5 Tips for Setting Boundaries With Your Clients
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not great at setting boundaries, professional or personal. I say yes too often, and I don’t speak up when things get overwhelming. In personal relationships, I hate to disappoint my friends or let them down. In professional relationships, it’s a bit of the same but with the fear that a client won’t want to work with me anymore.
Over time I’ve learned to get over that on a professional level. The best clients understand and respect boundaries, as long as the work gets done. The worst clients ignore boundaries or decide to move on because they can’t get everything they wanted (when they wanted it) — and frankly, you don’t need those clients.
If you struggle with it, here’s what I’ve learned to do.
Set Expectations Early
When I discuss my work with a new client, I always tell them what they can expect from me. This goes beyond, “I’ll meet deadlines” because, frankly, that should be a given.
- I give them my preferred method of contact. Email, it’s always email.
- They know when they can expect work from me – once a week, on a schedule, as it’s completed – based on their needs.
- I tell them when I’ll send out an invoice for work completed and when that invoice is due.
- I explain what happens when I take time off and how I’ll handle their projects during that time.
- And I put it all in writing.
In the negotiation phase of taking on a new project or client, this is your chance to be clear from the beginning. Over time I’ve learned that it’s better to let someone know up front. They can decide if they want to work with me before we get started. Wait too long to establish the ground rules, and you feel stuck or they’re surprised when you belatedly set boundaries.
Say What You Will Do, Not What You Won’t
I’ve heard this trick over and over, and when I embraced it, I found it actually works.
Pretend client email: “I need 10 articles by next week plus I want a three-hour Skype call to go over it all.”
My pretend reaction to myself: “Nooooooooo!!!!” *cue anxiety*
I actually reply with something along the lines of: “My schedule is packed right now. What I can do is get three pieces by XX date and will have the rest to you by XX date. Can you email me the information and then we can schedule a call?”
Two things come from this…
- Instead of saying no, I share how I can get it done in a way that works for my schedule.
- Asking for an email with the details first will often shorten the future call or negate the need for it at all.
I reframe the conversation to do what works best for my life and my schedule. Before, I would say yes, kill myself to get it done, and feel resentful about the whole thing. No good.
Can a brand or company decide not to work with me when I can’t meet their deadline? Of course they can, but most are willing to negotiate and find a middle ground. This is especially true when they really want to work with you.
Consider Your Personal Schedule
When someone offers money for your work, it’s easy to think you have to immediately say yes and do whatever a client wants. It’s also easy to look at your workload and base your decision off of just that. After too many late nights finishing up last minute projects, I realized I’d forgotten something in the decision-making process — my personal life.
In the conversation about deadlines and workload, I don’t just consider my current to-do list. I look at my personal life, too. Do I have doctors appointments, stuff to do with the kids, or a vacation planned? All of these things factor into my decisions. They have to. When I ignore those things, I stress out to complete assignments when I don’t really have the time.
Be Flexible and Negotiate
Boundaries are important. We all need them. But flexibility matters too. While I won’t say yes to just anything someone requests, established client or not, I will do my best to work with them to get it done. Especially if its a client I love or work I really want to do.
Taking your boundaries seriously but staying flexible shows that you’re a professional. You’re in charge of your work and your life. Good clients know they aren’t your only one (and even if they are, let them keep thinking that until it’s actually true). They understand you have other obligations. They appreciate you more when you work with them so everyone gets what they wants.
Work With People Who Respect Your Boundaries
The brands and clients you want to work with understand that you’re busy. Sometimes they’re even impressed by it — as long as the work you deliver exceeds their expectations. I’ve worked with people who were willing to wait for my schedule to open up, and I’ve also had people move on to find someone else with a lighter schedule.
Ultimately, you want to work with brands and clients that respect your boundaries. If you set a boundary and get pushback or you’re ignored, that’s not a good working relationship. End it as soon as you can. Set boundaries early and watch the reaction you get. The absolute best clients will respect you for it and work with you.