The Importance of Setting Boundaries

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The best thing I ever did for my business was setting boundaries.

Professional dog trainers have a pretty tough job. They need to be good with dogs (very important), good with people (even more important), and available 24 hours a day for their clients. Ok, that last item is not true. I swear it’s not true. But a lot of dog trainers feel like they have no choice but to be available all the time, for classes, private sessions, phone calls, e-mails, texts…

I’m here to tell you something that I hope will improve your life: You do not have to be available to your clients at all times to run a successful dog training business. I’m going to say that again, just in case: You do not have to be available to your clients at all times to run a successful dog training business. Really. I promise.

But, I hear you say, my clients will…

  1. Fail in their training goals
  2. Die (or get bitten)
  3. Find another trainer

…if I am not available when they need me.

Here’s the (perhaps hard to hear but nevertheless true) truth:

  1. Your clients will not fail without your 24-hour-a-day guidance.
  2. Your clients can wait a day or two to hear back from you about 99.999999% of their questions. The vast, vast majority of the time, death and dog bites are not even in the picture.
  3. Yes, people may find someone else. But that’s OK, because there are a lot of other potential clients out there, and you don’t want the ones who demand your constant attention anyway, right?

It’s nice to be needed, and it’s lovely to have clients who value out advice. I get that. But it’s also nice to have a life, and be able to sleep without stressing out about missing an e-mail. Not mention sleeping through the night without being woken up by texts or phone calls. These are all benefits you can gain by setting some simple boundaries for your clients (and yourself).

And here’s the crazy thing: Ever since I started setting boundaries, I’m even busier than before (not to mention I enjoy my work life more). Setting boundaries has not cost me a cent. In fact, it’s increased my income substantially. Why? Here are three reasons that may have something to do with it:

  1. Boundaries make you look more professional. Professionals such as doctors and lawyers set boundaries. If we dog trainers want to be treated as professionals, we have to set boundaries too.
  2. Boundaries show that we value ourselves. When you show that you value yourself by setting boundaries, people tend to value your time and advice more. Things that are easily available or free seem less valuable to most people, so make your advice more valuable by putting some structure around when you provide it. You don’t have to be stingy; just set boundaries about when and how you give advice—especially if people aren’t paying you for it.
  3. Boundaries help keep you from burning out. Many people get into dog training only to change careers a year or two later. In many cases, the problem is that new dog trainers wind up working 7 days a week, and their workdays start early in the morning and end late at night. That’s hard to sustain over the long haul.

Convinced that boundaries can be helpful? I hope so! So without further ado, here are a few tips to help you set boundaries:

01. Pick work days and work hours

I like a five-day work week, but you can do whatever works for you. Make sure to set hours, too (which can vary from day to day if necessary). I personally avoid working evenings if I’m seeing clients early in the morning, and vice versa. And I also don’t work weekends… at all.

02. Have a dedicated work phone number

In today’s era of Google Voice, it’s easy to set up a separate phone number for clients. That way, you can decide when you do and do not answer calls and not worry about missing an important call from a loved one. With Google Voice specifically (full disclosure: I use their service), you also get notifications of calls and text messages via e-mail, and can even reply to texts from your computer—if you want to, that is!

03. Set expectations about how fast clients will hear from you

Let clients know what times of day you take phone calls, how long they can expect to wait for you to return a phone call (I say 72 hours to be safe, but I usually call back much sooner), and how quickly you respond to text messages or e-mails. And while you’re at it, let them know which methods of communication you prefer.

04. Don’t give free advice to potential clients

When you speak (or message) with a potential client, your goal should be to figure out what they need and whether you can provide that, not to solve their problems over the phone. This person is not a client (yet), and giving advice over the phone can open you up to all kinds of liability. Even if you think you know what to say, think again—often the person is not giving you the whole picture, so even safe-seeming advice can be the wrong fit.

05. Set limits for how long you’ll spend on the phone or e-mail

Five to fifteen minutes is plenty of time on the phone, whether the person is an existing or potential client. If the person wants more time than that, they need to pay you for a session. The same applies with e-mails and text messages from existing clients—if it’s going to take you more than five to fifteen minutes to answer a question in a message, schedule a paid session to discuss the issue instead.

06. Use a contract

Dog training can involve liability. People can get knocked over, tripped, or even bitten by a dog. If someone decides to sue, even if you are not responsible, you will lose a lot of time and money. Having a contract doesn’t guarantee you will never be sued, but it does act as a deterrent. Don’t have a contract? There are great dog training contract templates out there, or you can ask other trainers to see theirs. Whatever contract you go with, get an attorney in your jurisdiction to check the contract so you can be sure it suits your needs and complies with all local laws.

07. Have a cancellation and refund policy

Part of your contract should spell out a cancellation and refund policy. I almost never have to enforce my cancellation policy, but it’s nice to know I can insist on being paid when someone cancels an hour before a session for no good reason. And make it clear how you will handle requests for refunds, while you are at it.

08. Stick to your rules!

Whatever your work rules are, stick to them. Yes, you can make an exception (as I have done in cases where there was a true emergency), but these should be exceptions, not business as usual.

Bottom line: Setting boundaries has helped me grow a thriving business with clients I enjoy. It may seem scary at first, but it will help you (a) be more successful, and (b) avoid burnout.

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