Ask Alicia: Setting Boundaries With Clients

by Alicia Sparks on November 8, 2011

This poor man looks so stressed. You do NOT want to be this stressed.

Question:

Dear Alicia,

Okay, this one might be tricky.

I have a client who calls all the time. He’s called at normal hours, like 10 and 11 a.m., but he’s also called at “normal” mealtimes, as well as 6, 7, 8, and even 9 p.m. I never said anything, because honestly I didn’t want to risk insulting him and losing the work, but I can’t tolerate it anymore. I need to say something, but I’m not sure what or how. I’m afraid I’ve let it go on too long and things will get awkward when I address it.

What would you say?

Barb

Answer:

Hey Barb,

Failing to establish client boundaries is a pretty common problem among freelancers.

It does sound like you’ve let it go on way longer than you should have, but I wouldn’t say “too long.” Rest assured that this is a fairly easy fix (it only takes two steps!) and you can do it via e-mail or even in person, if you meet your client face-to-face sometimes.

Step One:

Pull up a fresh Word (or whatever program you use) document and create a chart representing your daily work schedule. It doesn’t have to be too specific (for example, there’s no reason to include “Drop the kids off at school” or “Fix dinner”) but it does have to include the hours you are and are not available.

For example:

  • 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. – Available for phone calls, e-mails, instant messaging, etc.
  • 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. – Working.
  • 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. – Lunch – out of the office.
  • 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. – Working.
  • 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. – Available for phone calls, e-mails, instant messaging, etc.

Obviously this is just an example. Your schedule may vary wildly. The point is to make clear two things:

  1. When you’re available to talk, chat, or answer e-mails.
  2. When you’re not.

Step Two:

Give it to your client.

A simple e-mail letting him know you’ve reworked your business hours and just wanted to update him should suffice, but of course you can give it to him in person. I don’t recommend handling this over the phone, as you want to make sure he actually has a copy to refer back to.

Things to Remember:

  • All businesses have business hours. Do NOT feel bad about setting and sticking to business hours.
  • You’re not Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, or the 24/7 convenience store down the street. Do NOT feel bad about not working ’round the clock.

This post is part of the Ask Alicia series at WritingSpark.com. Learn more, or shoot me an e-mail directly at alicia [at] writingspark [dot] com (or click here) with “Ask Alicia” in the subject line.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jody Rein November 8, 2011 at 6:44 pm

Really good idea for a blog–and not just for writers. Everyone in service businesses has to content with that tough problem of setting personal limitations, and I think it’s particularly hard for women (accustomed to caretaking) and people just out of corporate life (accustomed to freely giving information). I sure had trouble with that (and with charging for my time) when I left the corporate world. Formalizing your own “office hours” and “call hours” in writing is a great way to teach yourself as well as your clients that–unless you’re selling yourself as the “always available editor” or something–you’re a professional whose job is to do right by your clients but on your own terms. One more tip: include your business hours on your voicemail, so your clients understand why you’re not calling back until the next day. And consider getting either a designated line for business, or, if that’s not cost-effective, make sure you have caller id. Oh, another tip–people who set clear parameters rarely offend or alienate clients. It’s inconsistent availability that gets people upset.

Richie November 8, 2011 at 10:03 pm

To Barb, The fact that you think this is tricky says you need to get a backbone. Sorry to be harsh, but clients like this will suck the life out of you. You MUST set boundaries. You have trained him how to treat you. If you can’t confront him face to face, send an email “blast” to all your clients, even if he’s the only one that needs it, explaining your office hours. You can’t expect others to respect your time if you don’t!

Alicia November 9, 2011 at 11:37 am

Jody Rein :

One more tip: include your business hours on your voicemail, so your clients understand why you’re not calling back until the next day.

EXCELLENT tip!

(Which made me realize, those business hours should be included on the blog or website, also – something I do NOT have posted. I should probably remedy that, haha.)

Alicia November 9, 2011 at 11:39 am

Richie :

You have trained him how to treat you.

Great point, Richie. By always answering the phone, always being available, always always always, Barb has taught this client that any time that is convenient for HIM will also be convenient for HER (and if it’s not, she’ll make it so).

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