In business, defining what you do is key. What kind of services do you provide, and who are you serving? What problems are you solving? It’s important to define the unique value of what you offer and to communicate it prominently and consistently. It’s equally important to be clear with yourself and your clients about what you don’t do. This usually takes a bit of trial and error to figure out.

In the past, I had a habit of saying yes to every proposition, even if my intuition said otherwise. These days, the list of things that I don’t do has emerged from the lessons I’ve learned from past mistakes.

Some things that I don’t do are clear and easy to remember. For example, I don’t do logos of people’s faces. I know this because I’ve tried and failed to do this for multiple clients. I’ve always known that capturing people’s likenesses isn’t a strength of mine, but I’ve said yes because I like the idea of trying something that’s outside of my comfort zone. However, there’s a difference between challenging yourself to do something you know you can do with a little extra effort and promising something that you just can’t pull off.

We all have parameters on our strengths. Get familiar with what you do well, and know when a job is outside of your skill set.

Other things that I don’t do are fuzzier but still important to acknowledge. For example, I’ve learned that I can’t work for people who don’t want to commit to the process. If someone wants to hire me for only one round of work to “test the relationship,” I decline the job. That signals to me that someone wants a perfect design to emerge magically instead of engaging in the process of reviewing options, providing feedback and honing in on a final product.

I used to hear client tales of woe about bad experiences with other designers, and then I would agree to do a trial round of work. The same thing kept happening. Surprise, I didn’t get it exactly right on the first round, so the clients walked away unsatisfied, and I was left with a self-doubt hangover. Now I know that revisions aren’t negotiable. They’re the only way to ensure success. Even if I happen to nail it on the first take, I can’t repeat that in every case.

If a new client is hesitant to commit to a big project right away, I recommend starting and finishing something small. This builds the trust that we both need to tackle and follow through with bigger projects.

The processes that we’ve developed for our businesses are in place for a reason. If a client suggests working in another way, say no and explain your rationale.

Most people aren’t trying to cut corners, but they might need a little extra help understanding why your process is so important. If possible, suggest an alternative way of working that acknowledges your client’s concerns but doesn’t compromise your needs. Having open, honest communication is key. A good client will appreciate hearing more about how you work, and they will defer to your guidance.

Once you’ve uncovered a handful of things that you know you don’t do, what’s the best way to communicate your boundaries to clients?

I recommend putting together two lists: one public and one private. A public version of what you don’t do might live on the About or Services page of your website. Take the things that you don’t do, i.e I don’t work with people who don’t want commit to the process, and flip each thing to be an affirmative statement: I work best with people who commit to the process. You don’t want to inundate potential clients with a negative tone or a million pet peeves, but you do want to express a concise and confident overview of your approach.

For the nittier and grittier things that you don’t do, consider creating a policies page that’s accessible through a small link at the bottom of your website, or via a direct link that you send to new clients before they sign on with you. Some people also like to send welcome emails to new clients that recap policies in a succinct way. This would be a good place to clarify your communication rules. Again, keep the tone positive. Rather than saying I don’t respond to emails on the weekends, give people your “office hours” and then let them know what your preferred methods of communication are.

I also like to keep a private list that’s specific to my quirks. This is a list of things that are trickier for me to stick to. For instance, I sometimes get so determined to complete a project that I’ll keep working even if the client’s gone way over budget. It sounds super basic but I sometimes need to be reminded: I don’t work for free. There are other nagging habits and anxiety triggers that I have to keep tabs on, and I find that reviewing a list of them before I have new client calls helps keep my personal policies top of mind.

Maybe you don’t have the same issues I do, but try making your own personal list. It doesn’t have to be definitive; maybe it simply reminds you of things that you know you don’t like doing, but haven’t figured out how to weed out. Don’t worry about sounding too negative, since this list is for your eyes only. Jotting down things that annoy you can help you identify patterns that you can use to fine tune your services down the road.

At the end of the day, I still say yes much more than I say no. Being open to a variety of projects is a great way to learn and to build a broad client base. But as we all know, the success of your business is about more than just a full schedule and a steady income.

The kind of work you do matters, and only you can define what kind of work makes you happiest.

The more you build on your strengths, understand your weakness and trust your process, the richer and more satisfying your work will become.

What are things that you don’t do in your business? How do you communicate these things to clients? Share your experience, tips and insight in the comments below!


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