Client horror stories circulate through the freelancing world, ranging from tamer tales to straight up diabolical deeds.
You hear things like, “They kept asking me for more, more, more, and it was all out of scope” to, “My client would call me on the weekends asking why I didn’t reply to their Friday night emails” and possibly the worst of them all, “They were months late to paying my invoice.”
Therefore, establishing boundaries with every client you work with can be the difference between a positive or negative experience.
As a freelancer, it’s critical to know how to hold your own when it comes to clients. You don’t want to be a pushover, but you want to make your clients happy. And happy clients means you get paid.
Well, here is the truth: There are plenty of ways to make your clients happy (and as a result, yourself as well) without sending yourself into a spiral of stress.
Why set boundaries with clients?
We’ve all experienced a rogue client or two (or three depending on how long you’ve been in business), but it can be good to have that experience under your belt. Hear us out; you’ve likely learned more than you think from those experiences despite how traumatizing they may have been.
A bad client here and there throughout your career, as backward as it sounds, can make you a better freelancer. How? After working with one, you know what your limits are, you know how important it is to look for those red flags, you know how to deal with terrible clients, and how to stay away from them.
Instances of when you should set boundaries
So, what exactly do we mean by “boundaries” anyway? Boundaries serve as a way for you to protect your time (and your sanity) during each project. Because the reality is, you and your client work together, you’re not working for them.
To avoid any shaky ground and to establish a stable relationship from the start, it’s best to set these expectations up front. Some freelancers include these boundaries in their contracts; some include them in their onboarding process. Whatever way you choose to do this, it’s best to state them clearly and professionally right away, so the client understands immediately.
What types of boundaries should you set? There are a few instances you should cover including but not limited to the following:
Explain to your clients when your “office hours” are, otherwise known as when you’re available to answer emails, take calls, etc. Make sure you state your office hours as well as other essential time policies, like when you give notice about vacation.
Project work/scope creep
Even if these details are hashed out in your contract, it’s not uncommon for freelancers to experience this with clients. Have a templated response ready to send if this happens, so you aren’t frantically typing “Are you serious????” a hundred times and deleting it.
If you want to take on the extra work, something like, “Hey [Insert client name], we didn’t include this in our initial contract, but I’m happy to do it. This will cost [insert rate], and I can have it to you by [insert time]. If you would like to move forward, I’ll send a revised contract over for you to sign. Thanks!” will do just fine.
Pro Tip: Don’t feel obligated to say yes to every new ask from a client. Hold your ground, but be professional. You are responsible for your time, and you have the power to say no if you can’t take on the extra work or even if you just don’t want to. The sky will not fall; we promise.
Feedback+ feedback format
Have a clause in your contract about the number of revisions you can do so a project doesn’t go off the rails. If a client pushes back and wants more revision requests than you’re comfortable with, explain to them, kindly of course, that you are an expert and that your process is to be trusted.
This boundary goes for not only the number of revisions you’ll consider but how they are delivered as well. For example, if you’re a writer and work in Google Docs, it makes the most sense for your client to add comments and suggestions directly into the doc for organization and clarity’s sake.
If you’re a designer, you may have a call to walk through your design process and ideation, but then the client sends you detailed bullet points with edits in an email afterward. If they start to provide feedback in a different way than you’d prefer, kindly redirect them and explain why you prefer feedback in that way instead.
Important project documents
If there are things you need from your clients to start a project (e.g., relevant information for the project, a creative brief, a style guide, etc.) make sure you emphasize that you cannot start the project unless you have what you need. Make it clear from the start that your client needs to have their ducks in a row before you can start a project and that having what you need ensures a smooth project flow from the start.
Author, designer, and legendary pro-freelancer, Paul Jarvis, makes this an essential step in his client onboarding process. In fact, he will not start a project without the materials he needs from his clients and makes that clear up front.
How to set boundaries
There are several ways you can set limits, but as we said above, doing this early on makes it easier to establish them. Whether you outline your boundaries in a few short paragraphs in an email they can reference quickly or in a branded PDF document detailing everything they need to know about working with you, make sure you send that to every client.
It’s important to note that once you set your boundaries, you must stick to them. Teach your clients to be good clients by respecting your boundaries. If you say you don’t answer emails on weekends but continue to reply to your client’s questions during that time, they’ll think it’s OK to keep emailing you.
So, how do I word this?
Use the template below to help guide you. It may seem awkward and uncomfortable communicating these boundaries at first, but the more you do it, the easier it’ll get.
“Hey [Insert client name],
I’m excited about working together! So that you know, here are a few important details about my work style and process. Let me know if you have any questions.
My office hours are Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. through 4:00 p.m. EST. I do not answer emails on the weekends. I’ll give you a three-week notice before any vacations I plan to take so we can work out any outstanding project details.
Extra project work
I’m always happy to consider additional work! Please note that if you’d like me to work on something that is not included in our contract, it will require a revised agreement and a new rate that reflects the additions.
Feedback + feedback process
I kindly request [insert number of revisions here] revisions. My revision process is as follows: [include in detail how you would like to receive and process feedback].
Important project documents
I’m really excited to get started on your project, but to do so, I need a few things from you first. Please send [insert materials you need here] by [insert date], so I can ensure the project starts without a hitch.
[Insert your name]
Tools to help you maintain those boundaries
If you’re someone who struggles to keep these boundaries—like maybe you can’t leave an email unresponded to at the end of the day—give these methods a try. That way, your boundaries are intact, and you don’t have to stress about incomplete tasks.
Boomerang is a plugin for Gmail users that lets you schedule your email replies days or even weeks ahead of time. It’s a great way to manage your inbox if it becomes too chaotic, too.
This handy to-do list app makes organizing and viewing your daily tasks more straightforward than ever. You can even get email notifications that include your daily to-dos. Easily create reminders and stay on track with every client.
Want even more client management software recommendations? We created an entire guide for freelancers on the best tools in the biz to use for every scenario. Check it out.
Client boundaries keep you sane
Limits are there for a reason: To keep your relationships with your clients healthy and productive. If the relationship doesn’t seem to be working despite boundaries, don’t be afraid to walk away and find clients that you do work well with.
The freedom and flexibility to choose who you work with are one of the most significant benefits of being a freelancer—so take advantage of it! You have the power to say no to clients. And here’s a little secret: When you do say no, the world will not explode. You will still be talented. You will still pay your bills. You will still be a freelancer.
The only change is that you’ll be a freelancer with better clients and more time to work on projects you love with people you like. That sounds pretty good, right?