What I Learned About My Clients After An Unexpected Spine Surgery

“Listen, if everyone is saying YES to you and you’re closing every single deal, that means you are way too cheap,” Scott Underwood told me during a free business coaching session in 2016.

“What?” I said. “You mean, it’s not because I am great at selling my services and value?”

I was only half-joking, I suppose.

He laughed, “I am sure you are – but that’s not why you’re here. You are here because you have too many clients and feel overwhelmed. So, we need to look at your model, pricing, and figure out how to get the right type of clients.”

Hungry for the work

On that day, I had 16 clients and no one else on my team. I was utterly overwhelmed and worked every possible hour I could stay awake within a given day. I had my laptop with me at every family gathering (even on Christmas Day), every trip in the car, and every vacation. This was not a healthy way to live or run a business. I am not proud of this time in my life, but it changed me and taught me about the hustle fallacy.

That conversation with Scott changed forever changed my business and how I partner with my clients. You see, when I first left my full-time corporate job to pursue this idea of building my own marketing agency, I was terrified. I was terrified, but I was hungry for work. More like, starving. It’s like sending someone who hasn’t eaten in a few days to a buffet – and you watch them go absolutely bonkers adding everything possible item to their plate. Mashed potatoes on top of mac and cheese, perfect – sounds great! Let’s see what happens with this combination.

But, instead of adding food to my plate – I was adding client after client after client. Back then, I was joining boards, offering my services for free, and speaking for free. So, not only did I have a tremendous amount of paid work to complete, I had endless hours of volunteer work that kept me distracted and focused on growing my own business. I also had a 2-year-old, husband, and dog that required my love and attention. I am not sure they got it during that time period.

The one client who changed everything

Then, it finally happened. In the midst of the chaos and trying to scale back on my projects,  I got a really bad client. I mean REALLY bad. This client was toxic and spiteful from the first discovery call. He started off by complaining about how long it took me to get back to him (he messaged me at 4 pm on Tuesday and I wrote back the next morning). He questioned my pricing. He asked about my integrity.

“WOW, your hourly rate is incredibly high,” he said. (Side note: my rate wasn’t high at all. Also, I don’t do hourly rates anymore, that was another big lesson learned).

“How do I know that you will do something and bill me properly?” He asked.  “Like, what if something takes you 15 minutes and you bill me an hour?”

I was frustrated but tried to be diplomatic in my reply, “Well, there is hardly anything done well in marketing that takes 15 minutes, but I guess the only response is that you’ll have to trust me and how I work. You’ll see what I’ve accomplished for you through weekly reports and meetings and how your business grows from better digital marketing and storytelling. There is nothing else I can say except trust me and how we work together.”

He didn’t have a good reply, so instead, he just starting bashing his previous marketing person who left him “unexpectedly”. And then the web developer who never does a good job.

(I know what you’re thinking. He gave me all the signs. I should have known better. But, just ask my husband and friends, I am always learning things the hard way because of my relentless optimism). 

He was a lot. My gut knew that he wasn’t the right fit for me. But, I was still at the buffet line. I was hungry. And maybe mashed potatoes and mac and cheese together isn’t so bad. I thought I needed a lot of clients to be successful. (Side note: You could be successful with only one really amazing client, another lesson learned). 

Let your core values guide your future relationships

We ended up working together, but only for a few months. The working relationship and expectations could never be properly managed. I learned a lot about managing difficult clients and setting proper expectations up-front. I learned the power and freedom you gain when you say “NO” to a project or engagement that does not align with your services, but most importantly, your values. In fact, he is the reason I created and promoted my core values:

  • Stay positive.
  • Speak up.
  • Remain curious.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Be intentional.

I will never work for someone who is toxic and unsatisfied with everyone and everything in their life. As I mentioned, I am a relentless optimist and tend to see the best in everyone, but people like this are easy to spy. So now, I run. I run far away.

On the road to recovery

But, I can’t run right now. You see, I am recovering from unexpected back surgery. While driving to the emergency room at 2:00 am on a Monday morning, I found myself canceling my meetings for the day. Once I actually got admitted to the hospital and they confirmed surgery, I started canceling a big marketing workshop, lunch meetings, moving out deliverables, canceling classes, and I had to tell a client I couldn’t help build their custom landing page for their event that week. I felt terrible. I thought my clients would be upset or frustrated. I thought to myself, “This might be it for you. You might lose some of these incredible accounts because of this surgery and your recovery time.”

But you know what happened? Within an hour, I had flowers from one of my clients arrive in my hospital room. She sent them to me personally – not even from her company. When I got home, another client sent me a robot foot massager (part of my problem was the fact that I couldn’t feel my leg and foot from the knee down). My group of marketing friends (code name: BTE) sent me the most beautiful care basket full of snacks and books and self-care products. Then, my client with the canceled workshop sent me more flowers at home from the company this time.

I took a minute to look in my living room at the flowers and boxes while my feet were slowly regaining feeling, and thought, “You did it. You learned your lesson. You surrounded yourself with people – with clients – who make you better.”

My clients are more than my source of income. They are a part of my life in a meaningful way. They are my friends. They cheer me on before every race I complete. They send me encouraging emails often. They don’t get upset when things go wrong or we get off-track because an unsuspecting priority shifts us. I suppose I’ve always known that a successful business is more than just revenue dollars. But, my clients really proved to me that the real success of my business is the relationships I’ve built with them and the way we care about each other beyond dollar signs and project logs.

“Always work with/surround yourself with people who help make you a better version of you. Kindly avoid those who don’t.”

– Don Roff

As a business owner and individual, you must honor progress instead of perfection. You need to look around yourself and see who is surrounding you and lifting you up. You can’t do this alone. Everything worth doing and exploring in life involves the help, support, love, and encouragement from other people. And in my case, these people include my clients.

I am overwhelmed in the best possible way. Thank you to my friends, clients, students, and business partners who have sent me thoughtful gifts and words of encouragement during my challenging and slow recovery. I plan to come back stronger than ever. And, I will – because I have you on my side.

With love,

Ashley

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