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By Jill Hamburg Coplan
MAY 3, 2000

When Clients Call 911

Make guidelines for what constitutes an emergency -- and stick to them


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Work & Family Archive

A few weeks back, we heard from an overloaded entrepreneur mom on the verge of collapse. We advised a strict diet of more fun, less media consumption, enforced quiet time for planning, and more child care. This week it's dad's turn. This business owner needs to tame his insatiable clientele to get more hours with his wife and child. Here's his edited letter:

This past weekend, a client suddenly had an important deadline that required me to work and cancel a family outing I had planned with my wife and seven-month-old daughter. While we both understand that an entrepreneur/small-business owner must meet the demands of every client, we were still disappointed and a little angry. How can I handle this situation in the future to please my client and still make my family weekend time a top priority?

-- D.P., Durango, Colo.

Unpredictable interruptions are a fact of your life. Your wife probably understands that this is the downside of being married to an entrepreneur. Still, the point of being your own boss is to gain control over your life, not to become the personal slave of every client. It's a matter of taming them so their extra demands don't make your life chaos. How? By writing your own "overtime rule book." With input from your wife, you can lay out together just what constitutes a client emergency that merits sacrificing precious private time.

First, answer these questions:

Under what circumstances must you say yes to a client?

Are certain clients abusing your availability?

How often are you willing to give up weekend time for emergencies?

Can you afford to refuse weekend work? What sacrifices (in lifestyle or revenue growth) would that entail? Can you live with that?

What are your top five values as a couple? Parenting, the marriage, money, religion, health, exercise, quiet time? In his career workshops, Tom Bay, author of the forthcoming book Look Within or Do Without: Taking Ownership of Your Success, makes participants write a list and then exchange them with their spouses to stimulate conversations about blending values.

What halfway measures might you take? Do you have -- or can you hire -- an assistant? Can you carry a beeper and stave off work till Monday with some verbal hand-holding?

Have any families you know struck the right balance?

BURNED. "You have to be clear about your rules, and it helps to write them down," says State College (Pa.) psychologist Kate Staley. "Most people arrive at a set of rules after being burned or because they've seen someone else handling the matter in a way they admire."

Draw up rules that you're willing to obey. When you're done, communicate them and the details of your availability (how often you check voice-mail, for example) no later than the second or third client meeting. And tell all your current clients how you've had to reorient.

If, after doing this, you find clients constantly hitting your gray area -- where their demands aren't entirely unreasonable but still test your limits -- you need stricter criteria, Staley says. A caution: When a call falls within your parameters (but you still feel imposed on), don't hold it against your customer. Irritation is understandable, but vent it in the right direction. Take a jog or a fast walk, write in a journal, or phone a friend and unload. Spend a few minutes playing with the baby.

Having made your rules, make peace with the sacrifices your company demands. Weigh them against how much you enjoy what you're doing, how important it is to you that you're actively pursuing your goal or vision. That's the trade-off. You'll always feel torn when your drive to run a successful business clashes with your desire to be an available husband and father. Let the priorities and rules you've agreed to be your guide. Says Bay: "You'll know in your heart of hearts when your time use has fallen out of line with your values."

And make up for those lost weekends. Cut the solo lunches, and dine with your wife. Take family half-days. Chances are your clients won't jump ship, says psychologist Michael J. Hurd, author of Effective Therapy. "You do have a life outside work, and at some level, customers understand that." Some business may go elsewhere, but that's a risk worth taking.

Send your questions to

Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y.


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