Boundaries are an essential part of any healthy relationship and they’re something I’ve really had to force myself to embrace over the last year or so. As a service provider, setting boundaries with clients will be a game changer for you and your business!
From the time you were little, you’ve been testing boundaries to see if you can get what you want. Anything from no naps to more chocolate. As kids, wandering around figuring our shit out, we naturally test boundaries. I mean, you used to be a teenager, right?
You do it partly because your ego is selfish and you want what you want, and partly because you want to see how much you can get away with. You little rebel, you!
But having boundaries around any relationship teaches a person how to treat you. I could wax poetic about personal boundaries for days, but we’re going to focus on setting boundaries with clients in this one. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Know what your boundaries with clients actually are.
I mean…duh? But you’d be surprised how many people aren’t clear on what their client boundaries are before they go trying to enforce them. If you tell a client your work day is over at 6 pm and then you routinely answer their messages and emails at 9 pm, who’s really going to believe you?
Don’t set boundaries based on what you think they should be. Set boundaries that work for you! If you typically work from 2 pm till 9 pm, then let clients know those are your working hours. Remember, you left your 9 to 5 for a reason!
2. Make your boundaries crystal clear.
Once you know what you want your boundaries to be, make sure you communicate them in a way that is crystal clear and leaves no room for interpretation. If your email response time is 24–48 hours but you don’t work on the weekends, then state that.
If you don’t work on bank holidays because your kids are home from school, then say that (you can list them out if you know what they are ahead of time). I take the week off between Christmas and New Year’s because I’m usually home visiting my family and don’t want to even think about touching my laptop, so I’m very clear about that.
The best way I’ve found to clearly communicate my boundaries before I even run the clock for a new client is to send them a welcome packet with their contract. It covers everything from hours of operation to holidays to important policies, such as confidentiality and refunds. It’s a quick overview of the important shit so they know where both of us stand.
3. Maintain firm boundaries.
A boundary does you ZERO good if you never actually enforce it. When you tell your kid, “no, you can’t have chocolate 5 minutes before bed” and then you give him chocolate 5 minutes before bed so he stops whining about it… he’s never going to actually believe you when you say no.
So when you tell clients, “I don’t answer messages on the weekends” and then you always answer messages on the weekends, they’re not gonna believe you. And they’re going to keep messaging you. Because they know you’ll answer.
Now, just a little note about this…you can be lax on these once you really get to know your clients and you form a good bond of respect. For example, I’ll occasionally answer Slack messages from clients who have been with me for 2 years on the weekend, but I only do this because I’ve been super firm about this boundary in the past and so if I choose not to answer their message until Monday, they won’t freak out.
In the teacher world, we call this “be mean until Thanksgiving.” When you’re really clear and firm on your boundaries and you build a level of trust and respect, it’s much easier to be flexible without clients running roughshod over your hard limits like they own the place.
4. Communicate more than you think you should.
Err on the side of communicating too much. The more you communicate with clients, the more secure they feel and the less likely they are to email you at 2 pm on a Saturday asking for something. Before you sign off on a Friday, give them a brief overview of what you did that week, what you’re planning on tackling next week, and where they can find whatever you worked on in case they plan on working over the weekend.
5. Learn to say no—and mean it.
This one is straight up HARD, yo’. I’m a Grade A people-pleaser and so saying no is really hard for me. A client absolutely has to have this thing done in the next 2 hours even though you’re elbow deep in a project for another client? You really, really wanna say yes. But you also want to be really clear about (and enforce) your boundaries.
There are lots of ways you can handle all kinds of requests, but I like to use the “not no, no.” It’s my favorite. You’re not saying, “no, I can’t do that for you” when a client asks for an impossible turnaround time. Instead, you’re clearly establishing your boundaries by saying, “yeah, I can do that. I’m sticking it on my calendar for x day.” Then they know when to expect completion and you haven’t said “no, not right now,” even though you clearly mean it.
If they’re adamant that it absolutely HAS to happen within the next few hours, you can always charge them a rush fee (mine is double my usual rate per hour). I’ve only ever had to do that for a client once in three years. Rush fees either inspire a client to realize it’s not an actual emergency or they’ll never ask for a last-minute fix again.
6. Ditch the guilt.
I get it. You started your business because you like helping people. You get a rush from a job well done and a client proud of the work you provided. But you’re not a robot. You started your own business so you could call the shots. And even though you’re in the business of supporting other people’s businesses, that does not mean you have to be on call 24/7.
You’ll eventually realize that the more boundaries you set, the more in control you’ll feel. Until enforcing them is as natural as putting on pants.
To recap… when setting boundaries with clients you should
- Know what your boundaries with clients actually are
- Make your boundaries crystal clear
- Maintain firm boundaries
- Communicate more than you think you should
- Learn to say no—and mean it
- Ditch the guilt
“Boundaries” doesn’t have to be a scary word. You may be really good at enforcing them in your personal life, and if you are, then feel free to draw on that to put them into place in your professional life too! You and your business will be much better for them!
What are some of your client boundaries? I’d love for you to share them below!
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