How to Set Business Boundaries with Your Clients
Just as you have to do in life, setting boundaries comes into play with freelancing. Even though you may not have had to do this in the past at your 9-to-5 gig, you will once you’re in charge of your own business. You set the rules as a freelancer—but you’ve got to enforce them, too.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to do this because it’s all about what you feel comfortable as a self-employed individual. But we can definitely explore some areas of business where you may need to establish the rules, tighten the reigns or loosen up a little.
Meeting On Time
Some people don’t think 15 minutes makes a difference, but I can guarantee you that if you are not punctual, you can tick off a client in a snap—and even lose business. Even if you have to set your alarm clock a half hour early for a five-minute phone meeting, do it. This is an area of business where you don’t have much flexibility because you have to put on a professional front.
On the flip side, clients should be on time as well. Not only does it make them look like they don’t care about the project if they’re late to a meeting, but can also be construed as a sign of disrespect. If I’m waiting to meet a client and they haven’t shown, I usually give a call 15 minutes after our agreed-upon meet up time. I gently and politely ask the client if they are still planning on meeting me, or if they would like to reschedule. If they give me the “I got caught up” routine, that’s where my boundaries come in. I always offer a second meeting, but it may be more on my terms the second time around. (I usually don’t drive long distances to in-person meetings; it’s a pet peeve of mine.)
For example, if I’ve driven an hour to meet a client and they are a no-show, I may request a phone conference instead. I simply say, “Since I drove the hour there and back last time, I hope you can understand that I’d prefer to discuss your project over the phone.” You do not have to do this and I do not do this all of the time, but it’s an example of how you can set your boundaries. (In this case, you may ask the client to meet you halfway next time, or something similar.)
The goal isn’t to take back control when you’ve been wronged, though; if you want to drive the two hours again, that’s fine. The objective here is to stick up for what you’re comfortable with; and if a client fails to stick to his or her end of the bargain, you are in the right to professionally speak up for yourself. There are too many flakes out there and your time is so valuable.
Turning in Work and Completing Jobs
You better believe that when I work tirelessly to meet a deadline, I expect my clients to do the same… sorta. For example, I work well with deadlines and convey this to my clients (that’s why most of them hire me—simply because so many freelancers flake on timelines). In cases when they will not set a deadline for me, I let them know that I’m setting a deadline for the project. I generally request that they make revisions, if any, to the material within a week, but I never set a deadline back.
After all, if you’re working for this person, you want to accommodate their needs as well. So if a client will be on vacation for two weeks, I wouldn’t recommend sending them an email letting them know that the edits are due back to you on Day 3 of their vacation. Not the way to go!
But there’s only so much accommodating you can do in certain cases.
I had a client a while back that dragged his feet on a project. We’re talking, in months. In certain cases when I’m working through someone else that may give me steady work and be a pleasure to work with, I try not to push. But I have had clients I’ve worked with directly that have not responded with revisions and then lagged on paying the bill. I’ve had to remind them—kindly, even though it pains me sometimes to be nice—to pay the bill in adherence to our contract. I let him or her know again that I am willing to make any adjustments to the work if need be, but we need to wrap up the project. I also ask if they need additional time to mull it over and to let me know when I can contact them again. (This is when even if you get that half upfront, you want the other half ASAP!)
While I have never gotten to the point where I tell a client that they are working too slow and we are done working together, I do know people that have. In that case, it’s best to let the client know by email and phone that you’d appreciate revisions within the week or the month. Again, the soft deadlines are up to you, but it’s best—at least for accounting purposes—not to let projects drag on. Too often those clients forget about you, don’t pay the bill, or turn up a year later wanting their complimentary changes. (How can you be polite then? Ha.)
Setting Your Rates
Here is one that I know most of you have struggled with—what to charge customers. Projects all range widely in what they entail and so do clients, so it can be difficult to choose a project fee or hourly rate, whichever you use.
But one thing is for sure: when you do set those rates, how flexible should you be if the client asks you if you can “do better”? Again, different freelancers will respond different ways and that’s okay. You can choose to lower your rate or not and neither choice is the issue here; but when you’re pushed down to a cost so low that you’re not comfortable with it—and could wind up making peanuts in the end—that’s where you may have to draw the line. Generally, I find that I know deep down if someone’s trying to push me too much. I’m a negotiator, but I also pen in my head what number I’m drawing the line at. If they go too low, I am more than happy to offer a referral.
I try to stick to regular rates for various services, but I do have a repeat client that asked me recently to do a project at a discounted rate since they were doing it as a free “thank you” for a very loyal and profitable client of theirs. Because I had already worked for that client and been paid handsomely, I offered the discount. But I still kept the cost to where I was comfortable with the work.
You can strip down a price to include what it takes you to do a project, but keep in mind things like client meetings, interviews and revisions, which can all eat up extra time and make your rate actually go down if you don’t have enough coming in to cover yourself. Factor in those things even if you decide to go a little lower for someone. That will help you get down to your intuition as to what you are comfortable with.
And by all means, if you cannot work out a “deal,” try not to feel bad about it. Usually most of us can gauge when a client is worth it or not, so if the customer says they’ll strip you of all future projects for not giving a discount, chances are that’s not the type of client you will want to work with, anyway.
The most important thing I can advise you to do in any of these sticky situations is to go with your gut. If you feel like someone is low-balling you on pricing and you know that person will require extra attention, make sure you’re comfortable with what you’re charging. Likewise, if that client wants to dilly dally while you pray your house doesn’t get foreclosed on because you’re waiting for his or her check, set boundaries. It’s important to do this upfront and keep enforcing them. Always politely and professionally, of course, but still never hesitating to set a limit that you are comfortable with.
Kristen Fischer is a copywriter, editor, author, and journalist hailing from the Jersey Shore. She is the author of Creatively Self-Employed. Find out more at www.kristenfischer.com and www.creativelyselfemployed.com.