Want to share a very important point that came up in our private Unicorn Society Facebook group.

One of our members shared this insightful thought in a post:

“I thought I was running a people first business. But now I realize it’s been a people pleaser business.”

Let’s look at the difference between being “people first” vs being a “people pleaser.”

And let’s do so through the lens of a young Mark Fisher serving lasagna and wine at a fancy, high-end NYC Italian restaurant.

Your author's skills as a waiter, such as they are, can be accurately described as severely limited.

At this point in my life, I didn’t have much experience eating out in any restaurants, let alone fancy(ish) ones. I’m from a family of six kids. So “going out to eat” in the Fisher household generally consisted of hitting up Mickey D’s. 

I didn’t even find out about the whole “put your napkin in your lap” thing till I was in college while visiting my girlfriend’s family.

And when I DID go out to eat, you can be sure my ass would mainly scan the prices to look for the cheapest thing on the menu. Because young aspiring actor in NYC with no trust fund and/or parental financial support.

So when I got hired to wait tables, I was not primed for success. I wanted to do a good job. But I wasn’t really able to appreciate what the restaurant was attempting to sell.

But at the very least, I DID want to have positive experiences with the humans I worked with. 

Alas, this was not a culture that made that terribly easy. 

You see, in the high-stakes, hyper-competitive world of NYC hospitality, our management was used to handling demanding rich people. And there seemed to be an informal system:

The worse the customer treats us and our staff, the better treatment and more free stuff they get.

(Let me acknowledge my bias: this was a long time ago. I’m certain I wasn’t totally fair or generous in how I viewed our management. Nonetheless, this was indeed my — and the staff’s — general sense of how things played out.)

This approach created a perverse system of incentives.

The more horribly a customer treated the staff, the more they got. This meant these individuals were MORE likely to become repeat customers. 

It was as if the restaurant trained the customers to treat us all like shit.

So what does this have to do with your training gym?

It’s this:

You have to balance generosity, kindness, and a service mindset with clear and consistent boundaries.

This is one of THE hardest razor edges to find in any service business.

On the one hand, if you’re easily aggrieved and you assume your customers are always trying to take advantage of you, you’re going to struggle. After all, none of us are perfect every day. Oftentimes customers get upset with your business in proportion to how high their expectations are. So dismissing any brusque customer as an asshole and sending them on their way isn’t exactly living up to the spiritual calling of world-class customer service.

On the other hand, if we have NO boundaries… 

If there is virtually NOTHING a customer can do to get fired… 

If you have clients that consistently disregard your policies, ask for exceptions, and somehow “forget” the same terms of their agreement over and over again… 

You’ve got an issue on your hands. 

Not only that, but if your team feels they have to put up with abusive behaviors, you’ll lose credibility as a leader. I’m pained to admit it, but in my desire to relentlessly pursue “unconditional positive regard,” this has absolutely happened in my career. 

Perhaps one of the biggest personal shifts I’ve made as a business owner — and human — is curating the conviction to set and enforce boundaries. It’s taken years of effort. And plenty of therapy. And I’m STILL not 100% cured of my “people pleaser” tendencies. But I am better than I’ve ever been.

SIDE NOTE: This is an example of how your personal quirks and wounds will directly impact your business unless you’re willing to walk on the fire coals and address them head-on.

I speak from personal experience when I say it’s VERY hard to find this line. 

Personally, I will always choose naivete over paranoia when it comes to client intentions. I believe we should start by being generous: give the benefit of the doubt, express sincere care and concern when dealing with an upset client, and always look for how we’re contributing to a given miscommunication.

However…

If your business does any kind of volume, a certain percentage of your clients will be culture-killers. They will only be able to see things from their side, and they will want as much as possible, and they will genuinely freak out anytime they don’t get their way. That’s just math.

Now I’m NOT saying: “Armor up!” We don’t want to answer customer service emails ready for a fight. 

But we also have to track when we make exceptions so we can appropriately handle repeat offenders. 

We can be charitable and kind AND sometimes fire clients.

And even when we have to (rarely) take this extreme action, we can still believe they’re doing the best they can from where they are and want the best for them.

We don’t have to fall into the trap of making them a “villain.” We don’t have to make ourselves a “victim.” We don’t have to deny them the fullness of their humanity.

But we can be adults.

We can set boundaries and end a relationship that isn’t working for both parties.

Because we’re dealing with some values-based decision-making, I don’t have a formula for you on this topic.

But here’s a crude framework:

1) You should rarely — if ever — boot a client for a single difficult encounter. We all have our moments, and you never know what’s going on in a client’s life.

2) You should track both policy exceptions and difficult experiences in your CRM so you can find patterns.

3) Once a client has stepped into the land of repeat offenders, at the very least, have a conversation with them about the pattern you’re seeing. Since you have careful records, you can point to specific behaviors and make clear asks for how you’d like to see the relationship change.

4) For the sake of your business, your other clients, your team, and your own well-being, there has to be a boundary past which you’re willing to end the relationship. It shouldn’t happen often. And in most cases, outside of something truly egregious like threatening your staff’s safety, only after you’ve had at least one direct conversation. 

Running a business is not for the faint of heart.

But you can’t polish a diamond without pressure.

You’re not alone,

Mark