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  • Writer's pictureZanny Merullo Steffgen

How to Set Boundaries With Clients

Being a freelancer means taking on clients, and often several at a time. In order to build a successful and feel-good freelancing business, you'll need to know all about client-freelancer relationships--everything from finding clients to managing them and even letting them go. In this blog post, I wanted to focus on one essential aspect of client-freelancer relationships: setting boundaries. If this is something you struggle with, keep reading!

Why Are Boundaries Important in Client-Freelancer Relationships?

If you think about it, boundaries are important in any healthy human relationship. They're put in place to help teach people how to treat each other, which is especially useful for freelancers since they aren't protected by an HR department or any of the other structures that support employees within companies. The other major benefit of boundaries? They protect you from yourself! Without them, you may be tempted to overwork yourself or do something that makes you uncomfortable, leading to burnout. Since you're an independent contractor who does work for a bunch of different businesses rather than a full-time employee, you'll want to be really clear on what your boundaries are and set them out for clients right from the get-go.

Setting boundaries is also part of delivering incredible customer service. By ensuring your own comfort and being on the same page about the structure of your freelancer-client relationship, you allow yourself to do your best work. Doing your best work means delivering your best work, which is an integral part of customer service. Since expectations are clear from the get-go, setting boundaries becomes part of healthy communication, another building block of customer service. Plus, these boundaries allow you to go above and beyond sometimes, which will give your clients an excellent experience and (hopefully) lead to positive reviews or testimonials!

How to Figure Out Your Boundaries

So, how do you go about figuring out what your boundaries should be? Sometimes you'll have to discover them the hard way, like I did when a client texted me an urgent request on a day off and I realized I felt uncomfortable communicating with clients by text message. To head off issues before they arise, however, try giving yourself half an hour one day to reflect on boundaries. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help get at the underlying feelings and plausible solutions:

What do I need in order to feel safe and respected by clients?

What is my ideal work environment like and how can my clients contribute to that?

How do I like to communicate with clients and what types of communication don't feel right to me?

What are my greatest client frustrations usually and how can I prevent them?

What should the consequences be if a client crosses my boundaries? What about if they cross them repeatedly?

How do I know when I'm reaching my limits in terms of energy/focus/workload/burnout/health and well-being?

Examples of Boundaries to Set With Freelancing Clients

Here are the types of boundaries you may want to set with clients, along with some examples of what those boundaries can look like:

-Communication Boundaries. Examples of communication boundaries include telling clients that you prefer to talk over email than by phone call, or that you won't have your camera on during Zoom sessions. It might include boundaries that outline what days or times you won't be able to respond to messages, or may mean asking clients to clearly communicate deadlines and feedback as soon as possible.
-Schedule Boundaries. When it comes to your schedule, setting boundaries is helpful both to your clients and to you! For example, I tell clients that I'm usually not available on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, as those are my days off. That way if a client reaches out to me on those days and I don't respond, they'll understand why. This may also include giving clients a minimum turnaround time for assignments, saying you can't accommodate last-minute requests, or making it clear that you're only available for video calls on Fridays. When you're traveling or taking some time off from work, schedule boundaries are even more important, and may include setting an out-of-office email or clarifying when you'll pick up on assignments again.
-Work and Payment Boundaries. Is there any type of service you won't provide? Do you not feel comfortable updating pieces of writing to pass a plagiarism check or won't under any circumstances work with AI? How about your policy to charge a late fee when payments are delayed by more than two weeks? These boundaries are important in order to avoid scope creep and payment issues, so make sure you do some reflecting on what feels right for you.
-Personal Boundaries. You don't necessarily need to share these with your clients, but it's a good idea to set up some boundaries between your personal and professional lives. That may mean avoiding connecting with clients on social media, or knowing that your family comes first so you'll prioritize them over work if you need to. Maybe you recognize that you're close to burning out and need to take a step back from your assignments, or realize that one particular client is messing with your mental health. These are the most important boundaries!

How to Communicate Your Boundaries to Clients

The great thing is that there are lots of strategies to help you get on the same page with your clients about your boundaries! The first step may be writing them down so that you are clear with yourself what your boundaries are and you're not tempted to adjust them to land a new client or impress someone. Then, figure out how you want to bring these up with clients.

Maybe you schedule a kick-off call before signing a contract to go over expectations. Or maybe you write down your most important boundaries and send them to a client as part of your onboarding process. You might even include some of your boundaries in the contract and make sure the client agrees to them before signing. If you don't want to be that official, maybe you just keep your boundaries in mind (or taped above your desk where you'll constantly be reminded of them) and bring them up whenever a client is veering too close to them.

The most important thing is to remember that having boundaries is good, healthy, and normal. Think about it--you probably don't balk when your plumber says they can't come until Monday or your massage therapist doesn't respond to your late-night appointment request. If you see a therapist you likely have strict boundaries for that relationship that you don't question, and you probably wouldn't just welcome a friend into your house if they showed up unannounced at a really bad time. So why do you feel different about your boundaries when you're a freelancer? If anything, these boundaries will make your freelancing business seem more professional, which is never a bad thing. At the very least, they'll help you keep your client relationships smooth, which is great for everyone involved.

How to Maintain Your Boundaries With Clients

I get it--it's tempting to make an exception to your rule against last-minute deadlines when a client comes to you during a slow period and offers you a sweet payoff for a rushed assignment. While there's nothing wrong with re-evaluating boundaries or making exceptions for loyal clients, keep in mind that every time you volunteer to break your own rule you teach the client that it's okay to do so. If you say yes to one last-minute assignment that opens the door for future ones. If you answer a client's email on your day off, you'll likely have to answer the follow-up email later that day, too.

All I mean by that is you should weigh the advantages and disadvantages of changing your boundaries before you do so. To maintain them as they are, you'll need to stay strong and assertive. You may need to remind your clients of boundaries every once in a while, and you may need to remind yourself of boundaries every once in a while.

What to Do If Your Boundaries Aren't Met

With most boundaries, it's fine to give clients a free pass the first time they don't respect them, especially if you hadn't clearly outlined expectations. But what happens if your boundaries aren't met over and over again?

A couple of years ago I had a client who was a repeat offender. They'd text me on my days off even though I'd asked them to keep our correspondence to email, they'd requested last-minute calls even though I asked for a day's notice before meetings because my schedule is unpredictable, they consistently asked for work beyond the scope I'd originally agreed to, and they'd often take weeks to get back to me about submissions and then ask for edits within 24 hours. If I had a client like that now, I'd instantly drop them, but back then I needed the work so I kept putting up with these bad behaviors. Eventually, it felt like all of my boundaries had been pushed in or knocked over or trampled, and I found myself stressing out about this client all throughout the week.

At the beginning of the relationship with that client, I gave them a chance to work on their issues. I wrote an assertive email and had a follow-up phone call during which I outlined my needs. "While I appreciate the work you've given me," I said, "in order to continue working with you I would like to go over some boundaries and expectations." The client was receptive, and immediately apologized and took responsibility for their actions. We discussed a strict schedule going forward, and for a month or two we stuck to it. Then things started to go downhill again. Eventually, after a few strongly worded emails, I decided to cut my losses and quit.

Clients not respecting your boundaries will often lead to the end of the business relationship. If you are able to, I recommend "breaking up with" clients who don't respect your boundaries and looking for ones who will. If, for whatever reason, you don't feel comfortable doing so just yet, start by expressing what's going wrong, the same way you'd bring up an issue in a close friendship or intimate relationship. Give the client a chance to remedy their behavior, but also start looking for replacement clients just in case.

While setting and sticking to boundaries can be tough, it's the key to a feel-good freelance writing career. Proceed with boundaries and you'll cut a whole lot of discomfort out of your life...

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