Treat Yourself, Your Employees, and Your Business Right, and Your Clients Will Too
Over the 35-plus years that I had my own small business, I always took a two-week break in December during the winter holidays and totally shut down my company. This was a non-negotiable for myself and my business that I decided to do every year.
But I could tell for some of my clients, it was difficult for them to accept that my business was closed! And interestingly enough, it was, at first, difficult for me as well.
We all need a break
Years ago, I took a well-deserved summer vacation to Greece. At that time—2005—it was not so easy to stay in contact with someone who had left the country. So I didn’t concern myself much with keeping in touch with my clients. I warned them that I would be out of town and to plan accordingly—and they did.
Of course, that was nearly 20 years ago, and times and methods of communicating have changed (and improved) significantly. My cell phone was worthless in Greece at that time. Only local internet cafes offered any sort of computer access, and that was only in Athens. When I was outside of Athens, which was the better half of my nine-day trip, I was completely off the internet and cellular grid.
Nowadays, even if traveling to a faraway, foreign land, it’s not difficult at all to hook up to the internet and communicate with others regularly. It truly has become a small, small world.
And precisely because of that—because you can—there are people who will expect you to still be engaged in doing business, even if you are on a break. Maybe you believe this of your own employees—that work never really ends and that, as your employees, they need to be, at the very least, “available,” even while on paid leave.
But it’s important to remember how critical it is for our minds, our bodies, and our spirits to break away from our work. We aren’t machines. We are human beings. And both you and your employees need to occasionally—and dare I say frequently—refresh ourselves. It’s good to get away and “shut off.” It’s a healthy thing to do.
In personally taking time off from work, I’ve always felt so free, in so many ways. Mainly, I felt free of stress and worry. For a few days, I didn’t have to concern myself with pleasing others. I didn’t have to worry about deadlines. I could concern myself only with myself.
The difference time off made on both my mind and my body was often very noticeable. During one two-week break, I happened to have a doctor’s appointment, and my blood pressure, which has been abnormally high for the last two to three months had almost returned to normal. Headaches I had been suffering during those previous months also disappeared. So was a burning sensation in my right leg, which, after nearly a year of testing, doctors had finally decided was coming from my back and my tendency to sit so much at a desk! But I also learned that work stress brought on and intensified the burning sensation. The break reduced both my stress and my time sitting in front of a computer, which gave me some badly needed relief.
Clients might test your boundaries
During those same two weeks—sure enough—even clients who knew I was on a break and that the office was officially closed were still reaching out to communicate with me. When they did, they received an auto-reply reminding them that my business was closed for the holidays.
The issue I had really wasn’t so much about them reaching out—that was their prerogative—but about my own reaction to their emails. I wanted so badly to return those emails and communicate and…work. How dare I leave them hanging for days?
And you know what? I almost did get back to them.
Then I remembered an important concept: Others will treat us as we treat ourselves.
We use our own behavior to train others how to treat us. How we treat ourselves, our employees, and our businesses overall will dictate to clients how they should treat us in return. They will follow suit.
If I emailed replies to these clients, that would be sending the message that I didn’t find my time off valuable. It would also mean that I didn’t think I had control over my time—that my time didn’t belong to me. It only belonged to my clients.
They got the auto-reply. That’s why it’s set up and sent out—to inform people that we are not available at the moment and when we will be. That way, they knew what was up.
So, I had to treat myself with the respect that I deserved. I had to be disciplined enough to not rush to the keyboard and start typing out responses. It was, admittedly, a little bit of a mind game for me. But after a few hours, the temptation passed. This brings up yet another good concept to remember: Time and patience are powerful things.
We constantly communicate important messages about how we should be treated simply by how we treat ourselves. Others will watch, listen, and respond accordingly. If we indicate that our vacation time isn’t valid, clients will treat our time in a similar way and continue to evade that space. If we treat our time as the precious commodity it truly is, then others will respect that.
If they don’t—then frankly, they don’t deserve to be in our lives, in any capacity.
It’s not you, it’s me
So it’s really not about their behavior. It’s about our own. It’s about how we choose to act or not act. A lot of people email and text, and they really don’t expect an immediate response. That’s often our own interpretation in our own heads.
Now, of course, we do need to respond in a timely matter when business is in session. For me, I promise to respond to any communication from a client within 24 hours. Usually, it’s much, much sooner than that—within two to three hours, at the longest. Sometimes, it’s instantaneous.
But it all comes down to treating others as we’d like to be treated. And treating ourselves as we’d like to be treated too—so others can learn exactly what that treatment looks like and apply it as such.
I’m on a boat!
This all reminds me of a related personal story.
Once upon a time, I provided services for a company that turned out to be one of the worse clients I ever had. The work itself was interesting and within my niche, but the company’s management was extremely unreasonable. They expected their employees and contractors to dedicate every waking hour to their mismanaged, time-crunched projects. The stress dripped down like molasses from their overworked production managers to us contractors, and it was brutal.
Fortunately, as an outside contractor, I could draw the line fairly easily. Good contractors, who run their businesses as true companies, never have all their eggs in one client basket. That way, if you walk away from a client, you aren’t necessarily up a financial tree over it. You have more. There are others.
So after this went on for longer than I’d care to admit, I finally said “no thanks” and walked away from that client and any future projects with them.
Employees of the company found quitting much harder to do, of course.
One project manager I was working with at the time was getting married, and her honeymoon was going to be on a cruise ship. She went on her honeymoon, but she worked the whole time—and I’m not exaggerating when I say that. She answered emails and made phone calls, and in general, continued doing all her project management, as if she never took time off.
As she talked to me on the phone from the boat, I asked her, “What does your new husband think about all this?”
“He’s pretty upset with me,” she answered.
“I don’t blame him,” I said back, frankly.
But she also said she felt extremely pressured by the company’s upper management not to drop the ball, even for her honeymoon. In fact, she felt fortunate that she was even allowed to go on the cruise.
So she made herself available—even though she didn’t really want to be. She returned emails and made phone calls and kept working—much to the chagrin of her new husband.
Wow—take a moment and just imagine how he must have felt. Not only was her time of no value to herself, but neither was his. What a message to communicate to your new spouse: “Spending time with you is not valuable to me. You are not my priority—even on our honeymoon.”
While she never actually uttered those words, that message was sent and, I’m sure, received—loud and clear—via her actions.
It’s not OK
Needless to say, this company folded only a few years later. No business management could treat itself and its employees like that and believe that was a sustainable business model. It’s difficult to be successful when you treat your employees like slaves and still expect them to stick around and do quality work under such extreme deadlines and circumstances.
But, if you are going to be that person who allows yourself to be treated in such a manner, you are sending up the signal that it’s appropriate. You are saying that it’s OK.
But it’s not OK. Don’t send a similar message to your clients. If you are a business owner or manager, draw boundary lines with your clients. Communicate what they should and should not expect from your business. You and your workers deserve to be treated well as you perform your services. Teach your clients to treat your business with respect by treating your own business respectfully first.
And in return, if you have employees or 1099 staff, treat them as you’d like to be treated. Be kind. Be understanding. Foster collaboration. Entertain ideas. Allow independent working. Respect their time off. That sort of leadership produces great results and great karma. People want to work—and work hard—for business owners and managers who treat them well. You’ll earn their trust and their loyalty.
In taking my own advice, my clients had to wait until my break was over to receive replies to their emails. The message I sent (without actually saying it): “I’m worthy of this time off. Thank you for your patience and understanding.”
And I should note: I never lost a client because I declared myself and my time to be valuable.
Your clients, too, will respect you all the more for respecting yourself, your employees, and your business first.