How to Set Better Client Boundaries

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As a consultant, solopreneur, or creative you know that your most valuable business asset is your time. And yet, one of the biggest challenges of serving clients is keeping our professional boundaries with our clients in check.

We THINK that loosening our boundaries creates an amazing client experience…

😎 “I answered an email at 9pm on a Saturday, they’re going to think I’m such a rockstar!”
😎 “I said yes to out-of-scope requests and I didn’t charge them extra, they’re sure to tell all their friends and colleagues about how amazing I am!”
😎“When a client comes to me with an URGENT! request, I hop right on it. Surely they’ll remember me in their will.”

But let’s be honest here for a second. Underlying it all, really, is a feeling that…

“If I don’t say yes to this, bad things are going to happen.”

Things like… 

😩 “They won’t refer me to their friends or leave me a positive review”
😩 “They won’t pay the final invoice if I don’t do this thing”
😩 “They won’t be satisfied with the work and that’s my worst nightmare”
😩 “They won’t like me”

We often confuse people-pleasing with great customer service when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Being a pushover and doing things to benefit someone else’s business at the expense of your own is not a great way to go about things and you know that.

But what you may not be thinking about is that it absolutely does not guarantee your clients are going to leave you five-star reviews and rave about you to everyone they know.

In fact, the opposite may actually be true…

A former client told me a story about how she worked nights and weekends to “go above and beyond” to create magic for a difficult client — just after giving birth to her first child! — and her client left her a nasty review on Yelp! anyway. 

Setting firm but friendly professional boundaries is the key to creating an amazing client experience

The way your clients feel about you is your brand, and people develop those feelings largely through experience

So ask yourself: what experience are you creating for them if you’re allowing them to walk all over you? #RealTalk: They’re going to perceive you as an order-taker or a pushover rather than a hired gun.

While they may appreciate your willingness to drop everything to be at their beck and call, what they’re actually thinking is, “I can let things slide,  I know they’ll be there to clean up my mess.” 

Urgent requests are a great example of this. Unless you’re an ER doctor, there are very few real emergencies. Lack of planning and organization is something you train clients to indulge in by not having boundaries set from jump street. 

A great client relationship does not require that you bend over backward to please them by going out of scope, working overtime at your own expense, or dropping your life to answer “URGENT!” emails on the weekends.

Set good boundaries by:

Making your professional boundaries clear in advance of any client engagement

Let them know “How it works to work with you” from the very beginning. 

Bad apple clients aren’t going to appreciate your boundaries and they may say “this isn’t for me, it’s not how I want to work” and they’ll move along and that’s what you want. 

High-quality clients respect that you have a process and boundaries in place and they’ll come to you to follow your process because they’re also busy and they’ll be grateful you take the lead. 

Productizing your services

Design your services (and client experience!) the way you want it to be by creating offerings with a fixed price, scope, timeline and a repeatable, predictable process you guide your clients through.

Productized services put you in charge.

When you do that, people who want that experience will raise their hands to work with you because that’s the experience they want. Clients who want to be in control of everything and test your boundaries to the limits won’t even be interested. 

Bad clients are indecisive, unorganized, controlling, and disrespectful of others… having boundaries and processes in place won’t appeal to them, and to that we say “YAY!” because serving bad clients always comes at a COST to your business.

Getting clear about the reputation you want to create

We like to think that pain-in-the-*bleep* clients are a one-off: “I’ll just do what I need to do to finish this work and then I’ll be done.”

But here’s the thing. Bad clients know other people who will also be bad clients and that’s going to be your referral network.

When they talk about what it’s like to work with you, they’re going to say things like,

“Oh she’s great — she’ll drop everything for you 24/7. If you have an urgent request on the weekend she’ll get right back to you, she doesn’t charge for additional requests, and she’s really flexible — if you get busy she’ll accommodate you and pick things up where you left off.”  

Is that the experience you want to be known for? 

If you’re constantly signing up bad apple clients, you’re fooling yourself if you think you can people-please them into not being a pain-in-the-arse. Trust me, it’s better to focus on attracting great clients by creating a great experience — one with boundaries.  

Getting clear about your opportunity cost

When I was serving clients full time, I got very frustrated that I wasn’t able to scale and I knew the reason was all of the time I used to waste on…

  • The long, drawn-out sales process
  • Going out-of-scope
  • Going “above and beyond” what was outlined in the contract
  • Doing a heck of a lot of people-pleasing

All of those things were not only zapping the joy from my work, they were preventing me from being the master of my own time — which is why I went into business in the first place.

Then I made a simple change that eliminated the fluff in my schedule instantly…

When someone inquired about working with me, I had a response ready to go — I’d send them a “How It works to work with me” document that outlined:

  • All of my services — what the engagement entails, how much it costs, and what they need to do to move forward
  • When I’m available to respond to their emails and when I am not
  • How we will communicate and on what platforms
  • How to reschedule appointments and project milestones without incurring additional charges
  • The consequences of non-emergency project delays
  • What happens in the event they have a “rush” project and the additional charges they’ll incur

This tweak in my process allowed me to free up two days per week to work ON my business, which I spent doing things like marketing, education, improving processes, creating digital products and passive income streams.

It started by recapturing my time through better boundaries and it completely transformed my business. I now have enough consistent income coming in through passive revenue streams that I don’t even have to take on clients anymore unless I want to.

This may seem impersonal or robotic or unfriendly but that’s not true at all. Having a process to kick off a client relationship by setting firm but friendly boundaries and then having a repeatable process for the actual project only enhances the personal relationship and rapport.

Rather than having yet another awkward “scope creep” conversation, or being frustrated because they got busy with other things and couldn’t give me what I needed (e.g. feedback) to move forward… the expectations, consequences, and procedures were spelled out in the beginning.

With all of that out of the way and everybody on the same page, client engagements were FUN and focused and friendly rather than resentful, combative, confrontational and stressful. 

Enforce professional boundaries by…

Being friendly rather than defensive 

When you establish clear boundaries early it’s much less likely you’ll run into problems. 

But in the event you have a client who insists on testing your boundaries, rather than being resentful and negative or even aggressive about it, frame it in a positive way in your mind remembering your professional boundaries are what allow you to run your business well, do good work, and create a great experience for them.

In other words, assume they’ll be cool with it before you enforce your boundaries rather than catastrophize or make false assumptions. 

For example, in the event of a non-emergency project delay, you might say something like this: 

“I totally understand you’re busy right now! If you can’t get me what I need by Thursday the project timeline will need to be readjusted, so what I can do is pause the project. This gives you a bit of space to catch up on things. When you’re ready, I’ll reschedule you according to my next availability — just a reminder per our original contract, there’s a $100 restart fee to restart a paused project. When you’re ready, I’ll do my best to get you back into production as soon as I can.” 

Having systems and processes in place so you can repeat them with each client

Being prepared is going to be your secret weapon when it comes to enforcing your boundaries, so think about areas in your business where you need more control.

Where is time slipping through the cracks? In what areas do things tend to go off the rails?

Here are a few things to think about…

  • If you’re saying the same thing over and over to every client, create a document, video, or add a section to your “FAQs” page to point people to. 
  • Have a plan for how you’ll respond to client inquiries and what you’ll cover in your sales calls. Having scripts prepared in advance will help prevent you from being caught off guard.
  • Be prepared for how you’ll handle the question, “Can I pick your brain?”

The idea is that you want a way to move conversations where your clients are testing your boundaries toward learning how you work and how you don’t.

“Can I pick your brain?” is a tough one for creatives, consultants, and coaches because what we sell, ultimately, is our brain stuff. Clients don’t MEAN to ask for free work, they just need your help, so it’s important to have a response ready for them when this happens. 

“I’d be happy to give some thought to this and share my ideas! Just a reminder, my minimum rate is a 1/2 day — let me know if you’d like me to get you booked into my schedule.”
Or…
“Here’s a link to my calendar to schedule a strategy session” (you can use a tool like Calendly.com that allows them to pay for that session on the spot). 

If they don’t want to pay you for your time, now you know something. They were never going to pay you for your time to get your input and you shouldn’t be giving your time away for free unless they’re following your process that you created that you know will guide them toward a paid project. Doing favors ain’t it.  

And you know what? Nothing bad is going to happen.

Nobody is going to respond with, “Well, I never! I don’t like you anymore.” Nobody is going to leave you a 1-star review for a service you didn’t even perform. Nobody is going to fault you for asking to be compensated for your time and expertise. And if any of those things happen? That’s fine too… how they respond is on THEM, not on you. 

What’s exponentially more likely to happen is they’ll be respectful of your time and come to you when they’re organized, prepared, and have the budget to afford you. And that’s what you want! 

If setting better professional boundaries means you all of a sudden have lots of time on your hands — time you weren’t being paid for — you can focus on your own business and do the things that help you scale, profit and grow. Or… just personal time! Taking care of your well-being or even a vacation once in a while is essential to being happy in your work life. 

Did I leave anything out? Did anything ring true? Let’s talk about it in comments! 

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