Being unavailable is great. But I’m not talking about being booked up months in advance and having to turn clients away or start a waiting list (fun though that is!). I’m talking about the benefits of being unavailable in a general, day to day way.
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I have a strict policy of no unscheduled phone calls (that includes online calls like Skype or Zoom too). I’ve had a few people raise concerns about that recently. Cue a period of second-guessing myself, my policies, my customer service in general 🙁
But in the end I totally stand by that policy. I didn’t start it arbitrarily and it’s not meant to inconvenience clients. It’s actually for their benefit:
I’m rubbish on the phone. I quite literally jump out of my seat when that little sucker rings, and I can get so nervous that I stop being a reasonably intelligent and articulate adult and turn into an awkward idiot whose favourite word is ‘umm…’. Or the nerves make me talk really fast – I actually had a client cancel a project once, with one of the reasons cited that I spoke really fast on a call so it felt like I was trying to get rid of them as fast as possible.
I wasn’t, of course. That was just a shy person being nervous.
Talk to me by email on the other hand and I’m great. My messages will be considered, and barring an occasional typo, they’re perfectly coherent.
Who would you rather deal with?
People like to communicate in different ways, I get that. I also realise that some conversations do need to be dealt with in person. So I don’t ban calls altogether (would that I could!)
I just ask people to schedule them. If I know a call is coming and roughly what it’s about, I can prepare. That might include some research, if we need to discuss something new or technical. But it also lets me mentally prepare. If I’m expecting a call, I’m far less likely to be shy and inarticulate. Plus, it means the person I’m talking to has my full attention.
So when I’m not expecting a call, my phone is on silent. It’s not going to interrupt my train of thought when I’m right in the middle of designing a logo, or coding part of a website. That means when I’m on creative work I can focus on that, bringing my A game. Who wouldn’t want that?
That isn’t the only way I make myself unavailable. Or perhaps less available would be more accurate:
Restricting how people can reach me
Before I implemented my phone policy I was basically Mrs Flexible. Whatever worked for each client, I would do.
Client A likes to email. Great, same here.
Client B is a phone person. Sure, you can call me.
Client C wants to use a landline number. Em, ok, it’s my home number though so please don’t abuse that.
Client D asks to use WhatsApp. No idea about that, but give me a few minutes to create an account, download the app and I’ll figure it out.
Client E uses Facebook messenger – to my personal account rather than my business page. Uh ok, but it’s Saturday afternoon; can I get back to you on Monday?
I’m not even exaggerating. I was bombarded with all these different notifications and it was a mess. My brain was a mess just trying to keep up with all those different channels.
That’s when I decided to get my ass in gear and create some policies around how people can reach me.
In a nutshell here’s how things work now:
- Messages about active projects go into Asana, my project management app.
- Messages not about active projects go to my email inbox.
- Phone/Skype calls are scheduled in advance if both the client and I agree that we need to talk.
- Clients don’t get my landline (home) number; that’s for family and friends.
- People contacting me by Facebook, LinkedIn, text message etc will be directed to the relevant channel for their query.
Reserving Asana for active projects means that’s become my priority inbox. It keeps messages about current work separate from all the newsletters, sales pitches, general chat and spam that’s in my email inbox.
Since implementing these policies, dealing with messages has become simpler and faster, leaving me more time to do the creative work.
You might also like: 4 reasons why you need a project management tool
Restricting when people can reach me
Running two businesses by myself, there are many demands on my time. At any given time I have multiple clients to take care of, new enquiries to deal with, not to mention all the admin, marketing, professional development stuff etc for both businesses.
So I break up my week into a fairly straightforward schedule. Everything has its place, from a time to work on my blog, to a time to take care of my finances. Even lunch and exercise breaks are on there to make sure everyone and everything gets their fair share of my attention.
To get everything done, some of those times are specifically reserved for being unavailable so I can focus, like times for client work.
But that also means that some parts of that schedule are specifically set aside for me to be available:
- Those scheduled calls I mentioned earlier? I’ve set specific days and times for those in Acuity*, my call scheduler.
- I have up to 4 available spots each week for meetings with clients and consultations with potential clients. I don’t have the bandwidth in my brain to deal with more, but that’s enough to keep a steady stream of projects coming my way and leave time to get plenty of work done too. They happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays, unless someone has a good reason why they need another day.
- Rather than having my Asana and email inboxes open all the time, I have set intervals during the day where I will focus only on answering messages.
And that’s not all. I’ve mentioned before about how freeing it is to take your business email account off your phone. I did that a few years ago just to take a complete break over Christmas, and I’ve never looked back. Now the only way for me to check my work emails is to switch on the computer, which means that outside of my normal working hours, I don’t have work messages vying for my attention.
Someone asked me if my policy of not working outside the usual Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 meant they couldn’t email me outside those times, which wouldn’t work for them as they did most of their emailing in the evenings. Naturally, I reassured them that they could email me when it suited them – the policy just meant that I wouldn’t see their email or respond until I was back at my desk.
Note that this was about using email and Asana; if they wanted to call or text me outside of my normal working hours, that’d be a straight up no. One of the ways that email is better than phoning is that I can send messages when it’s convenient for me, they can respond when it suits them best.
You might also like: How to create boundaries in your business
How do you create your policies?
When setting my schedule and my policies, it was about creating a work environment that lets me perform at my best, in terms of creativity, efficiency, and managing my energy levels. I’ve been doing this a long time (12 years by my last count) so I’ve learned what works for me.
But I was also trying to not be too rigid. There does still need to be some way to be flexible, for example if someone tells me they really can’t meet on a Tuesday or Thursday, I’ll try to move things around to meet on another day instead. As long as that alternative time won’t interfere with a deadline and is within my usual working hours; I’ve found that the people most likely to be no-shows for meetings and calls are those that want to have them in the evenings or weekends. It’s soul crushing giving up part of your personal time for someone who doesn’t give you the courtesy of showing up, so I stopped agreeing to those requests.
If you’re ready to set your own policies, start by evaluating how you spend your time. Take note of what you like and dislike about it, how it affects your productivity and energy levels and you’ll figure out what works for you.
You might also like: How to get control of your work-life balance
How do you communicate your policies?
The most important part of having your policies – other than sticking to them! – is communicating them to your clients.
I know that some of my policies will be deal-breakers for some people – like the phone policy – so I’m as upfront about it as I can be.
When someone contacts me about a possible project I send them an Intro Packet. As well as outlining typical prices and schedules for projects, it lays out how I work. If a potential client reads that and doesn’t like my policies and processes, hopefully they don’t hire me and we can avoid clashes because of incompatible working methods.
Right on page 2 of the Intro Packet it reads:
I work Monday to Friday, from 9am to 5pm UK time.
During your project we’ll primarily communicate using Asana. That’s my project management software – but don’t worry, I’ll show you how to use it! This will help us keep everything organised in one place.
I aim to reply to all messages relating to active projects the same business day, during my office hours, but at busy times it can take me slightly longer to make sure I can take the time to answer your message properly. Please don’t panic if you don’t get an instant reply.
If we need to chat via Skype/phone, you can schedule a call at [link]. Scheduling calls means I can focus on your project without interruptions.”
This clearly sets out how they can contact me, and when they should typically expect a response.
If a client is happy with my Intro Packet, we proceed to the consultation and quoting stage. On page 2 of the Quote, the office hours section is repeated, just in case they skimmed over it or need a reminder.
Then once they accept the Quote and have paid their booking fee, the project goes into my schedule. I create an Asana project where they can start sending me messages and I also send them a Welcome Packet. It reiterates my policies in an expanded version that includes more info on how to use Asana, such as a video walkthrough.
This does seem like a lot of repetition, but people are busy and inclined to skim rather than read word for word. So I want to give people every opportunity to be aware of my policies so that we can avoid misunderstandings or clashes once a project has started.
Whether or not you use things like Intro and Welcome Packets, I’d heartily recommend that you find a way to make it super clear to potential clients what your policies are. That way you should be able to filter out people who don’t like them and only work with people who you’ll gel with.
If you’d like to create your own Intro Packet for potential clients, I’d recommend checking out Erin Flynn’s workshop.
The benefits of being unavailable
So here’s what making myself less available has given me:
- Simpler, more streamlined ways of communicating with clients.
- Less time needed to spend on dealing with messages.
- Minimal phone calls, meaning less stress.
- A more productive working week.
- Set periods of design time: I get into the creative flow more easily and my clients reap the rewards.
All in all, it’s meant a less chaotic, more professional working relationship with my clients and a higher quality of work. What’s not to like about that?
If you’d like to work together, I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch to tell me a little about your project and get a copy of my Intro Packet.
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