10 Client Boundaries To Have In Place As A Freelancer

In the corporate world, boundaries are set for us. Work hours, paydays, emails, availability. It’s all there. Yes, you may often get asked to do things outside of the job description, or to stay late on a busy day. But the general guidelines are already in place when we accept to work for someone else.

When we run our own show, the boundaries are ours to set. When starting out in freelancing, it’s hard not to fall in the trap of wanting to do everything a client asks, in fear of losing the client, not getting a great testimonial, or worst case scenario- the client telling everyone they know publicly that you were a horror to work with. (It’s all in your head, folks!)

Yes, we are working for our clients, but it’s our business- they are not our boss. It’s our responsibility to set the boundaries and work with people who respect them.

Set Boundaries

So here are a few ideas of areas you can (and probably should) set boundaries:

1. Set work hours and don’t respond to emails out of those hours

Even if you work outside those hours (I know I do), don’t let your client get accustomed to hearing from you during those hours. Put these hours on your site, in your welcome package, and even in your email signature if you want.

2. Set deadlines and bill by those deadlines regardless if work is complete on their side

We all experience projects that go on waaay too long. Whether you use project management software to make it easy, or not, set deadlines and make them part of your payment schedule if you can. If you’ve done the work on your side, you should be paid for it, regardless of whether the client has done the work on their side or not.

3. Require that all discussions happen in your project management, not email

After several months now using project management software, I will certainly never go back to the old school way of using only email. If you only use email, read this post where I can maybe convince you otherwise. But in order for project management software to be really productive and serve it’s purpose, everything has to happen inside. Make it clear when you start the project that all correspondence happens in project management, not by email. And if ever the client slips up (and sends you an email instead), transfer the email into your pms and respond to it there, with a polite reminder of why you do so.

4. Enforce the use of your Hire Me form rather than responding to inquiries by Facebook or email.

This one came courtesy of my biz coach. When I told her how much time I was spending writing back and forth emails on Facebook or email because of people that send inquiries directly rather than via my Hire Me form, her solution was so obvious I can’t believe I never did it another way. My first response now, is pointing them straight to my services page and my Hire Me form and asking them to fill that out first. Of course, you’ve got to have a strategic Hire Me form to make this work (which I cover in Stress Less & Impress).

5. Set fees or guidelines for what happens if a client doesn’t meet deadlines

This one goes along with #2. If a client stops responding or isn’t hitting deadlines and you don’t have a payment schedule that can help mitigate that, consider setting a restart fee if the project goes pass X date, a weekly fee past X date, or make it clear they will be put at the bottom of your project list. There is no other way to keep your work on schedule and your other clients happy if you don’t have boundaries in place to prevent lagging clients. I’ve had problems with this, and only recently added it to my T&C’s. I hope I don’t have to ever enforce it, but the fact that it is there, will likely help keep my projects moving along smoothly.

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6. Set number of revisions included

Hopefully, as a freelancer you do awesome work. And if you are saying yes to projects you know are a good fit, it’s likely you can do great work from the beginning. But for those clients that just don’t seem to ever be satisfied, make sure you have a set number of revisions included in the project scope. Once they start going too far in the requests for more tweaks, refer to your contract and let them know it will be billed at your hourly rate. Having this there from the beginning will also help them to be more thorough with their feedback with each revision.

7. Make sure the project scope is clear

Make sure you detail EVERYTHING that’s included, and list it in your proposal/contract. Put a line on your contract stating that anything outside of the listed items will be billed at an hourly rate. Refer to the contract when those extra things come up. Saying yes to one small extra will almost always turn into another. And another. And another. And before you know it, you’ll be making $3/hr on the project.

8. Set a rush fee

If clients request a very tight deadline, raise your price for that. Clients should expect and respect you putting in more hours in a short period of time to help them meet their tight deadline.

9. Get everything you need before starting work

If you start the project, but are still missing vital information from the client, the project will only drag on longer. Even if technically you are not working, because you are waiting on stuff from them, you’re reserving space for their project in your brain. Space that could be spent better on doing great work for the clients that are ready.

10. Set an average email response time

I’m an email addict. I keep my inbox pretty close to zero at all times, and to do so, I often respond to emails within an hour when awake. This is not good for my sanity or personal life. So to make sure I don’t get into the habit of doing that when working with clients, and setting their expectations too high, I make my average response time clear in my email auto-responder and in my welcome email. When I know they aren’t expecting an email, I am better able to manage my email addiction. And if I do respond faster than what’s stated, it’s only a pleasant surprise for my clients. Clients like pleasant surprises.

A few tips about boundaries

Set them early

Make your boundaries clear from day 1. Your client will appreciate this, and if they don’t agree, they can choose to work with someone else. Waiting until half way through a project to surprise them with it, will only cause hard feelings and confusion.

Be consistent

Don’t start the project responding to every email within the hour, then realize it’s not sustainable and start taking a few days to respond. This will only give your customer the feeling that you are suddenly too busy or slacking off on their project. Also- keep it the same with every client. This will simply reduce your stress about having to remember which client you set which boundary with.

Going above and beyond

I really believe that my clients love me because I go beyond what is outlined in our project. This results in happier clients, better testimonials, and more referrals. But be conscious of where you are going above and beyond. It shouldn’t be in places where you set clear boundaries. Telling a client they have to pay by X date, and then letting that slide, is not going above and beyond. It’s being flakey about your boundaries. And if a client sees you being flakey in one area, they may assume you’ll be flakey in all areas- and then all your boundaries loose their oopmh. Find other ways to go above & beyond. A little creativity goes a long way!

So I want to hear from you!

Do you find setting boundaries difficult?

What boundaries to you have in place that I didn’t list above? I’d love to hear them and I probably need them too!

Let me know in the comments!

-Leah

Leah Kalamakis Leah Kalamakis is the founder of The Freelance To Freedom Project and a web designer/developer for brilliant entrepreneurs. When she’s not hanging out in the FTF Community, you can find her people watching on the streets of NYC. Come say hi on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

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{ 43 comments… add one }
  • After reading this, it’s clear I don’t have a lot of boundaries set up. I respond to emails whenever I get them – usually instantly, unless it’s late at night. I’ve dug myself into a hole, because now clients get worried if they don’t hear from me pretty quickly, and they expect proofs pretty quickly as well. I also use email for everything – I don’t have any project management software – but I read that other post, and will have to look into some free ones! e

    • Leah Kalamakis Leah

      Yes- I’m exactly the same way with email. Just having a response time written out in a bunch of places really helped me feel like I didn’t HAVE to respond so quickly anymore. And as I said, you still can, but it’s better to set some boundaries and then be consistent. It’s not just about setting the boundaries for clients, in this case, but also for ourselves! Thanks for sharing Jessica!

  • Last year was my year of lessons – I’ve got a client (from last summer) that I’m still waiting on …I won’t let that happen again! And yes…I’m an email addict and need to change my habits – I like your idea of setting work hours and boundaries, a must! Are you saying you have an after hours email responder set up? Lots of good advice…thanks!! 🙂

    • Leah Kalamakis Leah

      Yeah, I have a client from last summer too. We’re coming up on a year actually 🙁 No, I don’t have an after hours auto-responder, but that’s a good idea. I have an auto-responder to my Hire Me form though, and put my hours in my welcome package for clients.

  • Amazing as always Leah! Great suggestions and advice in here! YOU are the systems queen!

  • Another stellar post, Leah!

    I am learning the hard way about client boundaries and will be making needed changes STAT! For my first freelance project, I neglected to state how many revisions were included in the cost and ended up revising over… and over… and over. I probably ended up making a buck an hour.

    I also really like the Project Management software idea for all communication and will be scoping out the best one for my needs. Any recommendations?

  • I don’t have enough clients where most of this has become an issue yet, but I love having those things in the back of my mind for when I do so I can start things out the right way! I think in another post you had advised getting all the stuff you need from a client before starting work. I’ve been doing that and I’m so glad. Not only does it ensure I don’t have to go back and ask for things later, but it also gives me a bit of time to think about the project and brainstorm while they’re gathering the rest of their stuff. (Of course I tell them no work will be started, but a few days of casual thought for me before officailly starting always helps!)

  • Love, love, love these tips, Leah!!

    I definitely need to set boundaries. Last night, I was up until almost 1am answering emails and getting work done. I always have this annoying feeling that I should respond to emails right away. And, you’re right, I need to establish “work hours” so people have expectations of when I will respond, which in turn takes pressure off of me!

    Also, I’ve been doing a few test runs with project management software. Still trying to narrow it down to one.

    Thanks for these tips!! Setting up email hours right now! 🙂

  • I agree with you on most points, but I don’t have a set number of revisions. So far I haven’t had a single client that made an unreasonable amount of requests, so it hasn’t been a problem. I see the design process as something fluid, and I want my clients to be comfortable knowing that we will make their logo or website just perfect, no matter how many revisions it takes.

    If I happen to get more than one fussy client, I’ll think about limiting that.

    The point on deadlines is very important. I had a few clients just drop from the face of the Earth and then pop out from nowhere, expecting me to continue where we left off immediately. That’s very annoying.

  • Leah – the Facebook “pre-consultation” is starting to be a problem for me. Especially since I started b-school. My inbox has been filled with questions. At first I actually sat and had a conversation mid-day on Facebook about business. Like you mentioned, I just need to refer people to my site or provide them with a link to schedule a consultation with me for us to discuss then.

    When it comes to everything else I think you learn over time. I am proud that I stuck with my prices and took off any other indication that I will allow separate quotes or adjust my price to fit particular peoples needs. At the end I am just underpaid and under valued.

    So I agree, boundaries and stick to your guns!

  • Like Nela, I have not yet set a number of revisions, but so far it hasn’t been a problem. Still, I’m looking to do it for the future, so that I have this in place as my business grows. I like the idea of business hours and setting expectations about when they can expect to receive email responses. Great tips — thanks for sharing!

  • I’m guilty of numer 1, while numbers 5 and 8 are my absolute favorites. This is so spot on. Sometimes I come across clients that just feel they’re the only ones I’m working for! They want you to reply to their mails at any time of the day, they postpone filling intake forms….the list goes on and on. This is one post I’d definitely bookmark and read again. Thanks for sharing,

  • I’ve been adhering to some of these boundaries, or trying to at least. I get tripped up because the big part I’m missing is clearly communicating them to my clients! I need to get a better ‘on-boarding’ process in place. I’m looking forward to your upcoming process class. I’ve been using your blog posts as a guide, and they have been so helpful already.

  • Anna

    I’m literally JUST starting my business and am trying to figure all this crap out. I just registered for Asana to use for my first few projects (might as well start off right). Thanks so much for this great post!

  • Yes to all of this! I find freelancers tend to swing from trying to please all the time to resenting their clients. I think setting boundaries early and consistently makes everyone happier.

    The ideas of office hours is awesome, but since I live in New Zealand it tends to confuse my clients when they get an email at their 6pm and it’s only 11am for me. >.<

  • This is definitely my weakness right now – I love that it’s your strength because you are always top of my mind when it comes to killer processes. I’m not good at the details and that’s why I’m looking forward to seeing your course!

  • WOW, I think I just got totally busted on all of these! I will have to admit that *I* am terrible at using project management software though. My to-do lists are all on paper as well. (I know, way high tech for a developer.) I think it is the way my mind thinks – my ability to search is scary, and the act of writing things down just commit them to memory. I also think it is the speed at which things come in, as sometimes the urgency of the project is what makes me get the job.

  • Awesome advice Leah! Still not sure how to handle the set amount of revisions.

  • Great ideas! I’m just setting up my coaching services and will use your advice. Some people love to push boundaries. It’s our job to let them know it’s not acceptable. Sometimes it feels awkward to speak up, but it’s something we have to do if we’re serious about what we do.

  • Great advice, as always, Leah. Thanks for rounding these up in one helpful post!

  • Great advice, Leah!

    – I struggle SO much with setting work hours and holding back the urge to reply asap – This is something that I’m really going to try to work into my business practices so I don’t feel consumed by overwhelm and distraction.
    – I’m also looking into project management applications; I’ve heard a lot of rave reviews (from you too) about base camp, but I’m not sure if it’s the best fit for my situation – we’ll see. Business is booming, which is a great problem to have, but I’m starting to feel panicked about all of the projects and staying organized.
    – Setting revision limits is HUGE in my industry – revisions are where you can get tripped up the most, because clients don’t usually know what they want until they see it, and it can become very exhausting to enter into a never ending revision cycle.

  • Great Article. Thank you for taking the time to write this in depth review. There are so many freelancers that get caught up in bad situations due to either fear or lack of education.

  • Duuude, Leah. Yes. I have realized how much I suck at boundaries, but this totally helps. It’s interesting, because I’ve worked for other people before and they help set the boundaries. You go to the office, you work 9-5, then you leave and you turn it off. But, when you work from home, there’s no turn off button – you have to create it yourself. This has definitely been a struggle for me, so thanks for the tips, yo.

  • Bunny White

    Such good advice! And #3 about requiring the use of a project management software over email – let me tell you yesterday I couldn’t find info on that one to save my life. I searched and googled for hours and got no where. I became very confused about not finding a wellspring of other people wanting to smash their email to bits over frustration trying to manage clients in there. Then today I search for ‘How to set client boundaries for freelancers’ and BOOM, here you are providing the info I searched so hard for yesterday. Glad I found your site! 🙂

  • I nearly always make the mistake of replying instantly (I’m an email addict too). I’m starting to break away from that habit though.

    • Leah Kalamakis Leah

      Oh yes, I feel ya! At least we’re conscious of it 🙂

  • Andrea

    It’s nice to know I’m not alone in this frustration with client boundaries. I found your post in the middle of the night after being awaken by a client’s text message. I do interior design work and run a physical studio. I find interiors clients the most challenging to manage. Being in their private spaces, dealing with expensive projects, they have a tendecy to feel they own you. Even after a project has wrapped and you’re no longer under contract they expect to be able to pop out of nowhere and demand your attention, despite a queue of booked projects.
    I fall into the pendulum of responding quickly (to get it off my mind) and then resenting the expectation. It’s time to re-commit to my sanity!

  • Jobeanify

    I have a client who wants me to send any emails to her suppliers with her branding, not mine. What do you think? Is this standard practice? I have never been asked to do this before.

    • Leah Kalamakis Leah Kalamakis

      Hhhm, I’m not sure I understand. What’s your role exactly in her business?

      • Jobeanify

        I’m a freelance designer, they run a communications company, so I am doing design work/production on their projects.

  • Ronny

    Unfortunately I found this article while googling, “How to put a problem client in their place” after dealing with an incredibly impatient and whiny client. Great article and I will be implementing these with future clients!

    • Leah Kalamakis Leah Kalamakis

      Ah man- well I think we’ve all googled that at one point! Glad you found these tips helpful!

  • Overall these are good suggestions but I don’t think they all work across the board for everyone. I started my freelance business five years ago and have other methods that work great for both me and my clients.

    #1 – For me, I respond to emails outside of my working hours all the time and it creates zero problems for me. I am a creative night owl and often love working at night which is usually not the case for my clients. They know they can call me during my regular hours and that there is a good chance I won’t respond outside of them, but truth be told some nights I get a ton of work done which means they will have a proof or otherwise in their inbox first thing in the morning, which means I usually get changes or approval back pretty quickly too, which keeps the ball rolling nicely. I like this flexibility because it also means I can go to an appointment in the middle of the day or take an afternoon off if I need to. My clients know I’m reliable and responsive and if I don’t respond right away it’s for a good reason, but I will still get back to them in a timely manner. It’s a system that works great for me and I don’t have any problem being unresponsive at night if I’m not working. My boundary is that I don’t always answer the phone or respond right away, but if I can I usually will and honestly they appreciate that I do and tend not to worry when I don’t. Maybe I just have good regular clients though. Writing comes easily to me so I don’t spend a lot of time responding to emails, even if it requires a lengthier response so it really isn’t a huge burden or time suck.

    #3 – Project management software is honestly something I’ve never used before on any project (even for my corporate clients) and I’m definitely intrigued by the idea that it would make things easier. I’ll probably look into it. But truth be told I think if I made all of my clients learn unfamiliar software in order to keep working with me I think several of them would get tired of it. I hate to say it, but email works well for a lot of people. Maybe it isn’t the BEST way to do things, but it’s what a lot of people are used to. Even though I prefer communicating in writing because it makes an excellent reference later, some of my clients just aren’t happy unless they’ve picked up the phone and called me. The fact that I am willing to adapt a little and make their life easier for them and communicate the way they like is one of the reasons my clients love and appreciate me and keep coming back. I hear complaints all too often about creative people that are too difficult to work with or communicate with so they ultimately get dropped.

    #6 – This one I agree with 100%, have been doing this from the beginning. If you don’t give a set number of revisions there are clients that will give you changes to death. That is why when I have a client that I know likes to go through a lot of changes, I switch to hourly billing. They can revise to their heart’s desire and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest because I end up getting paid for all of my time instead of resenting them. It’s a win/win. It’s just a matter of communicating all expectations up front like you say in #7. #8 & 9 I also agree with wholeheartedly; you are shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t do these things.

    #10 is not a problem for me at all (sort of related to #1.) I think this just depends on your personality.

    Overall though lots of good tips. I think the general idea of just being able to set boundaries is what is important and knowing what works for you and what doesn’t is sometimes a learning curve that first year when you get started. I can pretty much guarantee someone starting out will make a lot of mistakes that cost them time and/or money but that’s also how you learn. The key is to immediately find a way to prevent those mistakes from happening again and finding best practices that work for you and your client moving forward… and they won’t always be the same. You have to be able to be a little flexible and work with people.

  • Tom

    Great article, as always. Thanks you Leah.

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