Setting Boundaries with Clients

I think most business owning moms know the best way to keep clients from walking all over them is to set boundaries. Enforcing them is another matter.

There’s always that one client who is so nice, but forgetful and begs you to rush something or finish something up over the weekend because of her delays. 

It used to make me feel terribly guilty when I didn’t want to break a boundary I’d set. I wanted my clients to be happy with me and the work I do. I still do. But I’ve realized that boundaries help me give my clients the best results. If I’m stressed or overworked, I’m not doing my best work. Boundaries help me work, and so I’ve learned that enforcing them is actually good for my clients. Makes it a whole lot easier to do!

I’m always amazed when clients test out boundaries. Most won’t. If you set expectations well, your clients will understand and work within those boundaries, because like you, they want the best outcome possible. 

But some clients immediately like to test out the boundaries to see how serious you are. Or for some reason, they feel like they can ignore your boundaries because they couldn’t apply to them! Fortunately, most of those types can be filtered out during your prequalification process, before you’re officially working together.

I’ve put together four areas where boundaries are helpful and included info on how to set them and how to enforce them without feeling guilty. All four of these areas overlap and blend into each other, so as you implement one, the others become easier.

4 areas where you could be setting boundaries with clients

1| Communication channels

You get to pick your communication channels. For your own sanity, I recommend picking one or two at most. Make sure your clients understand and agree to use those channels. If you’re picking channels that might be unusual, consider informing prospective clients – it may be a channel they’re not comfortable with.

However you choose to communicate, let your clients know right away. If you have an onboarding procedure or a welcome packet that you send, let them know there. Do you provide a dashboard for clients? A quick reminder on the dashboard with links is helpful and enforcing.

So, what do you do when someone wants to send you personal emails instead of sending emails through your support team? You set up a canned response that you can use to reply, “Sometimes these kinds of requests get lost in my personal email inbox, and I would hate fo that to happen! Please send this email to support @ abc.com, so that we can be sure to handle your request in a timely manner.”

Be polite and kind – your client is likely to be as busy as you and probably just forgot. But after a number of reminders, you can get a little more forceful. You might have to have a phone call or in person talk. Stress your process and its success at taking care of client needs. Always include the benefit to the client of following the process, such as, “speedier turnaround” or “clear accountability.”

2| Your time

Take control of your time. If you want to have your afternoons free, you have to draw a line and make them unavailable to clients. You may get some pushback, and there may be clients who won’t be able to work with you. But that will be the same for any hours you set. And if you continually give in, you’ll burn out.

Set the time for your weekly/daily/other check in with your clients and set their expectations. You might give them a limited choice, but make sure you’re driving the time. Otherwise, you’ll get clients who want info from you during your work-on-hard-projects time, and they will interrupt your concentration. 

Set specific office hours that you can post on your website or social media. This is for non-clients who call or contact you. My current office hours are 9:00 – 3:00, for example. I do a lot of writing and thought-work early in the morning from 7:00 – 9:00. I don’t want interruptions during that time, and I don’t want anyone to expect an answer during that time.

And, I end my office hours at 3:00. I may decide to do a little more work in the afternoon or evening, but that’s my choice. I’m setting expectations that I’m not available for communication after that time.

One thing that really helps enforce your office hours is to never send out emails or make calls outside of your office hours. I’m pretty good with this in the evening, but sometimes I’ll forget and react to something in the morning. 

My solution to this is that I try not to check email until my office hours start. Another great solution is to use email scheduling. I think that many of us use Gsuite for emails. There’s an app called Boomerang that will allow you to write an email in the moment, but schedule sending during your next office hours.

3| Your work days

Again, you get to decide which days you’re working and which days you will be away from your desk. I don’t make weekends available to my clients. I don’t even make the expectation of weekend work available. Even though sometimes, for my own purposes, I will do work over the weekend. 

Setting expectations in your welcome materials, and then sticking to it, is key to making this work. Just like when clients contact you outside of office hours, if clients contact you when they know you’re not at work, you can schedule your responses to go out during your next office hours time on your next working day.

When you don’t plan to work on a holiday or when you take a vacation, you will need to let regular clients know in writing well ahead of time. Make sure you give them enough time to plan around your absence, but don’t let them talk you into working on a day you hadn’t planned.

Some businesses have clients who may have emergencies or need after-hour help. You can handle this in two ways. For website work, I used to be sure to let clients know that I was not available 24/7 and that if their business needed immediate turnaround of issues that happened overnight or on weekends, I probably wasn’t the best provider for them. 

Now, I make sure they have information on how to contact their web host for many issues and I use a team to take care of my care plan clients on off-hours. Just be sure that your clients know what to do if there is an emergency. The good news is that in my years of freelancing and running a business, I think I’ve only had one actual after-hours emergency come up. Real emergencies don’t happen often, though you must be prepared.

4| Work product

You absolutely get to decide what you’re selling. You can sell a tiny piece of a solution or you can sell an entire catalog of products and services. Before anyone hires you though, you need to be clear about what you do, especially if others in your industry offer a different product and service mix than you do.

The first step is to decide exactly what the deliverables will be for your products and services. Don’t let what the client wants drive your products and services. As a business owning mom who wants afternoons free, you have to have a standard set of deliverables. You really don’t have time to do custom work.

And the second step is to set expectations and again, hold firm. For many of you, this will be in the proposal stage. 

In addition to controlling deliverables, you want to control the scope of the project. Don’t let the scope of a project escalate out of control. You can allow changes or put them off until another phase – it’s up to you, but be sure to have a process

And finally, it’s great to have a network of professionals in the same space as you. That way, when a client needs something that you don’t deliver, you can refer them, and make a easy transition to another provider.

Consequences

Now, if you set up really restrictive or unusual boundaries, expect some push-back and some consequences. It’s true that boundaries will reduce the number of clients who will work with you. 

But that’s not always a bad thing. If your boundaries keep out the types of folks who freak out after midnight about their social media accounts and expect you to talk them out of spinning out of control, I’d call that good. Those customers might be paying you, but they’re taking more than just your work! 

And if you only plan to communicate by hand-written correspondence, be prepared to have to search for those clients willing to do so. But once you do find them, they’ll be your people and you’ll work together like a dream. Figure out your priorities and set boundaries with your clients so you can achieve those priorities.

Photo by Maxim Ilyahov on Unsplash

Quick! What do you do?You have 43 minutes until carpool. You have 17 items on your to-do list.

You're a business-owning mom, so you use this guide to prioritize your tasks in 2 minutes, and have 41 minutes left to knock out a task.

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