When Should Your Clients Take a Back Seat?

I was coaching Bob, a busy lawyer.  One of his key goals was business development – obtaining new clients. He told me that he just didn’t have time to work on business development –too busy.  So I asked him a question (that’s what coaches do). 

What are your priorities?

“Who is your most important client?” Bob responded with the typical answer. He started naming some large companies. “And what’s on your “to do” list?”,   Bob started listing specific tasks including depositions, client meetings, briefs…well, you know the rest. 

“What’s not on your list?”  He struggled to answer for a bit. Finally, he got it. His business development tasks were nowhere on the list. He didn’t mention himself as an important client, and didn’t think of those tasks – the ones where he was investing in his own future – as being enough of a priority to even make it to his list.  So, I asked the obvious question. “How will you accomplish your own marketing tasks if they don’t get on the list?”   Of course, he said: “I can’t”. 

One of my own long-time coaching clients, Peter Vogel, a prominent Dallas attorney, shared the wisdom of the “who is your most important client” with me several years ago. He got it from his father, a well-respected Dallas accountant.  We are our most important client. Once we get that clear, we can create the right balance between our work, our clients and our lives.  

Put yourself on the list.

Some of us have a fear that if we put ourselves on the list, we’re no longer client focused, that it’s wrong to address our own needs if there’s a client need to be attended to. But that simply is not true. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we’re not as valuable to our clients. 

Examples we can all relate to: exercise, eating right, getting enough sleep. If we don’t do these things for ourselves, we won’t be able to function well eventually. 

Examples we don’t like to relate to: taking a vacation, spending time with family, reading. These help us function at a higher level. Doing these activities clears our head, gives us valuable input, and can be emotionally stabilizing.

Examples professional services providers often fail to acknowledge: networking, social media activities, writing, speaking, building relationships – are all part of the job. Most of us have to do these and other activities so that we can obtain paid work.   

Is it self-orientation to care about yourself?

Yes, of course it is. So what? There is nothing wrong with having things you have to do for yourself on your list. The type of self-orientation we talk about in Trusted Advisor Associates, reducing our Trust Quotient, is not about taking care of you. It’s about being self-absorbed, and unable to get out of your own way. When you take care of yourself, you are better equipped to focus on others. 

Professionals who truly care about their clients often forget that they need to address their own needs as well. This includes the exercise and family time I noted above. It also includes taking steps to develop business in the future. Just because you have work on your desk today, doesn’t always mean that the work must trump a networking or business development activity. 

Treat yourself as if you are a client.

Imagine that you are one of your clients. When there is a conflict between an activity you need to do for you, and one you need to do for another client, analyze the conflict and priorities the same way you would if you had two clients competing for your time. You decide which client has the more immediate priority, and you let the other client know when you will address that client’s needs. When you use this process, sometimes your needs will trump the client work. So if you have a referral-source lunch and work that needs to be done by 5, and you believe you can get it done when you get back, don’t blow off the lunch. Take care of yourself, and then take care of the client. The work will still be on your desk when you get back, and you’ll get it done in time. 

So – what will you do?

Are you ready to put yourself first sometimes? Here are three easy rules to follow: 

  1. When you create your work task list, put your marketing, and personal tasks on the same list.
  2. When you prioritize your task list, include all your tasks, not just your work tasks.
  3. When there is a conflict with your time, don’t exclude your needs when you make your decision on set priorities. You may have to take a back seat some of the time, but not all of the time.

Putting yourself first isn’t easy, and sometimes may feel selfish. Just remember that we do respect people who take care of themselves along with caring about others.

5 replies
  1. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    Great post….one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to put family commitments on my calendar in the same way I put client commitments.  My family needed to understand that they needed to make choices about which commitments were most important (as I couldn’t be at everything!) but that I would honor those put on the calendar with the same seriousness I gave to clients.  It has worked well for all of us for many years.

  2. Steven B. Levy
    Steven B. Levy says:

    I always wanted to have a single calendar my family could see. In the big corporate world I couldn’t, for security reasons (maybe valid, maybe not). Now that I own my own firm, I do exactly that; my wife and I share a calendar that is synched among our computers and ubiquitous devices, and we put family events on it.

    I learned years ago to put personal events on my calendar as well — dentist appointment, haircut, etc. Now my family sees them too, but the original impetus was to instill as a habit what Stewart suggests — set aside time for myself. I then started setting "work time" blocks, and often would divide or tag them with personal goals for that time.

    In fact, I’ve got to get back to that — I too am letting business development take a backseat because it’s work I’m not as fond of as actually delivering the value.

  3. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    Rich and Steve – thanks for sharing your comments.  A number of my clients wrote to me privately to ask if they were "Bob".    This sounds like such as easy thing to do on paper, yet we forget to do it.  Good for you Steve for getting back to it for business development!  And for you Rich for sharing your calendar with your family, and honoring those commitments!

  4. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    What a thoughtful and insightful post, Stewart — one of your best! Your "Examples we don’t like to relate to: taking a vacation, spending time with family, reading" really hit home for me. I gave a presentation recently (as a volunteer – not work related) where I spoke about the importance of regularly putting yourself in inspiring surroundings (in nature, with other people, doing art, playing golf, whatever). Your post invites me to practice what I preach.




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  1. […] I help a lot of people that are looking for jobs just because I like to help people and I wrote one called, “Interview Like A Trusted Advisor.” And sharing that blog has been very helpful to people. There are others who do not put their client development efforts first, and I wrote one called, “When Should Your Clients Take A Backseat?” […]

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