• Advice

"I will do this, not that": How to set boundaries with your clients

Photo by Isofta.

You want to be there for your clients. You want to go above and beyond. You want to be so valuable to your clients that they use you for the next ten years.

But that does not mean you need to immediately answer that email they sent you at 6 a.m. on a Sunday. Or if you do answer that email, your client needs to realize this is above and beyond by knowing there was a boundary to cross in the first place.

You can’t just imply a boundary, or hint at it, you need to say it -- or better, get it in writing.

Here’s exactly what you need to say & when:

The communication equation

When do you answer emails? When do you call? What can you give in on, and what is absolutely off-limits?

Remember: Boundaries are best set before they’re violated. If you set reasonable expectations upfront -- giving in on some things and setting up strict guidelines on others -- you won’t seem like a demanding know-it-all, you’ll seem like a professional whose time is precious.

1. Are you available during normal work hours? This is especially important when you’re freelancing on the side while holding down a full-time job. You can get in pretty hot water if you start working on your freelance gig at your full-time job.

  • “I answer the bulk of my emails before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. However, you can always reach me by phone and I’ll set up a time to talk with you.”
  • Put it in the positive. “My client work is very important to me and so I like to carve out a good chunk of time that I dedicate completely to your project. I’ve found it works really well when I set aside an hour for you each week; we can really touch base on what’s happening and not have 10 piecemeal conversations throughout the week.”

2. Are you available on weekends? Some clients have the idea that freelancers work whenever, wherever, and if you don’t set expectations upfront, you will someday have a client email you last minute on Friday asking to see a draft of something on Monday morning.

Do you want to be available on weekends? Is the fact that you are available to clients such a big benefit to them that if you decided to take weekends to spend time with your family, they’d up and leave?

There may come a time where a client is in a bind and you choose to do something for them on the weekends. But the client will be even more appreciative of your extra effort when you set the expectation up-front that you don’t work on weekends.

3. Do you check your email at certain times? Unless you tell a client when you check your email, they may be expecting you to answer them immediately.

  • “I check my email constantly, but if you don’t hear from me, I could be in a client meeting or working on a special project. I will always get back to you in 24 hours no matter what.”
  • “I don’t answer check email or answer my phone when I’m writing, just so you know!”
  • “I only check email on the weekends after 6 p.m., so if you have an emergency, you’d better call.”

4. When will you do check-ins? Will you email weekly progress reports? Say so. This is one of those things that some clients feel very strongly about; it might make sense to let them have their check-in schedule but set up strict weekend boundaries, or negotiate down on check-ins but make it clear that you’re always checking email if they have other questions…

Feedback and approvals

1. Give them your past experience and suggest a system. “I’ve found that projects work best when your feedback is like this [describe]. I think it’ll work here. What do you think?”

2. Explain what kind of feedback you’re looking for. Too many freelancers don’t train clients on what approval means. Does a client know how to communicate what they don’t like?

  • “At each stage, it’s most helpful to me when you communicate exactly what you don’t like. I want to hear it all!” You’re setting an expectation for their feedback and eliminating the need to sugarcoat comments.
  • When you deliver a draft, ask specific questions about the aspects of the draft. “What did you think about that shade of blue?” “Did you like the positive tone of the writing, or were you looking for something a bit more controversial?” It’s your responsibility to make your client think critically about the project in early stages, so that your project gets on the right track faster.

3. How many revisions will you accept? If you accept an endless number of revisions, the client is going to make an endless number of revisions.

  • Put it in the contract.
  • Each draft you send, remind them what stage you’re at. How many more revisions do they have?
  • Do they have extra revisions (a third party they forgot to get feedback from the first time)? Charge ‘em.

4. Does your client understand the ramifications of each stage of approvals? Don’t fall into the rushed feedback trap: When your client says, “This is good!” and you think this constitutes approval... and then you’re shocked when the client rejects the final draft saying “I liked it, but I didn’t realize I had to give detailed feedback back then.”

It’s your job to make sure the client understand what kind of feedback to give and how important the feedback is:

  • “Remember, this is the final round of revisions! If you have any comments, this is your last chance and the next draft will be final. Maybe we should send to Randy and Ruth at this stage?”
  • “Is this the final copy you want on the header? It will be costly to change this later.”

Pay attention to your client’s boundaries and practices

You’re trying to develop a healthy relationship, not just something that works for you.

1. “What’s the best way for me to work with you?” Chances are that your client hasn’t been asked this question by a freelancer before!

2. “Do you have any policies or procedures I should know about?” Do they need your drafts by a certain time each week for their check-in with their boss? Do they leave work early on Fridays?

3. Pay attention: when and how is your client contacting you? Does your client seem to send you emails only first thing in the morning? Try to be available during that time. Do your client’s emails always seem rushed on unthinking? Call them for important milestones.

4. Give and get. One person getting everything their way is a dangerous thing and can lead to either you or your client feeling cheated. Negotiation isn’t a cut-throat, hammerfisting affair. It’s the process by which how you work together becomes fair.

Freelancers, what expectations do you set with your clients? What are your absolute, “I will not do that”s?