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6 tips for setting professional boundaries with clients

Lisa Tanner's Layout avatar

Do you feel obligated to check your email at all hours of the day and night? Are you worried that you’ll miss an important update on social media if you put your phone down for too long? Are you working all the time?

If you answered yes to at least one of those questions, it’s time for a boundaries check. Are you controlling your business, or is it controlling you? If you’re ready to set some professional boundaries with your clients and for your business, here are six tips to get started.

1. Evaluate what’s not working

Self-reflection is a key step when setting boundaries; you must analyze what isn’t working for you and your business. What about your current process isn’t how you’d like it to be?

As you’re reflecting, think about:

  • Your time with social media
  • Your client onboarding process
  • Your time spent doing the design work
  • Your revision process
  • Invoicing and following up to ensure payment
  • The communication process between you and potential clients
  • The communication process between you and current clients
  • The communication process between you and past clients
  • Bottlenecks: Is there a step in your workflow that seems to slow everything down and compound problems?

Spending time thinking about your current process will help you evaluate what isn’t working. That’s what you need to focus on first. While you might end up changing multiple things in your quest for boundaries, you’ll see the most impact by changing what isn’t working first.

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2. Have a designated off time

When are you off the clock? It isn’t healthy to be available to clients 24/7. So, spend some time deciding what your office hours are going to be.

Then, draft an email to your clients informing them when you’ll be available. You can assure them that they can email you whenever a question pops up, but you won’t be answering it until you’re back in the office. In this email, also limit calls and texts to your available hours.

The great part about working for yourself is that you can work additional hours if you need to. You may end up working one weekend when you’re slammed. And that’s okay. It happens. You just don’t want your clients to expect you to be accessible to them all the time. Sending your email detailing your office hours means you’ve just taken a huge step in establishing boundaries by putting them in writing. Most clients will totally understand.

If you have one that doesn’t, it may take a little extra time to wean away from constant availability. You might have to spend a little extra time assuring this type of client that it will be okay. You haven’t forgotten about them, and you absolutely are still going to finish the project on-time. They will eventually get used to your new hours of availability.

3. Set emails to send during business hours

If you’re working during non-business hours, you can set your emails to send later, when you’re supposed to be available. This is especially useful for those needy clients you might be trying to wean. Some of your clients can get an email from you on the weekend and recognize that you’re putting in a little extra time instead of taking it as an invitation to contact you whenever they want.

You’ll learn your clients, and know who you need to use a scheduling tool for. Some email clients have this option built-in. For others, you’ll need to install a plug-in or browser extension. Here are three popular options:

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4. Take some time for yourself

“All work and no play is a no-fail recipe for burnout. ” If you are always working, you won’t have any time for ensuring your own needs are met. Then difficult clients without boundaries will be even harder to handle with tact and grace. It’s a downward spiral that you must break.

Give yourself time to veg. Grab a cup of coffee and relax while you drink it. Head to the gym. Watch a couple of episodes of your favorite Netflix addiction. Schedule time to refresh yourself regularly.

Taking time to fill your own cup also improves your self-worth. You’ll realize that you are a valuable person, and do not need to be available for every whim of your clients. You have the right to establish boundaries!

5. Be aware of scope creep

Sometimes clients don’t overstep boundaries right away. Often, it’s a simple request here, or an urgent upgrade thrown in there. But these little requests add up, and before you know it, you’re doing more than your contract stipulated, without getting additional compensation.

Scope creep is real, so you must be on the lookout for it. Be sure you’ve clearly defined the details of the project for your client. And get your contract signed so both parties agree to the scope of the project. When requests come up that aren’t part of that original agreement, you can decide if it’s something you want to allow, or if you’ll need to charge additional for it. Unfortunately, the line between offering excellent customer service and being taken advantage of often blurs. You’ll have to pinpoint what your personal boundaries will be.

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6. Talk to your clients

Most pushy clients simply don’t realize that they’re overstepping boundaries. This is especially true if you’ve let them in the past. If you’ve always responded to every request within minutes, they’re going to expect that to continue, until you put an end to it.

That’s why communication is essential. Talk to your clients about your expectations and need for personal time. Address concerns about scope creep before you’re frustrated. You aren’t going to lose most your clients because you establish boundaries. In fact, they’ll probably respect you more once you start respecting yourself.

Any client you do lose is one that wasn’t worth having in the first place. Remember that not every client is a good client, and establishing boundaries is one way to cull out the bad ones.

What strategies do you use to establish boundaries with your clients?

Comments ( 3 )

  1. Ash

    December 14, 2016

    Hey Lisa,

    I just have a few questions for you:

    What if a long-term client just doesn't want to honor "your time".

    What if -- among all other problems that arise while working with the client -- that the client seems so engrossed with just his campaigns, metrics, and results that he doesn't want to even consider the fact that you could have a life of your own?

    What if, there is one other member on his team (on the same time zone as I am at) who possibly never even sleeps, and he takes that as a benchmark to compare my apparently humble requests to consider my "off hours"?

    In the end, what if I can't afford to fire the client?

    Ash

    • Lisa

      December 14, 2016

      Hi Ash,

      That's a difficult situation, and there isn't one right answer. There are always people willing to take advantage of others, and if you've enabled that situation already over the course of your long-term arrangement, it'll be even harder to now go back and set boundaries. The client might feel like you're suddenly changing the terms of your agreement, because you've been doing it that way for an extended length of time.

      If there's another team member also enabling the craziness, it'll be even harder. You can't make your teammate suddenly decide to respect him/herself. That's a decision each of us come to.

      If this were me, I'd write a kind email (or call depending on how we usually communicated) and just share honestly that you understand you've been doing x, y, or z, but can no longer offer those same services around the clock. I'd set my hours, give a couple weeks notice of the change with a start date in writing, and depending on the response possibly offer to work the extended hours or have more availability for extra pay. (Sort of like overtime.)

      But honestly, if my client just didn't respect my need for boundaries I'd drop that client. Stress isn't usually worth money is something I've learned the hard way.

      Then I'd spend the time I gained diving into a new client search, where I'd set boundaries from the beginning.

      The other option is to decide to continue working without boundaries. If you feel the money is worth it, then you might consider continuing on and putting up with it. But it might be a good idea to start searching for something new in the meantime in case you reach your breaking point.

      Good luck--it's definitely not an easy situation.

  2. Ash

    December 15, 2016

    Hey Lisa,

    You made my day. By writing up that response, you really helped soothe my nerves. It was getting a little too much to handle and it felt so good to get an outside perspective (and that's because no one understands me, my business, and my clients as well as I do and you obviously do too).

    I informed the client -- on call and by email -- as soon as I read this. Since there's a huge timezone difference (12 hrs) and because he is a busy doctor, I found a middle ground.

    Instead of being available absolutely anytime, I requested him to let me know in advance so I could make time for him on that day.

    As for the other guy, I made sure my client understands that I am no longer an energetic bunny and I can't pull off what that 24-year-old eager beaver does :)

    I totally agree with you on the part that no amount of money is worth it if we have to stress ourselves. If clients understand and respect, it's good for us. If not, find someone else.

    And this, "Then I’d spend the time I gained diving into a new client search, where I’d set boundaries from the beginning."

    -- Is exactly what I am working to build up. I don't even want to call it a new year resolution (because that list is always overlooked) and instead, I'll make it a mandate.

    Thanks a million for the help, Lisa. You just got yourself a huge fan :)

    Wishing you happy holidays, a merry Xmas, and fabulous new year.

    Ash

    • Lisa

      December 19, 2016

      Thanks so much for letting me know how it went Ash! I'm glad you were able to come to an agreement, and it sounds like it'll work much better for you with this client moving forward.

      Love how you used the word mandate instead of resolution. Best of luck finding new clients and establishing boundaries in 2017!

      You have a Merry Christmas too!

      Lisa

  3. Pete

    July 25, 2018

    Lisa,
    I operate a small print and design shop. We've been struggling to set boundaries (and expectations) with our clients, many of whom have never worked with a designer before. These interactions are usually very short but sometimes we'll get a more involved project that needs more client/designer interaction. We design and print a lot of menus for local restaurants. We don't use a contract because projects are very short-term.

    Client comes in with a flash drive containing their new menu in a Word Doc. They've attempted a layout and tell me "make it like this but fancy".

    We'll look at the file then talk about the design fee ($70/hr) with an estimated X hours for the project, we'll also pick out a paper/size. I'll let them know that the estimate includes 1 half-hour revision and any revision after that is not included in this estimate. They'll often haggle over this design fee which I will rarely budge on.

    Now if you've ever designed a menu or worked with a restaurant owner... they're all over the place. It seems menus are never final. We'll see a minimum of 4 revisions before we go to print. When it comes time to pay they seem to forget that the original estimate only included 1 revision... "Why is there 2.5 extra hours of design here?" ...when I was clear after each revision that the estimate would be updated with the added time. (this often will exclude all the phone and email work I've done to move the job along).

    Clients get upset that we don't "make exceptions" and we've had a couple refuse to pay and leave their prints at the shop. It also seems like I can't communicate enough with certain clients.

    I guess my round-about question is how do I set expectations/boundaries with short-order, on-demand customers?

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