Setting boundaries with clients is an incredibly difficult task for freelancers and small business owners. On one hand, you want to attract clients and keep them as happy as possible. But then, the clients will only be beneficial (and easy to work with) if they respect your boundaries.
Think about it, what good is a client doing if they don’t pay on time? Is one client really worth it if they keep demanding more and more from you to the point you can’t focus on other clients? And, if it doesn’t work out, there’s that awkward moment when you have to break up.
And how are you supposed to get a healthy work-life balance if you have a client that persistently calls during your out-of-office hours? This is why setting boundaries with clients is so important.
To avoid these issues, you have to enforce strict boundaries. But, how do you do that while keeping your clients satisfied? That’s what we’ll discuss in this post. Let’s start at the top:
4 Reasons why setting boundaries with clients is important
Setting boundaries with clients might be scary since you run the risk of losing clients. However, it’s something you have to do. Here’s why:
1. Boundaries uphold mutual respect between you and your clients
Professional boundaries establish a guideline on how you communicate with clients. For example, it helps your clients know when and how they are supposed to contact you. You could agree that weekends and holidays are out of bounds, for instance.
Such an agreement builds mutual respect. The clients will respect your time and boundaries, and you will reciprocate the same respect.
In contrast, a lack of boundaries could mean clients can reach out to you at any time. That’s really dangerous because some clients can easily abuse your accessibility.
They may interfere with your ability to focus on other key functions in your business. Some will even creep into your personal and family time. This can lead to resentment if left unchecked.
2. Boundaries help you keep all clients satisfied
Maintaining close personal client relationships makes the clients feel valued and appreciated. Sadly, you can’t sustain such relationships if one client has complete disregard for boundaries.
They’ll take up a significant portion of your time, and this will seriously limit your ability to keep up with other clients. It may eventually hinder you from scaling your business.
3. Business boundaries are critical for self-care
The effects of poor boundaries usually overflow into one’s personal life. If your clients can reach you any time they want, what’s to stop them from calling you at night? Or during weekends when you are out with the family?
Without boundaries, it becomes almost impossible to have a life outside work. And without a healthy work-life balance, productivity drops, and the risk of developing medical issues like depression increases tremendously.
Without a balance, your business will take a hit when you are no longer able to maintain the same level of productivity.
4. Boundaries save you from saying no to your clients
Setting boundaries with clients saves you from situations where you have to turn down clients’ requests. For example, if you tell a client that you are only available at specific times and they accept your terms, chances are they won’t bother contacting you outside those hours.
And since you won’t find yourself in conversations where you have to say no, your relationships with clients will likely grow stronger and more respectful.
Unfortunately, not all clients respect boundaries. Therefore, expect a few clients to put you in situations where you may have to turn them down.
How to set boundaries with clients
Professional boundaries should be treated as seriously as any other business terms. You should create your boundaries at the very beginning when preparing the documents you need to start an online business.
Below is a four-step guide on setting boundaries with clients:
The first step towards establishing your boundaries is making the expectations clear from the get-go. Your client should know what they can expect from you regarding working hours, the scope of the work, turnaround times, response time, how long calls are supposed to last, etc.
Define these expectations as accurately as possible. That’s especially important for something like the scope of work you’re doing for a client. If you don’t set a clear guideline for it, some clients may take advantage, making you do more work than you originally agreed on.
Write up these expectations and discuss them with your client at the very beginning of the project. That way, you will start your journey on the right foot, reducing the risk of future disagreements.
What’s even more important than setting the expectations is sticking to them. If you decide your working hours are between 8 am and 4 pm, stick to that rule. Unless it’s an absolute emergency, do not engage the client outside these hours.
Yes, you can work on the project outside the office hours if you have to, but avoid interacting with the client. Why? If you breach your agreement, your client will think the rules aren’t that important after all. Some may cross your boundaries, and it’ll be hard for you to enforce the rules you can’t even follow yourself.
Put your terms in writing
When setting boundaries with clients, put your terms in a legal document and have clients sign off on the agreement before you start working together. This is one of the best techniques for making your boundaries official. The agreement also makes it easier to resolve any issues that may arise down the road.
For example, the legal document should show what exactly you are supposed to deliver. So if a client tries to get you into doing something that’s outside the contract, you can politely turn down the request or ask them to pay extra.
The agreement should point out the payment terms as well. That includes details like the amount owed, payment method, due date, and other relevant terms such as late penalty fees.
To avoid complicating your client onboarding process, include the boundaries and expectations in the terms & conditions of your contracts. But be sure to communicate and discuss the terms with your client before they sign the document.
Set up a system to enforce the boundaries
Once you and your client agree on the terms, you will need a system to help you enforce the boundaries consistently. Keep in mind that this system is not just for your clients. You need it to keep yourself in check as well. It will probably require more discipline from your side since you are the leader in your business.
Another benefit of setting up a proper system is it will help you take the breaks you need without feeling like your work will collapse in your absence.
Start by ensuring client engagements happen during working hours alone. Luckily, there are plenty of tools to help you manage this. Set time during the week and plan out your interactions. You can easily find weekly work schedule templates that can help you map this out.
For example, modern smartphones let you switch between different profiles. You can set up a work and personal profile for your iPhone and customize the notifications coming through in each profile. For example, you could have notifications from email, Slack, and other collaboration apps turned off on your personal profile.
The profiles are super helpful, but you have to practice some self-discipline to stop yourself from breaking your own rules.
Another tool that could help you enforce professional boundaries is email automatic response software or plugin. These tools will automatically respond to incoming emails when you are not available. They could, for instance, reply to a client email telling them when they can expect a response from you.
The tools are great at maintaining a working relationship with your clients without compromising your personal life.
Address breached boundaries immediately.
Some breached client boundaries may be easier to address than others. For example, if the scope of your deliverables is covered in the contract and the client asks for extra work, you can easily schedule a call to discuss the extra charges.
Similarly, you can handle issues such as late payments with a late penalty clause in your contract.
But what if an over-demanding client is consistently calling you after hours? How do you handle that without damaging the relationship?
You have to sit down with the client and remind them of your working hours as politely as possible.
Most clients will respond positively to such a request because they probably struggle with work-life balance issues. But if the client’s needs have changed so much that they need the extra hours, you’ll need to discuss a new agreement.
You could also take a proactive approach here. That means switching off email notifications and having separate phones for business and personal time. The clients will never interrupt your personal life if they can’t reach you, right?
Just make sure the business phone has an active voicemail service to handle all after-hours calls because clients shouldn’t feel ignored.
Tips for setting boundaries with clients
Setting boundaries with clients is vital, but you have to do it correctly; otherwise, you risk losing clients in the process. So here are eight tips on how to go about it:
Ask questions before committing to a contract
Some freelancers get excited about landing a new client and forget to do their due diligence before signing a contract. Most freelancers also pay attention to scope and payment terms alone, ignoring everything else. This sets poor precedence where guidelines are not discussed, making it easier for either party to abuse the contract.
Before signing any contract, have an open discussion with your client. And as you aim to make your boundaries clear, identify client expectations as well.
These discussions will put you on the same page before you start working together. It also provides the avenue to iron out any issues before it’s too late. For example, if you are not okay with the weekly hours the client demands, you can resolve the problem before the project starts.
Use official channels of communication
One of the key items you need to discuss beforehand is the channels of communication. Email is pretty standard, but you also need an extra channel like Zoom, Skype, or Slack for effective client communication.
Whatever options you agree on, make sure to stick to them at all times. Don’t text your client through WhatsApp, for example. It may feel harmless to do so one time, but that’s how bad habits form, and before you know it, there’s no distinction between how you communicate with your best friend and clients.
Be prepared to walk away
Turning down a business opportunity may not sound right, but let’s face it, not every client is good for you and your ultimate goal. If clients can’t respect clearly defined boundaries, they’re likely to do more harm than good.
Therefore, don’t be afraid to turn down projects if they do not align with your goals but do so politely and respectfully.
Have a genuine conversation with the client and let them know that the project is not a good fit for you. Most clients will appreciate the honesty and won’t hold it against you moving forward.
Here’s a template to guide you:
Hello [client name],
Thank you so much for reaching out regarding this opportunity. I appreciate it. Unfortunately, I can’t handle this project for you at this time. I’m afraid I’ll have to pass on it.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any other questions. Thank you, [client first name].
The goal here is to turn down the client without using the word “No.” You also don’t want to over explain yourself.
Feel free to mention a colleague you believe can handle the task for your client. That’s another way of maintaining your boundaries while helping a client in need.
Understand your priorities
To set and implement your boundaries effectively, you must first understand what’s important in your life. What are the priority projects for the week, month, or quarter? How many hours per week are reserved for your personal or family time?
Knowing your priorities makes it easier to identify client demands that are not in line with your goals.
Enforce your boundaries consistently
The best way to ensure your boundaries are respected is by enforcing them consistently. Don’t tell your client you are not available for after-hours calls today and breach the rule the next day. It’s confusing to your clients and makes you look like a joke.
Enforce your boundaries throughout the relationship.
Respect your clients’ boundaries
Respect your client’s boundaries just as you would expect them to respect yours. Respect is a two-way street, after all.
When telling a client your expectations, ask them whether they have any terms of their own. If they do, note them down.
Understand that your boundaries will be challenged
Some clients will always test your boundaries despite your best efforts in trying to maintain a professional relationship. Things like scope creep, for example, are very common, particularly in the freelance world.
For instance, a client may ask you to add a new feature to an application you’re building for them. Worse still, they might not account for the additional hours required to add the feature before delivering the final product. Such a simple request could ruin your entire timeline.
As discussed earlier, put a mechanism in place to address these breaches as quickly as they occur.
Should you befriend clients on social media?
Social media is a great way to build your brand but when it comes to clients, it comes with a few caveats. Connecting with clients on social media is a tricky subject. Sure, there are some benefits, but the drawbacks are profound.
For example, by accessing some of your personal stuff, the connection can make clients see you more of a friend than a client. It’s not entirely a bad thing, but it can bring about certain complications. For instance, a client could start taking liberties with agreed payment terms since you’re now “close friends.”
The connection can also ruin a professional relationship quite easily. Let’s say you post a political opinion on your Facebook page. If the client has a different opinion, it’s easy for them to dislike and “cancel” you for your random opinion even though you’re good at your job.
Ultimately, the decision on whether to connect with a client on social media or not boils down to how you use your social pages. If your Facebook page is reserved for personal stuff and nothing else, the benefits of connecting with clients on the platform are very minimal.
On the other hand, if you use social media to showcase your expertise, connecting with clients can be very beneficial. Social networks can even help you land new clients.
Therefore, evaluate how you use your social networks then make the appropriate decision on whether to connect with clients or not.
Are you ready to set boundaries?
Setting boundaries with clients are critical for a productive relationship. They breed mutual respect and help you grow your business while meeting your personal commitments.
Preventing boundary breaches is always easier than dealing with the breaches. It saves you from difficult conversations and helps you create productive relationships. So, why don’t you take back control of your business and life by setting the boundaries?
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