How to set boundaries with clients

How to set boundaries with clients

Although businesses are always keen to make their clients happy, a healthy relationship can only truly be maintained if a few boundaries are set in pl

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Although businesses are always keen to make their clients happy, a healthy relationship can only truly be maintained if a few boundaries are set in place first. Without them, problems could arise, whether that means them getting in touch outside of working hours, or demanding additional work that hasn’t been previously agreed upon. If this does get out of hand, chances are you’ll end up letting things slide for fear of upsetting or losing the client altogether.

This kind of behaviour can set a precedent for future clients which can have a detrimental impact on your business when it comes to unfair conduct. Whether in work or our personal lives, as one psychologist notes, “poor boundaries lead to resentment, anger and burnout”. Without establishing clear limits to interactions in your professional life, you may lose the joy in your work, and feel undervalued and stressed. Follow these tips to lay down some ground rules, and make the relationships you have with your clients better for both parties.

1.    Write down what isn’t working

To put boundaries in place, you will need to assess the professional practices which do and don’t work for your business. Conduct a “boundary audit” to evaluate the situation, both internally and externally. This can involve both determining your interactions with clients — such as expecting speedy responses to emails sent late at night — and assessing any of your colleagues’ behaviours that may cause distress or discomfort.

Executive coach Melody Wilding explains that “experiencing patterns of three key emotions — guilt, resentment and anger — signal a boundary has been crossed, needs to be reset, or needs to be communicated more clearly.” Once you’ve identified these problems, you will be able to work out where boundaries need to be set.

2.    Schedule work for yourself and your clients

Your time outside of work is important for recharging, as well as rest and relaxation, so it isn’t healthy to make yourself available to clients at all hours. If you want others to respect your time, you should respect your own time as well.

One key thing to assess is your schedule. Make sure you’re allowing enough time to complete projects for your clients during your regular working hours — this will give your client no reason to contact you outside of that time. After all, you’re both bound to the rules of the contract you collectively signed, and as Salon Gold notes when discussing clients not turning up to their appointments: “If you stay on top of your time-keeping and are not always running late or overbooking your schedule, this won’t give your clients an excuse to do the same. If you don’t respect their time, then you can’t expect them to do the same in return.”

This applies to out-of-hours contact. If you start doing it, clients will come to expect it, encouraging them to take advantage of what you treated as an isolated incident to suit their own schedules. If you clock off at 6pm, stick to it, and let that be the time you stop answering calls and checking your emails.

3.    Communicate effectively

Clients can easily overstep boundaries when they feel that communication is ineffective, both written and verbal. You need to make sure that your emails and phone calls are clear, direct and act professionally to avoid miscommunication.

This will be less of a problem if your clients are similar in temperament to you, but some may not. First, you need to identify the different ways people communicate, so that you can be aware of how you and others interact, and then adapt your conversations accordingly to prevent any misunderstandings. You should also ensure that you’re transparent about the work you do, listen well to your client and approach matters in a practical way.

4.    Put ‘boundary bumpers’ in place

A ‘boundary bumper’ is a protocol that prevents a client from overstepping the mark you’ve defined. For instance, you might begin to notice frequent problems with payments, like cheques mysteriously going missing in the post, payments which aren’t processed on time, or even being ghosted altogether by a client as the due date of an invoice approaches.

This can be avoided by implementing measures to counteract these issues — in the above example, setting up auto-billing to ensure the client’s card is charged automatically when payment is due, would be one method. Another option is to include policies within contracts to outline how you work and what you expect, as this will prevent clients from taking advantage. For instance, you can implement late fees, so that if they miss a payment, your business is covered financially — which also gives clients an incentive to pay on time.

5.    Manage workloads

Working out of your set hours can sometimes be unavoidable if you’re juggling multiple projects at once and one client asks for some extra work beyond what you initially agreed — a tactic known as “scope creep”. However, this can put a dent in your work/life balance, and have negative effects on your own wellbeing.

Occasional incidents of “scope creep” may seem like simple requests at first, but they can still eat into the time that you could be putting towards other clients and projects, particularly if these requests don’t come with any additional compensation. To avoid this, remind your clients of what they actually agreed upon in their contract. If your clients pay by the hour, you could also track how much work you do for them by using applications like Everhour. This will let you know how long you’re spending on any given project. Whatever the case, you should always be honest about what you can feasibly do for them, rather than promising more than you can deliver.