Log in

Setting boundaries with clients: 5 strategies to make it easy

Freelancing is freedom—this we know. Free is even part of the word. It’s right up front; you can’t miss it.

So why are you so stressed all the time? It might be time to start getting serious about setting boundaries with your clients.

In freelancing, balance and clear boundaries are the keys to the kingdom

You are your own boss. You set the schedule you want. Depending on what you do, you can pretty much work from anywhere. But achieving balance is another thing.

If your skills are in demand, the work comes in fast and furious. At first, it might be a bit overwhelming, but once you get a handle on your schedule and learn how to manage your time, you’ll be able to carve out a sweet work-life balance that allows you to do everything you want to do.

All this sounds pretty easy in theory. However, you’ll inevitably pick up a few clients that will try to force you to throw away the rulebook. And at first, you’ll probably say, what the heck. It’s only one job, after all.

But overdelivering and acquiescing to demanding or disorganized clients will almost always get you in hot water. Most experienced freelancers (and agencies, for that matter) have a few.

Healthy boundaries: you are the architect of your own success

You know the type of client we’re talking about here.

These clients make you put aside time for them and then don’t deliver the required materials to do the job until the last minute or later. They expect you to be available to them any time of the day or night. These clients are never prepared, don’t provide you with enough information, and then request endless revisions until they whittle your time, money, and last nerve into the gutter.

They might even lie to cover their own shortcomings and pass the buck onto you. It happens all the time.

If you keep on allowing this to happen, it will not end well for either of you. Yes, you work for them. Yes, you want the work—and yes, you’re willing and able to do what it takes to get the job done. But if you continue allowing clients to use you as their personal slave or scapegoat, you’ll probably want to quit before you even get started. And that’s just not right.

Think about all those wonderful clients and all those incredible opportunities that would pass you by if you were to burn yourself out based on the actions of one or two bad apples.

The point is—you are in the driver’s seat. You are 100% in control of how you handle your business, so you need to get ahead of these situations before they get out of hand.

Five simple strategies for setting boundaries with clients

Setting clear boundaries with clients isn’t always easy, especially when you’ve already waded into their murky depths. That said, it’s not impossible.

Ideally, you’ll want to set client boundaries before you engage. It’s always better that way, as it gives you (and them) a framework for what’s acceptable.

If you want to work at peak momentum and do right by all parties, you need a strategy.

Today, we’ve got five actionable tips that make it easy to set and maintain boundaries with clients so you can have a life and continue to love the work.

1. Respect and protect your time

Everybody has to work late or start early occasionally, that’s to be expected. But it shouldn’t be status quo. Working after hours should be reserved for exceptional circumstances or emergencies.

True enough, many clients do not respect your time. By the same token, some freelancers find time management challenging as well, but keep in mind—being disorganized just opens the door for chaos and stress to happen.

Action:

  • Establish a detailed spreadsheet for your jobs and estimate the time it should take for each one. Use color-coding for at-a-glance summations of where you’re at on any given day.
  • Alternately, use a productivity app, like Trello or Slack, to manage your workload. 

2. Set boundaries with clear working hours

Whether you’re a night owl or a morning person, setting clear working hours clarifies your life and eliminates a lot of the stress. Combined with a detailed schedule as mentioned above, you’ll know what’s in store for the day and can quote clients more easily on what’s possible. 

Action:

  • When you take on a new client, have an initial discussion about expectations and timelines. Transparency is critical at the outset as it sets the tone.
  • Draw up a simple contract describing your parameters and send it over for signature before beginning a new client engagement. In it, outline your working hours so they know when they can and cannot expect you to be in touch. They need to know.

There is no point in setting work hours if you intend to keep them to yourself. Doing so will confuse, frustrate, and result in too many unnecessary discussions. Your time is valuable, and they need to know that. 

3. Be very up-front about your needs

Every job has requirements. Even if the client trusts you to come up with everything off the top of your head, you need to know what the expectations are, or else you risk spending a lot more time on a project than might be necessary.

Vague clients or job asks are a recipe for disaster. Sure, it might work out occasionally, but when it doesn’t, it goes south very quickly and could threaten your working relationship.

When you’re working remotely, you’re also communicating digitally, so it’s easy to misunderstand. You don’t want to be a week into a job, thinking you’re doing fine, and turn in a draft or a proof that blows up in your face. That’s a waste of your time and theirs.

Action:

For those vague or lazy clients, it’s up to you to extract the necessary info out of them. In best practice, you should have a few questionnaires ready to send, each tailored to the type of job (design, development, copywriting, etc.) and to the stage of engagement (new clients, new work proposals).

  • Your new client questionnaire should ask questions related to the client and their expectations. You need to know who their customers are and who they’re competing with. This is your chance to get to know them better so you can understand their needs more clearly.
  • Your new job questionnaire should be a little more specific about the job itself—the end-user, when it will be posted or deployed, and what their approval process looks like. Ask your client to complete this document for every new job. It keeps them accountable, and it gives you a reference point in case something goes off track.

You know what you need, so think carefully about that as you’re developing your questionnaires and be sure to ask the right questions.

And if a particular client comes back with scanty info and expects you to fill in the blanks, don’t be afraid to toss it back in their lap. Your time is valuable, so don’t compromise. Ultimately, having these tools ready to go shows how professional you are, so technically, it should spark some respect on the receiving end.

4. Do not allow clients to take advantage of you to suit their schedules

Some clients are chaos-mongers and will expect you to be at their beck and call. If you work for them and only them, that’s one thing. But chances are, you’ve got a ton of clients with needs of their own, and they need you too.

When you consider all the previous points, if you have all your ducks in a row, you should never be in a position to have to bend to their out-of-school demands. Of course, emergencies do arise, and you can deal with them on an as-needed basis. Some clients will only do this occasionally, but others will make it a habit if they think they can get away with it.

The point is – don’t be taken advantage of because your client dropped the ball. That’s not your row to hoe. 

Action:

  • Planning and communication are critical. Be clear and concise. Put it in writing.
  • Use your questionnaires judiciously (see #3 above).
  • Make sure the client knows the deadline for getting you the materials you need.
  • If they don’t respect your time, deprioritize them.
  • Try not to be a hero all the time. It’s nice to save the day, but if clients think you can always pull it out of your butt even when they don’t have it together, you’re opening the door for more of the same.

5. Learn how to say no and let clients know when you’re out of office

There’s nothing worse than a bad client that won’t quit. If they consistently give you a headache for any reason, you need to know where to draw the line.

For some freelancers, it might be about the money. In other words, maybe it’s not worth it for what they’re paying you, but if they agreed to up the ante, it would be okay. That’s for you to decide.

There are clients, though, that no amount of money is going to make better. At that point, you’re going to have to make a tough decision and maybe cut the cord altogether.

Many clients, when faced with losing you, will try to woo you back. They might offer more money, promise to do better—whatever it is, you’ll need to decide whether it’s worth your while.

It’s not uncommon for overly demanding clients to promise the moon and stars and then quickly revert to their evil ways. It’s like staying in a bad relationship for much longer than you ought to. At some point, you need to cut your losses.

Action:

  • Be clear about your time.
  • Start by establishing boundaries and stick to them.
  • Remind yourself that when one door closes, another opens.
  • Be accountable to the ideals you hold dear. Don’t compromise your sanity for the sake of a few bucks.

Let’s review: rounding up our client boundary-setting strategy session

So, by now, you’ve probably discerned a recurring theme that threads through this topic. Setting boundaries with clients is all about organization, preparation, and respect for yourself.

When you’re just starting to build your client list, it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of work. You take on all comers and let the chips fall where they may.

Eventually, we learn how to manage the workload and settle into a groove, but there will always be that one, two, or three clients that test our patience.

To round up some of the key points on how to set boundaries that we’ve discussed today:

  • Communicate openly and clearly from the start.
  • Use written contracts and questionnaires to establish reasonable expectations and boundaries.
  • Keep your schedule and bookings up to date and don’t overbook yourself.
  • Let clients know your working hours and how quickly they might expect a response from you. Keep the client informed but always hold your ground.
  • Clearly state the day you will deliver client work or finish the project and be sure to respect that timeline.
  • Set payment terms in advance and have everything in writing.
  • Keep it friendly and professional; if the client is angry, stay calm. If you make a mistake or have a setback, communicate as soon as possible.
  • It’s your business. You’re the boss. YOU make the rules.
  • If your client is out of control, stand your ground. Some clients might not be aware they are crossing boundaries, so you need to let them know.
  • Learn how to say no. Clients that take up too much of your time or bandwidth aren’t worth it.
  • Remember, you’re the boss. Don’t feel bad about doing what’s best for you.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it. If you’re still having problems establishing clear boundaries with your clients, consider getting a mentor or a coach. Sometimes, a conversation with the right person can save you hours of frustration.

What helps you set boundaries with clients? Discover how talented freelancers just like you found success and freedom, living and working on their own terms.

Related Articles

Announcing Grow: a new $200,000 program supporting minority-led small businesses