For everyone with a business based on client sessions, at some point you will have a client not show up. This can bring up many emotions; everything from concern for the client’s well-being, to questioning your own self-worth, to anger at the client wasting your time, to joy that you suddenly have more free time. All of these feelings are valid. But if you’re experiencing anger, that’s an emotion that’s trying to tell us something. The anger is probably trying to tell us that you need to examine your boundary setting with your clients. Boundary setting around no-shows takes the form of a cancellation policy.
First Rule of Cancellation Policies: Have One
When I started my practice I didn’t have a cancellation policy. I was just so excited to get to work with someone, and frankly my schedule was so empty, I could easily reschedule. As my practice filled, I ran into sticky situations where the communication had been unclear. I had to refine my process and implement a cancellation policy.
Ideally, a cancellation policy should be provided to a client during the scheduling or contracting phase. If you use an online scheduling system, you can include your cancellation policy. If you ask clients to sign an agreement, waiver, or contract, include the cancellation policy in that document. If neither of those exist, or you want to be thorough, you can always put it on your website. (I like to put it on a “Policies and Disclaimers” page that’s linked in the footer of my website.)
Acknowledge the Cancellation Policy
Sometimes practitioners get tripped up when they need to enforce their cancellation policy. Let’s say your client didn’t show up, but then they got back to you and they had a really good reason / you really like that client / this was the first time they missed / etc.
Whatever the story, now you don’t want to enforce your cancellation policy. We love to be nice to our clients, and that’s great. You don’t have to enforce your cancellation policy. There’s no boss to be mad at you aside from yourself. To protect future-you it is a good practice to acknowledge that it exists to the client to remind them (and you!) of the policy. And really, if a policy isn’t acknowledged, it kinda doesn’t exist!
When a client cancels last minute, let them know. Let them know what your policy is and that they were in violation. After stating the policy, you can tell them if you are or aren’t enforcing it. This could look like stating the consequence as laid out in the cancellation policy. (e.g. “as per my cancellation policy I’m sending you a digital invoice for the session you missed.”) If you’re opting not to enforce it this time, explain that. (e.g. “while that is my cancellation policy, I’m electing to waive it this once.”) Stating the policy and the fact that you’re waiving it means your client will know not to expect this every time.
Enforcing a cancellation policy can be uncomfortable. We’re often fearful that clients will be upset. They might be, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your policy. You deserve to have clients who respect and value your time. If the client cannot meet their commitment, you still deserve the boundaries that you’ve chosen for yourself. They made an appointment and they missed it. You held that time available for them, forgoing other uses of your time. If they’re experiencing an emotion, that is theirs to process. Anger or frustration is likely to stem from them being angry at themselves for not being able to make the appointment. Your responsibility is to the boundary; you’re not responsible for their feelings.
Make Your Cancellation Policy Work for You
There’s no one way of writing a cancellation policy. Come up with one that works for you. Maybe you consider a “last minute” cancellation as 6 hours, 48 hours, or a week’s notice. Maybe there are “last minute” cancellations and “regular” cancellations with separate consequences. Maybe there’s some kind of fee if they cancel no matter what. Maybe you require a deposit in order to book? Is the consequence of a cancellation your full fee, a percentage of your fee, or a flat rate? Is there a point at which, if they cancel too often, that you’ll refuse to book them anymore?
Create a policy that you can apply to every client, that values your time and schedule. Most people don’t decide to work with someone or not based on their cancellation policy. This means you’re free to set whatever boundaries work for you. You can trust that your clients will follow them as long as they know what they are.
Refine Your Cancellation Policy as Needed
Let’s fast forward into the future: You wrote this great cancellation policy and then someone cancels. They follow all the rules, but you’re still mad at them! What now? It’s not that your cancellation policy isn’t working, it’s that it isn’t actually describing your boundary. Your anger is telling you that your policy needs to get revised!
This is actually a really good thing. You have in writing what your policy is. Your client has canceled, and they’re facing the consequences. If this doesn’t meet your needs, now we have a starting place to refine from. What changes could be made to your policy that will appropriately value and honor your time? When considering valuing your time, we need to look at your prices and the schedule you keep. Let’s check that they’re setting you up for success.
Are You Scheduled and Priced Appropriately?
You shouldn’t be panicking about paying the bills with a single cancellation. Make sure the time you have available to clients doesn’t have to be booked to full capacity to make ends meet. Assume that clients will be absent from time to time. That might result in one to two missed sessions every week! If you’re cutting things too thin, consider raising your rates. Alternatively, explore other ways of meeting with clients that will expand your earning potential. (e.g. group sessions or online coursework.)
How’s that Work-Life Balance?
Not having enough time away from work also impacts the feelings you have toward canceled clients. Check in with how much time you’re devoting to work. Have you had a weekend recently? Are your days too long? Are there too many gaps in your days? Or maybe there are too many days in a week? Your schedule does not have to be a 9-to-5! In fact, most of my self-employed clients aim for a 20 to 30-hour work week, organized across 3 to 6 days. Your clients will work with the time you offer, so make sure there are times you DON’T offer.
What about a vacation? Beyond the day-to-day, we need an extended period of time away from work. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; where will your credit card miles get you? Or what’s within driving distance? Or maybe you just stay at home and engross yourself in not-work activities at home! Need more help figuring out how to go on vacation, check out my other articles Do You Need a Vacation? Learn the Secret to Taking Time Off When Self-Employed and Seize the Holidays with this Terrific Vacation Strategy.
Cancellation Policies Are Tricky
Hopefully this post has given you some things to think about in regards to your cancellation policy. Cancellation policies are a fundamental way we form boundaries with our clients. (Though there are other ways too!) To get you started forming your cancellation policy, I’ve made this free download. It includes both boilerplate cancellation policy language and sample emails to clients. It’s everything you need to establish and reinforce that policy! If you’re still struggling to form or enforce your cancellation policy, book a session with me so we can troubleshoot.