July 2021 – “Build Boundaries, Not Barriers”

Relationships are tricky. Especially in the wake of the pandemic, people are craving human interaction and stronger relationships. However, “open borders” are a recipe for disaster when it comes to friends, family, and even customers. 

I worked at a company once, and their philosophy was to always answer the phone, 24/7, no matter what you were doing (even if you were in a meeting with another customer). The nature of this business did require 24/7 responsiveness, and when you were “on-call” after business hours, it was a time-sensitive matter (the phone needed to be answered quickly). During office hours though, there were others who could handle that. There were no healthy boundaries, so the ringing phone took priority over a paying customer. That’s crazy in my book. It sends the message to the customer that the unknown on the other end of the ringing phone is more important than they are.

My wife also values boundaries in business. When the kids were little, she had a home-based business selling candles. The training provided (to a young wife, mother, and entrepreneur) taught her early on to set office hours. She communicated those clearly, and when the phone rang outside those hours she didn’t answer it. Of course, she made sure to return every call during her next business day. But those boundaries protected her time, her family, and her sanity.

The plague of instant gratification from the internet, social media, insta-shopping, and free next-day (or same-day!) shipping has created a culture that seems unwilling to wait. I challenge that idea. Our culture may not like to wait, but by setting the proper expectations, I believe that there is a willingness to wait. In other words, if I tell people that I will answer messages within 2 business days, then they know the latest possible time I will return their call (this assumes I live by my word and follow through.) If I can return the call in only a few hours, I have exceeded their expectations. 

The danger in answering the phone after hours or on weekends is that it sets a precedent. Customers then expect you to do so in the future, and it is nearly impossible to roll that back. You did not set boundaries, so you are now stuck being a 24/7 call center for every problem (or perceived problem) from every customer (or perceived customer) who chooses to call you.

There is a distinction that needs to be made between “boundaries” and “barriers”. While boundaries set expectations and encourage communication, barriers wall people off; they isolate us from others. And after the pandemic, I don’t need to tell any of you how awful isolation can be. 

To illustrate this difference, I will use a more personal scenario. If you find out that your significant other went behind your back and made an expensive purchase without your knowledge, you would need to have a conversation. If it were a recurring problem, you would need to create some healthy boundaries around the family funds. Filing for divorce (without first trying to work through the problems and setting boundaries) would be an obvious barrier to further relationship. 

Boundaries are a gentle distancing, possibly temporary or maybe permanent. Barriers are an abrupt door-slam. While that may be necessary in some situations, for most day-to-day relationship challenges, knowing how to set boundaries and communicate expectations is key.