Knowing Your Boundaries

I was talking to a coaching client tonight who’s starting up a services business and we got to talking about understanding your boundaries when it comes to clients.  I’m not talking about how often they contact you or understanding the demarcation points about responsibilities, I’m talking about knowing the lines in the sand about the kind of clients you’ll take on.

I’m going to put it out there, if you’re anything like me, you can sometimes be a bit of a judgmental douchenozzle.  I often find myself looking at someone’s business and thinking, “Pffft… Waste of time” or “Oh yeah, that’s a scam.”  The more common one is when someone has what I consider a “make believe” business where they have no clients, no prospects and frankly, no chance of ever being successful because they genuinely aren’t offering anything of value.

I know there’s plenty of you out there reading this right now who do this so there’s no need to hide or feel shame, it’s just a natural thing to judge other people.

The problem is, what happens when those people want to become one of your clients?

Yes, indeed – that’s a sticky wicket.

I’ve had this happen to me a few times over the years where people had businesses that honestly, I found rather objectionable but they wanted to use our services.

I’m not going to sugar coat it at all, I took the money and offered the services.  More to the point, I didn’t even feel bad about it.  They paid well, they paid on time and nothing they were doing was illegal.

I learned very early on, especially around our SEO business that I needed to draw a line on the types of companies that I’d work with and those I wouldn’t.  The line for me was that I wouldn’t work with companies that did illegal things like sold unregulated drugs or supplements, I wouldn’t work with companies that offered dubious health-related products and information, there were no porn companies and nothing to do with religion.

Everything else was open for discussion and back in the early days of our SEO business, we used to get tapped by a fair few unsavoury people looking for our services.  Gambling sites, dating services, nutritional supplements and pick up artists were all things we were asked to service and in each case we did.

On the other hand, I refused to work on a site that was built for the purpose of selling guns via the internet.  Now, I’m not going to comment on people’s Second Amendment rights in the US, but I just wasn’t comfortable with helping people sell more guns on the internet – so I opted out.

We refused to work with people promoting MLM stuff which generated a fair bit of blowback at the time from some people I knew.  Oddly enough, it had nothing to do with my feelings about that particular business model, I just didn’t think we could get results consistently because of the fluidity of the companies and offerings in that space – it wasn’t worth the investment on our part required.

The other group of people we largely refused to work with were other SEO companies – the number of times we were asked to help rank other SEO providers’ sites was ridiculous.  I did a whole podcast episode on someone’s show back in 2012 talking about why we wouldn’t do that.  That rule carried over when we started out content business and we don’t do content on SEO or internet marketing.

Those are just a few of the lines and reasons I drew for who I would and wouldn’t work with when we started our services businesses.  The thing is, I made the conscious decision to say that I needed in large part to separate my own feelings about what people were doing with their business with what I was doing in mine.

It’s really difficult, I’m not going to lie to you and there are probably a few clients we did business with over the years that in retrospect, I’d probably not do business with now.  But hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback on stuff like this.

What I will say though is that at the time, when I made the decisions on whether to work with those clients, I never second guessed myself.  If I was ok with what they did, then we went with it and did the job to the best of our ability.  If I decided against working with a potential client, then I never felt regret.

If you’re starting a service business that will work predominantly for other businesses, then I encourage you to spend some time upfront thinking about where your boundaries are and prepare to be a bit more liberal in your thinking.  It sounds very mercenary but when you’re starting out, beggars can’t afford to be choosers, so sometimes, your moral high ground may need to be a bit lower than you’re used to.

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