Beginning solopreneurs and young professional services companies (consulting firms, law firms, accountants, web developers, designers, and others) often struggle with setting boundaries with clients. In our 24-7 always on world, it's easy find yourself in a situation where you're responding at all hours to client needs, and the rest of your business and life suffers. For example, if you respond to clients’ emails after 10 p.m. or on Sunday mornings, they will start to expect, and even demand, that level of responsiveness.
Setting boundaries with your clients might seem uncomfortable or even risky – after all, you love your clients and you want them to keep hiring you, and you need their business. But it is ultimately a good thing to be able to set some reasonable expectations to keep you and your business productive and happy, while still making time for your life outside of work.
Here are a few ideas on how those who are self-employed can set boundaries with your clients:
Communicate Via Email
Many self-employed people find that their workday feels like it is more under their control (and less harried) if they do not constantly have to reply to client phone calls and texts. Instead of phone or text, use email as your primary point of contact with clients, and encourage them (subtly) to do the same. Email is great because it's easier to time-shift – you don't have to reply in the moment to every single request – and because it provides a written record of the entire chain of communication, helping to eliminate mistakes and misunderstandings. Even if your clients prefer to call or text you, try emailing them back – show them by example that it's easier and better for both of you if you can respond to their questions in writing with a more detailed, considered response (instead of hurriedly typing with your thumbs) and this also helps you avoid interruptions.
But Only Reply to Email During a Few Times of Day
Don’t get caught in the trap of constantly being buried in your email inbox. Email is meant to be a time-shifting tool, not an instant messenger service. It's OK to let emails pile up for a few hours, as long as you can respond within the business day. It’s best to be productive as much as you can throughout the day, and respond to email only when you’re ready, rather than watch your whole day evaporate before your eyes while you’re trying to respond to every single email that comes in.
Use Out-of-office Replies
Just like you would if you were on vacation, set up an “out-of-office” automatic reply message when you’re not going to be checking email during the day. Give a short greeting and explain why the sender is getting this message. For example, you could say, “Thanks for your message. I am in meetings or engaged in client work at the moment, but I will respond to your message today after 3 p.m.” Out-of-office replies are kind of a lost art of email, but people will often respect your time more (and be better clients to work with overall) if they know that you're not ignoring them – that you're just busy at the moment.
Proactively Suggest Meeting Times
Of course, the client’s schedule comes first – if the client needs to meet with you or have a conference call at a certain time of day, then the client’s needs need to take precedence. But you can often avoid getting trapped on inconveniently scheduled meetings by proactively suggesting (or avoiding) certain times. For example, the next time a client starts to suggest a meeting, you can reply with, “That’s a great idea – how does next week, Tuesday-to-Thursday between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. work for you?” This way you can clearly establish that there are certain times of day that are better for you than others – and that some times of day are off-limits.
Get a Separate “Client Phone”
If you have a client who’s making lots of phone calls and is particularly intrusive on your time – but who is otherwise a good client and is worth keeping – you might want to consider getting a separate phone dedicated just to that client. It’s easy to add another mobile phone (with separate phone number) to your existing monthly plan, or even get a prepaid mobile phone that can be used only for talking to that particular client. If the interruptions are going to keep coming, you might as well have a special place to direct that client and keep the interruptions contained away from the rest of your life. This way you can give the client the attention they need, while being able to switch off the “client phone” now and then when you need some time away.
Managing client relationships is the secret to a successful professional services business, but it’s not just about making sales and getting people to want to hire you. Sometimes managing a successful business is also about knowing when and how to carve out space and time for yourself. But by showing your clients that you have boundaries, you’re indirectly showing them that your time is valuable, that you are a professional, and that you’re thoughtful and judicious in how you use your time and manage your mental energy. Setting boundaries is ultimately a good thing for your clients as well as for you, and the best clients – the ones you really want to keep for the long-term – will respect you for it.