Expert Advice: Are your clients taking advantage of you?

Marie-Louise Coster explains how to set the right boundaries with clients.

It is very common when you work for yourself (in whatever capacity that is for you - sole trader, self employed in someone else's businesses, salon owner) to want to please the customer all the time.  After all, the customer is always right aren't they?

No actually, they aren't always right, and quite often they take liberties and we allow them to do so because we are afraid. We are afraid of upsetting the customer and are very conscious that we don't want to lose them. But if they are taking advantage of you what is there to lose? They are taking the space that another client, who isn't taking the mickey, could have?

Which is why we need to set clear boundaries on our working hours, when we are available to reply to messages and take calls and many other factors in our business.

Sacking a bad client

I remember a client I sacked very well. I sacked her because she was taking advantage of me. 
She had been coming to me off and on for many years, always quibbled about price, often asking for a discount. She had an operation which meant she couldn't drive for a period of time, so she called and asked if I would do a home visit. I am not a mobile therapist but I wanted to accommodate her as best I could, it seemed only right. 

She only lived 10 minutes from me so it all seemed reasonable. But of course the 10 minute journey isn't just it, is it? I needed to add set up time, packing away time, time for her to faff with jobs she was doing in the house, driving home time etc. My one hour facial became almost two hours of my time, so besides the travel cost (which I didn't charge her any extra for) there were added costs of lost revenue as, during that hour, I could have been doing another facial and earning £90. 

It is very common when you work for yourself to want to please the customer all the time. After all, the customer is always right, aren't they?
This went on for a couple of years, each time her expecting more (helping her change the bedding, unpacking boxes for her, even assembling a lamp!) and then I discovered she was driving to a salon not far from me for a pedicure, all the while taking the mickey out of my good nature! 

The day came when my car was off the road and I needed to move her appointment to earlier in the day when I would have access to my husband's vehicle. She was very awkward about moving the time and even told me I should get a taxi to her!

This was the final straw; I told her I had only started doing her mobile treatments due to her operation but for the past few years she had been happy to drive all over the place but still expected me to go out of my way. I suggested that actually it would be better for everyone involved if she just found another salon to go to and we would leave it at that. 

"If the lines get blurred between client and friend, you open yourself up to people asking for discounts, special rates or even not paying.”

Setting firm boundaries

What I should have done, long before it got to this stage, is set firmer boundaries. Yes I am a sole trader. Yes of course I need regular and loyal clients so as I have a successful business and a wage coming in. But what I don't need are ungrateful clients who take liberties. 

You need to set your stall out from the outset and be firm about it. Only reply to calls and messages during your trading hours, not at 1pm on a Sunday when you are having lunch with your husband, or 8pm at night when you are putting the kids to bed. These are precious times and are not to be disrupted by a query that will wait until the morning. You have an email address and an answerphone, both will still be there the next day when you do read/listen and then reply. If the client wants you and your services they will wait until the morning.  

We are all far too accessible now with social media, email etc. and I am not sure it is a good thing. Back when I had a high street salon, we had a landline and after we closed for the day I had no idea whether anyone had called; the next day we would check the answerphone, reply to people and everyone was very accepting of that. Perhaps even have an automated email reply and a greeting on your answerphone to state the hours of business and you will reply when the business is next open.

Don't blur the lines of relationships

The other thing you need to have boundaries over are client relationships and money. These are your clients, they are not your friends. Whilst you will be very fond of many of them, which is only natural, the lines should not be blurred between clients and friendships because this has a tendency to make things very messy. Keep a professional relationship at all times. 

Which brings me on to money. If the lines get blurred between client and friend, you open yourself up to the potential of people asking for discounts, special rates or even not paying because they are ‘a bit short this week' and promising to pay you at a later date. You can't run a business this way, keep your boundaries clear and stick to them.

Communicate, be clear, be firm, learn how to say no and always remember you are in charge. Never feel bad about doing what is best for you to ensure that you have clear working hours and clear personal hours to take care of yourself and your own wellbeing.

With more than 30 years' experience, Marie-Louise Coster is a Beauty Therapist, Session Nail Tech, ABT Accredited Educator, Business Consultant and owner of All About Mi Skin & Wellness Clinic.