inquiries you’re getting are for a) the type of work you’re not that excited about, or b) lower budgets than you typically charge, you’re probably not qualifying your prospects. Ideally, you’d want to qualify prospects before they even talk to you one-on-one, so that you don’t spend time in sales conversations with people who won’t buy your service anyway.
Sure, some folks won’t read your website and will go straight for the contact form. But most of them will self-select after reading your service pages, that is if you provide information they need to decide if you’re the right service provider for them. This way you’ll reduce the number of inquiries, but the ones you get will be more qualified and lead to a higher closing rate. I know that anyone who contacts me through my project inquiry form is comfortable with the budget my work would require, which is one of the biggest sticking points for clients in my field.
Examples of qualifying prospects before they contact you may look like:
- Stating your price range or minimum project fees on your services pages.
- Asking clients for their budget range in the contact form, with minimum values being your minimum project fees. (Even if they missed your prices earlier, this is where many will drop off.)
- Asking clients to select from a list of services in the contact form, instead of a general “What do you need help with?” question.
- Specifying that you only work with certain types of organizations (20+ employees minimum, multinational companies, million-dollar revenue companies, etc.)
- Specifying that you only work in certain types of industries (luxury homes, magazine publishing, enterprise software, etc.).
You would think that showing a portfolio of work would demonstrate to prospects that you make lettering and illustrations for magazines and cookbooks, not for individual wedding invitations. But people who like your work just want to take a shot and will ask you for all sorts of services they can imagine. It’s up to you to be extra clear about what you will and won’t do.
Limit the forms of communication for prospects
In my home country of Croatia, everyone wants to talk on the phone. I hate talking to people I’ve never met on the phone. I resent friends and family who give out my phone number to anyone who tells them they need a “designer”. (Usually they need services I don’t offer anymore because I’ve specialized in brand identity design, so it’s not a good fit.) Anyway. Barring these circumstances that I can’t control but I’m trying my hardest to prevent, I don’t talk to prospects on the phone. There’s no phone number on my business card. I don’t have it on my contact page or in my email signature. Some people ask me about it, and I cheerfully say:
“Oh yeah, it’s because I don’t want people to call me! I prefer email.”
Until someone pays an advance for a project, they’re not my client, and they don’t get to call me or text me whenever they want. Any meeting, video call, or phone call is scheduled as an appointment.
A prospect who is not yet my client gets one free intro meeting, and after that there are no further meetings or calls until they become a paying client. Any questions they have about my work I can easily answer over email. Any additional meeting to talk about their business needs counts as consulting, and that’s a service I charge for.
It wasn’t always like this. I used to be pushed around by clients, dragged to multiple working meetings that went on for hours, and then the project wouldn’t happen and I wouldn’t get paid for all that time that I invested. I used to fear that putting a firm boundary around how I communicate would push people away. Sometimes it does, and that’s good—because the clients that understand the concept of an appointment and are happy to use email and project management systems are my dream clients.
People who are not yet paying you get a limited amount of your time in a communication channel of your choosing. If they don’t like it, they can work with someone else instead.
If your prospects regularly have many questions, improve your website and documentation to provide them with answers.
You client’s don’t know what hosting and domain are? Write an intro guide or record a video that explains it. They don’t know what kind of paperwork they need in order to start designing and building their new home? Create a resource you send to everyone who asks about your services.
Are your clients unclear about what is and isn’t covered by your fees? Explicitly state it in your proposal. This is the scope of services covered: one, two, three. Extra services (content writing, hosting, domain, photography, font licensing for 100+ employee computers) are not covered. Do not assume that they know what it takes to create this type of project—you need to explain it to them.
Your website is your best tool in reducing the amount of back and forth between you and your prospects. Informative services pages, educational blog posts and videos, and private resource areas make them feel like they’re getting a great service from you. (And look what a well organized professional you are!) It takes time to set it all up, but it saves you a lot of time and energy in the long term. For more on this, read this article on why business websites fail at attracting clients, and how to improve your web content.
Now that we’ve handled clients and prospects, we need to figure out what to do about everyone else.
What about chat features and chat bots?
Website chat apps and chat bots have become quite common in industries where prompt customer service is an expectation (like online stores, banking, and telecommunication companies). Because these features are cheap and easy to implement, small businesses have started experimenting with them as well.
I consider chat bots useless in most cases. As a customer, I always request to speak with a human representative, because by the time I contacted the customer service, I’ve already read all the available documentation and don’t need to be redirected back to it by a bot. (As you may have realized by now: I hate talking to strangers, so it’s my last resort.) But I can imagine that the average customer is comfortable reaching out for help before they even try to help themselves, and perhaps chat bots help reduce a percentage of inquiries which can be easily resolved by pointing them to the appropriate documentation.
Are there scenarios where a small service based business could benefit from a chat bot? I’m sure there may be some creative ways to make it valuable for the prospect, but it would need to be well thought out, so that they’re not annoyed.
As for human-to-human chat feature… It depends on the person. One of my friends and colleagues was happy to put up a chat feature on her website, because she believed it would reduce the barrier for prospect to reach out to her.
I shudder at the thought and will never consider it. I’m intentionally putting up barriers when I want to filter out only the most serious of clients. If you feel the same, feel free to forget about chat, no matter what others say.
3. Tangential communication
This is any communication that people initiate with you in person or online that doesn’t directly or indirectly relate to your income. Some examples of tangential communication may include:
- Comments from personal friends and family on your social media channels.
- Emails and coffee invitations from students and peers.
- Acquaintances looking to “pick your brain”.
- Comments from peers in your or an adjacent field (who are not likely to become clients).
- Random passerby blog comments (positive or negative).
The amount of tangential communication correlates to your “fame” or social media reach, but it doesn’t correlate with your income. Your blog posts could be going viral and receive hundreds of comments, and this still may not bring a single new client to you. (Unless you carefully crafted this content to attract clients, but those do not become viral very often.)
Providing tips and occasional mentoring for younger colleagues is a great way to give back to your community. Chatting with peers who do similar work can eventually lead to collaborations and referrals. There are many benefits to engaging with your community, and it’s easier when you don’t have to seek out the opportunities to do it because people reach out to you. Producing and publishing valuable content is a sure-fire way to invite more tangential communication.
Getting comment and email love from our community has more of an emotional value than a financial one.
For me personally, these comments and emails provide a sense of being appreciated and feeling like I belong in the world, which is not a small thing. When I was younger, I relied on those types of comments to give me pride in my work, before I developed my own sense of self-worth. Now I no longer need that type of attention, and I’m not concerned if something I post on social media doesn’t get any comments.
As great as this is, it can still get overwhelming when comments and requests are coming from all sides, and you feel like you need to say “yes” to everyone.
In order to prevent this type of communication from getting out of hand and eating into our productive work time, we need to install some boundaries again. Depending on which communication channel gets the most action, you might try the following:
- Only monitor social media and inbox at certain times of day for 1–2 hours at most.
- Get comfortable with sending short and quick replies. (Seth Godin is a master of one-sentence email replies.)
- Use canned responses (pre-written templates) for the most frequent types of messages you get.
- Suggest video calls instead of coffee meetings with people who want to pick your brain to save on commute time, and keep the meeting time short.
- If you know for sure that the person messaging you is not hearing impaired, you can respond to them with a voice or video message if typing out your answer would take too long. (There are also speech-to-text apps so you can dictate your message.)
- Instead of replying to everyone’s questions in the comments, create follow-up content that addresses the most common questions or critique points.
- Hire a social media manager or a virtual assistant to handle your communication channels, and empower them to provide help and answers without needing input from you.
- Chatbots? I don’t know anything about this and find them pretty frustrating as a user, but it might be worth looking into.
Too much of a good thing
Sudden bursts of communication that typically follow viral content or getting featured in mainstream media can be overwhelming for someone who isn’t used to that much attention. If you’re used to responding to every message, you now have two choices:
- Not responding to everyone, or responding only with a short copy/pasted message.
- Spending all day keeping up with incoming communication and writing thoughtful responses to every single person.
The first choice will make you feel like a jerk (because you’re not used to it), and the second choice will prevent you from doing the work you’re getting paid for.
Are you sure you want to go viral? I don’t think most business owners are ready for everything that comes with popularity. We can easily imagine all the good sides, but no one thinks of the overflowing inbox, messages that go unanswered for weeks, and the constant ping of notifications pouring in every minute of the day.
Popularity doesn’t necessarily translate into clients and money.
I had brief brushes with online popularity. While it did help me raise my profile in the community and resulted in some interesting projects and opportunities, maintaining that kind of profile was exhausting. I became bitter and didn’t want to deal with so many people’s emails and comments. I wanted to work on my own passion projects and collaborate with clients, instead of producing free content for people that only invites more questions to respond to.
I got to work on a few client projects thanks to this, but nothing impressive or life-changing. People I spent the most time interacting with were not, and would never become my clients. Most of them didn’t even thank me after I sent them step-by-step instructions or detailed answers to their questions. I found that pretty entitled and rude.
Obviously I was bad at boundaries, being a very young woman who wasn’t taught I get to have boundaries. Every person whose goal is to raise their profile in the media has to work on this, otherwise you’ll get burned out.
There are strategies you can use to enforce even more boundaries around this type of communication, in addition to the tips mentioned above.
1. Limit the ways you provide answers to people’s questions
Clarify first for yourself, and then for your audience what type of effort you’re willing to invest for free, and what you need to charge for. Saying no to people’s demands on your time is challenging, but what makes it easier is offering them an alternative.
When someone asks you a specific question you could help them with, respond that you can’t do that at the moment, but instead of that:
- Point them to a free or paid resource that you’ve published previously.
- If the topic would be interesting to your audience, write an article, or make a video or a podcast episode answering the question.
- Hold regular livestreamed sessions where people ask questions or get laser coaching, and the recording is shared with your audience.
- Point them to your paid consulting offer.
If you make it a policy that you only answer questions in a very specific format, your audience will quickly get used to that, and it will become less and less weird for you to address those requests.
2. Turn off comments on any channel where you don’t want to foster interaction
When people first started turning off their blog comments years ago, it came as a bit of a shock to most blog readers. In 2020 it’s completely normal not to allow comments on a blog. Some social media platforms have the option to turn comments off (like YouTube and Twitter), others do not (Facebook pages, LinkedIn, etc).
It’s totally fine to turn comments off if you don’t want to moderate conversations and get overwhelmed with requests. You can reroute all discussion to a medium you’re more comfortable with.
3. Observe “silent” days/weeks/months
Being constantly immersed in conversation adds a huge mental load, and if you want to keep your sanity, you need to normalize not engaging online all the time. I think we need to do this as a culture, but until that happens, each of us is responsible for our own sanity.
Some options include:
- Removing social media apps from your phone so you can’t interact online in your off hours.
- Choose one day a week, or the whole weekend, to not check email and social media.
- Take long social media and email sabbaticals. Go on an unplugged vacation and no not feel obligated to respond to any online communications during this time.
You don’t have to commit to anything right now, it’s just an idea to think about.
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If you’re popular, there will always be more communication coming in than you’ll be able to respond to, and you need to get comfortable with that. If this doesn’t sound like something you’d ever be comfortable with, accept that you don’t really want to deal with everything that comes with popularity, and reduce the time you’re devoting to building your media profile.
You can have a very lucrative business without having thousands of people following you.
The best paid consultants in the world are people we’ve never heard about. They’re not celebrities. We don’t need to aspire to be celebrities and influencers, either.
The awesome thing about providing custom services or limited edition handmade products is that we don’t need as many buyers as brands who are selling mass-produced stuff on a scale. With less than 10 clients in a year, I’ve covered all my expenses, and saved a bunch of money. Is a YouTube channel or an Instagram profile with a hundred thousand subscribers really necessary? No, it isn’t.
You know what the shiny 7-figure business gurus selling courses and group programs to thousands of followers don’t tell you? They have a shit tonne of marketing and advertising costs, and typically make less profit than many low 6-figure businesses do. Staying small can be a very sound financial decision, not to mention an excellent time management decision.
No one likes to set them, or to be on the receiving end of them. But we need them. If you want to reduce communication overwhelm, you need to think about which boundaries are going to work for your type of business and in your industry. I know not all of my suggestions might work for you, and that’s not the point. I’m just trying to give you ideas that you can adapt in a way that suits you.
Your industry is all about random phone calls? Then by all means, answer the phone. But if you’re not in that kind of industry, maybe it’s not necessary for you to be constantly available?
And if you need to be constantly available, do you perhaps need an assistant or a receptionist to handle all incoming communication when you’re busy doing the strategic, creative, and manual work? There’s a reason why you can’t talk to a CEO of a large company without an appointment, and why hair stylists have junior employees answer the phone instead of talking calls while they’re blow-drying a client. Their assistants are their gatekeepers. If you’re bad at being your own gatekeeper, maybe paying someone to act like it will be easier.
If your reaction to these tips is “I can’t do that!”, ask yourself: is it really true that you absolutely cannot do that without burning your business to the ground, or is it the thought of setting boundaries making you uncomfortable?
Is ghosting ever OK?
I’ve been ghosted, and I’ve ghosted other people, so I’m speaking from experience. There are times when ghosting is going to cause more drama, and there are times when ghosting is the only way we feel able to put up a boundary.
When I was ghosted by a romantic partner (for no reason that I could identify), I found it confusing, shocking, and cowardly. I didn’t know what was going on and reached out to mutual friends to check if this guy is healthy and safe, because I couldn’t comprehend that he would simply choose not to respond to my messages or calls out of the blue. The problem is that days later we inevitably ran into each other, and I was not graceful about it at all. Ghosting someone you’re very likely to see again is only postponing the inevitable. You won’t avoid the awkwardness, and in some cases it might even escalate the confrontation.
While romantic relationships have certain rituals around beginnings and ends (so we expect the other person to clearly communicate they’re breaking up with us), other types of relationships often don’t. It’s customary to have “the conversation” with a romantic partner when we want to stop seeing each other. But it’s difficult to imagine what that conversation would look like with an acquaintance or a colleague, so ghosting seems like an easier, drama-free option.
The alternative to ghosting is what Captain Awkward calls “slow fade”: responding to their messages slower and slower, not initiating any conversations, and being non-committal about their suggestions to meet. The idea is that hopefully the other side will receive the subtle message that we’re not interested.
But what if the other person is really insistent in keeping up the contact (like many salespeople), and you feel like you simply don’t have the capacity to engage them anymore, nor to come up with a graceful, polite message that will effectively stop the badgering?
If their efforts to get top of mind end up taking so much brain space, which you rightly feel they have no right to demand of you?
And there’s little chance you’ll randomly meet them in the next few months?
You know what, go ahead and ghost them with my blessing.
Ghosting is a type of boundary. It’s less respectful than communicating clearly, for sure. But communicating clearly that we no longer want to keep in contact with a person we barely know is terrifying. Especially to women and AFAB folks who were raised to be accommodating towards everyone around them. Most of us weren’t even taught that we have a right to say “no”, let alone how to say it in a way that won’t make the other person angry. (And sometimes no matter what we say, the other person may get angry.)
Being on the receiving side of ghosting hurts. But so does being explicitly rejected! There is no option that won’t suck for the rejected person—their preference is to stay in contact.
But ghosting feels safer for the person whose preference is to break the contact, because they don’t have to reveal what they’re really thinking and deal with the fallout of that revelation. The ambiguity provides a cover in case we do run into this person again. It’s also more likely to protect us from gossip: if someone was offended or hurt by our rejection, they may vent about it to our mutual acquaintances. That could portray us in a bad light even though we did nothing wrong.
It’s preferable to say something like:
“Hey, this is not a good time for me. I’ll get back in touch when I’m able to. Thanks for understanding.”
But if you’re having a health crisis or are suffering from burnout, and new people keep sliding into your inbox expecting responses, it’s understandable that you don’t want to spend precious energy dealing with that.
You can’t be all things to all people.
If a client is too needy for you, maybe you need to refer them to someone else who provides the level of service they want. Maybe you need to state clearly what is appropriate to ask of you, and recommend that they hire an additional person for their urgent/minor/hand holding tasks. It’s a reasonable suggestion.
I’m a horrible people pleaser so trust me that I do know how hard it is. And because I’ve managed to improve so much in this area, I believe that literally anyone can, if they take it seriously. For me it took burning out many times, and realizing that none of that effort I’ve spent answering hundreds of questions from internet randoms resulted in paid work, before I was ready to make some serious changes.
What would it take for you? What scares you more, maybe occasionally disappointing some people, or the constant anxiety of dealing with a never ending stream of requests you don’t want to be dealing with?
You don’t have to decide today. Just think about it.
Yours truly (with boundaries),