Setting professional boundaries with clients

Setting professional boundaries with clients

Kathy Nguyen's Layout avatar

Is your client work slowly starting to take center stage on your priority list? While being career-driven is a great aspiration, feeling adequately balanced between client work and other needs like professional development, team-building, rest, and more are also important!

Professional-boundary setting with clients. Woman sits at long desk working with three other women working collaboratively in the background

Maybe you’ve started noticing some workaholic tendencies in yourself like working through lunch or being the last to log off for the day to finish client tasks. You’ve done well in first acknowledging the need for change in an effort for better work/life balance. If you’re coming to the conclusion that setting client boundaries are in order — you’ve come to the right place! 

Here are five tips for setting boundaries with clients:

Evaluate what’s not working

Before you can find your boundary pain points, think about what is and isn’t working for you. Maybe a client is always scheduling meetings super early in the morning or super late in the evening. Perhaps, the client expects you to always pick up the phone on the first call even when you have other projects and meetings. These are signs that the professional boundaries are blurred and it’s time for a boundary reset. 

Setting professional boundaries. Man in a blue shirt writes at a desk with his head in his hand

Make a list of pros and cons that you like and don’t like about your current system and how that makes you feel. You’ll only be able to fix what you first need to acknowledge! 

Once brought to light, you’ll need to communicate these thoughts with your client. I recommend you adopt a clause in your contract to help host these hard conversations so both you and the client are forced to acknowledge these pain points.  

Subjects like this aren’t easy but they help nurture your best professional self so you have the space and capacity to create your best work for the client!

“A previous boss once told me: ‘You are your biggest advocate. Don’t be afraid to speak up when you need something different.’ ”

Be aware of scope creep

Two people talk together at adjacent desks, one is standing, one is sitting

Scope creep occurs when the project deliverables and results begin taking more time and resources than originally planned, budgeted, and invoiced for. Usually it’s not something big at first, but often a side request here and there. One or two requests quickly become several and then you have scope creep. By accommodating the client for each request in the name of “great customer service,” you increase their expectations while giving yourself more work than originally planned.

The first step to see if the project scope is getting out of scope, is to read the project brief and client contract. If you’re dedicating too much time or resources to one project and not getting properly compensated for it, then that’s a red flag.

If your client contracts are lacking in protections, download our free web design contract checklist here.

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.

Be sure to ask your client these questions before starting your next web design project!

Set schedule blocks

Setting schedule blocks is a great time management strategy! 

A man works on a laptop while sitting in front of a small table that holds coffee and a pair of headphones

To do this, you’ll schedule blocks of time throughout your day to strictly dedicate to one project at a time. This ensures you’ve got enough time set aside for every action item you want to accomplish in a day. Depending on your settings, your teammates or collaborators will be able to see when you’re free to chat versus when you’re trying to power through work. 

This sets up boundaries for your schedule in case a client is consistently asking you to drop everything to fulfil their request! Another benefit to this strategy is that when you schedule your heads-down time, you’ll also have a better idea of a realistic project timeline. So if a client has been on your tail for a task, you can immediately tell them, “Yes, I’ll deliver it by X date.” 

Looking for more time management strategies, read our favorite tips here

Check your email only during business hours

I am so guilty of this. 

In this day and age of modern tech, you’re probably always getting notifications on your smartphone (or watch, or refrigerator, or home device) no matter what time of day it is. Maybe you feel a buzz or you see your screen light up from a distance. Instantly you’re there to check this notification — another work email. From here, it’s so easy to shift back into your work mood.  

A man wearing glasses looks pensively at a computer screen

First, establish clear self-discipline boundaries with yourself to only check your email during the work hours. If you know this will already be too hard, try turning your email notifications off when you log off for the day. It might feel daunting at first but that feeling is exactly why you need this professional boundary. You shouldn’t have excessive worry before trying to check out for the evening.

Another idea is to set up automatic responses to let email senders know you’ll reply the next day. These are small and incredibly powerful steps to set expectations and boundaries. 

Schedule time for OOO

You’re probably thinking, “pfff, I already do this!” 

OOO or out-of-office is the time you set up to let others know you won’t be available for a certain time. You probably already do this when your have a dentist check-up or a trip coming up, but here’s a fresh take on it!

Schedule OOO for mini moments to unwind. This can be a coffee-break walk or a power-hour yoga session over lunch. Out-of-office blocks don’t have to be entire days dedicated to errands or vacations. These breaks are important for you to recharge to make it through the rest of the work day or week.  

Two men talk to one another in a bright, well-lit room while another works in the background

This is me calling you — yes, you — out for not prioritizing pure vacation mode enough. Even if you’re just checking status or emails, that still constitutes as not completing checking out of your work mode. While you know to do this (probably not enough) for your holidays and appointments, try it this new way too. 


If you ever question these boundaries, fall back to this key phrase — when in doubt, check the contract! 

Any client worth working with will understand and appreciate the professional boundaries you set. If the line is getting consistently pushed, it’s time to have an open and transparent conversation with all parties. 

These boundary-setting strategies safeguard you from overwork or piling your plate too high. You can love what you do in creating work for your WordPress clients while maintaining a fair work/life balance! 

Three people sitting next to one another at a long table, all smiling

How to land your first big client

Landing your first big client is a milestone, an achievement, a stretch goal that all creatives should get to experience. It’s a symbol of success after paying your dues, putting in so many hours of hard work, and becoming a pro at pitching new clients with complete and utter confidence. We have no doubt that with these skills under your tool belt, you’ll land your first big client in no time. Ready to level up your business?

Ebook cover for the Flywheel eBook titled How to Land Your First Big Client

Comments ( 3 )

  1. Pete

    July 25, 2018

    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?

  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.


    • 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!


  3. 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?


    • 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.

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