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AZRIELA JAFFE

8.25.99  
The Entrepreneurs' Masquerade Bawl: "I'm a Fake"
By believing they're imposters they're only fooling — and cheating — themselves

Julia, a self-employed professional, recently hired me as a business coach. For more than a decade, she has built a sound reputation, a solid customer base, and a six-figure income. Sounds great — except she works an average of 80 hours a week.

She used to enjoy her work thoroughly. Too often now, she burns the midnight oil and exhausts herself to please her customers. She rarely turns down a client. Others in her industry charge a premium for a rush job — not Julia. Her clients pay the same rate whether they give her two weeks notice or two hours.

Julia's customers have a great thing going, but she doesn't. She hired me because she felt trapped in her business — but was afraid to change her tactics for fear of losing her customers, she told me.

When I first met her, I was struck by the disconnect between her flourishing business and this insecurity. It took me a while to figure out what was at the root of it. The first clue was that she didn't charge a premium on rush jobs. She took the hit when her clients needed something at the last minute. Also, she hadn't raised her prices for established clients in several years. She was systematically cheating herself.

That seemed odd for someone who was so sought after that she never needed to do any marketing. She got all her customers by word of mouth. Finally, she confessed: "I'm afraid that if I raise my rates, my customers will expect a higher level of talent than I am capable of providing. I feel that I'm an imposter and that I'll be found out!"

Millions of professionals live with the irrational fear that someone will unmask their "incompetence" — despite years of accolades from satisfied clients. I told Julia that she needed to take some risks, which she had actually wanted to do for a long time. As an outsider, I gave her the "permission" she needed to try.

The idea is to build her nerve slowly. Julia has to feel right about raising prices — not apologetic. We'll start by raising her rates for existing, less important clients, as well as for new clients and for difficult ones. If she earns more per job, she can take on fewer jobs and provide even better service to her top clients.

I'm not a therapist. I can't delve into the origins of her fears. Yet I'm convinced that once she discovers that few clients will take their business elsewhere when she begins charging more profitable rates, her fears will abate. She'll also discover that sometimes she'll be better off if someone else takes on that difficult customer.

In one sense, Julia has indeed been an imposter. She's pretended to be a $30-an-hour-professional when she's really worth $60. She's been found out.

Have a question on how to handle the pressures of running a business and the impact on your personal life, marriage, and family? Contact Azriela Jaffe at AZ@azriela.com. Please put "BW Online question" in the subject field. Your real name will be kept confidential if you request, but please give an E-mail address, phone number, and your hometown so she can contact you for more information. Because of heavy volume, Azriela cannot guarantee that she will answer every query.

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