Establishing Professional Boundaries With Your Clients

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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…

Just recently one of my coaching clients 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

The way your clients feel about you is your brand, and the way people develop those feelings happens largely through experience. So ask yourself: what experience are you creating for them if you’re allowing them to walk all over you?

They’re going to perceive you as an order-taker or a pushover rather than a hired gun. #truthbomb

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.   

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

A great client relationship does not require that you be at their beck and call. It doesn’t mean 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.

It begins by letting 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. 

You may already know I’m a big proponent of productizing your services.

In The Bullseye Offer Formula, I talk a lot about designing your business the way you want it to be by designing offers with a fixed price, scope, timelines and a repeatable, predictable process you guide your clients through.

You’re 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 most likely 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.

And guess what? Bad apple clients know other people who will also be bad apple clients and that’s going to be your referral network.

When they talk about what it’s like to work with you (your brand), they’re going to say things like, “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 brand you want to build? 

If you’re constantly signing up bad apple clients (in an attempt to prove to yourself you can “convert them”?) you’re fooling yourself. Trust me, it’s better to just say “byeeeee!’ and focus instead on finding great clients. 

How does it work to work with you? Make your professional boundaries clear in advance of any client engagement

One of the ways I’ve been able to free up two days per week to work ON my business (marketing, education, improving processes, creating digital products and passive income streams) started by recapturing all of the time I used to waste on the long, drawn-out sales process and going out-of-scope, going “above and beyond” what was outlined in the contract and doing a heck of a lot of people-pleasing. 

It used to be that I’d spend days or weeks or even months courting clients, figuring out what they need, building proposals, and then executing those projects in a willy-nilly fashion. 

And then I would go “above and beyond” to make sure the results my clients received were done to the very best of my abilities which often meant that I spent lots of extra time on things when their budget just didn’t allow that. I invested (my time) in their business when I should have been investing in my own.  

Whenever my clients had time to pay attention to the project is when things would move forward… everything was on their terms, their timeline. Communications, project timelines, and the scope of work went off the rails and over time, that way of doing things was a huge cost to my business.

I thought I was giving good service by being so flexible but my clients didn’t love the experience either — when I asked for feedback, it came up that I could use some “tightening up” of the old ship. 

The truth is, your clients don’t even know when you’re going “above and beyond” to please them. They just think this is how it goes because they have no clue what it takes to do your work well or what professional boundaries look like.  

And when you do that, you’re setting up all your future colleagues who work with this client for failure by training them to think “this is just how it is.” 

Now, when someone inquires about working with me, I have a response ready to go…

I send them a “How It works to work with me” document that outlines…

  • 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
  • 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 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… it was all spelled out in the beginning.

So then, the engagement can be FUN and focused and friendly rather than building resentful, combative, confrontational or 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 and assume they’ll be cool with it before you make 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.” 

The key to establishing professional boundaries is to be prepared and create systems and processes you can repeat with each client

I’m all about creating processes and systems in my business. If I’m saying the same thing over and over to every client, I create a document, video, or add a section to my “FAQs” to point people to. 

When clients ask to hop on a (free) call to get my input or if they ask me for ideas, if I can’t build that time into a project and if I know it’ll take more than a quick email to respond, I quickly move that conversation toward them booking me into one of my services.

“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.”
“Here’s a link to my calendar to schedule a strategy session” (you can use a tool like 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 and you shouldn’t be giving your time away for free. Your time is your most valuable business asset.

If you don’t hear back from them, you’ve avoided a COST to your business — the cost of spending your time solving problems for other people’s businesses for free when you really should be INVESTING that time in your own business. 

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. Things like marketing, innovation (designing new products and services, building better systems and processes, etc.), and even personal time — taking care of your wellbeing or even a vacation once in awhile 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!