A big part of being a freelancer is being good with people. They say that you don’t know who the people you know know. That means you have to spend a big chunk of your time on the lookout, or at least on your best behavior.
When you’re introduced to a potential client by a friend or palleague (a colleague who’s also your pal), there’s automatically a kind of easiness in your relationship; there’s already something in common outside of the project.
This easiness, though, can quickly move your terms further over Friendship Street, and make it harder to get back to Objective Business Avenue.
An important lesson in client management—and one that lots of freelancers, or at least this girl, learn too late—is that your clients aren’t your buddies. They’re your clients. And the friendlier your relationship gets, the less likely it is that the project will go well.
Want an example? Sure. Meet Idan, a client working on a website in the gig economy space. He heard about me from a friend, and we started working together on a pretty standard, well-outlined project.
Within a few weeks, though, things started to get weird. Idan invited me to a meeting with one of Israel’s most well-known design studios, telling me he liked the way I thought and he’d be happy for me to contribute to the conversation. It sounded great to me; I love talking about design, and these were some of the best studios in Tel Aviv.
“This is Shayna, the company’s Creative Director.”
Uh, what? I was Shayna, a freelancer on a short project. I’m confused. What’s going on. This was a design studio I’d been eyeing to partner up with on my own, whose projects I’d love to work on, and now the CEO thought I was full-time with Idan.
When I threw a fit after the meeting, Idan made a very stupid, but very good, point: He didn’t know how to introduce me. I’d begun working on so many things outside of the project’s defined scope, and I was so available to all of his late night emails and calls, that he felt comfortable upgrading my role.
That conversation sucked, and had I defined my boundaries earlier, I never would have had to have it.
But at least that wasn’t having to define physical, or verbal, boundaries.
Read on for how to build your role for your clients, how to establish the rules of your relationship early on, and how to ward off illegal boundary crossings without looking like a jerk.
Let’s talk about boundaries, baby
What’s your value for the client?
As a freelancer, you have a certain skill set. But sometimes, clients look for more: someone who understands their business that they can vent to, or (over) share with.
In the negotiations stage, it’s up to you to assert your role and determine your rules. But that’s not enough.
Throughout the project, you’ll need to keep asserting yourself. Scope creep, when clients throw extra work into a project, is a great example of boundary crossing; when a client perceives you as someone who won’t say no, they’re not afraid to ask for more.
“Boundaries aren’t just about when clients can call; they’re what determine the nature of your relationship.”
For a long time, that was me. Idan, for example, had no problem texting me at all hours. He didn’t expect me to answer; he just used my Whatsapp as another version of the Notes app. And for two months, I let it slide.
One late Thursday night, though, enough was enough. In a dramatic move that resonated deeply with all of my peers, I turned off my read receipts and “last seen” options on Whatsapp.
On Sunday morning he asked why I didn’t answer on Thursday, and I told him from 8pm Thursday—10am Sunday, I’m not around.
I was super proud of myself. I was brave and smart! But no one likes surprises, including Idan, and while my choice was not just valid, but long overdue, it changed my value in the client’s eyes.
To get a client’s respect, we have to be clear about boundaries. Like the freelancers and studio owners whose status lines on Whatsapp are Whatsapp isn’t for work; from the first (attempted) message, the client knows Whatsapp isn’t their channel, and not to rely on Whatsapp for communication.
Ultimately, though, coming in late and putting a flag down on your self-respect moon is better than nothing. These boundaries are crucial to your long-term happiness and success, and they’re yours alone to determine.
Your three golden babies
If you, like until-pretty-recently Shayna, don’t even know what kind of boundaries you’re supposed to be putting up, these are my three must-protect recommendations:
1. Hours. Think about your off hours as a mini-vacation. As soon as 8pm hits, or whatever time you choose, your life is yours. Your phone doesn’t have to be answered—and really, probably shouldn’t be. Your end-of-day is your work cut off, and whatever blissful hours come next are yours to be enjoyed.
2. Scope. Make your project description, whether it’s a project outline or an hourly retainer, clear in your contract. Sign off on it. Then don’t stray. When clients try to add extra work to your project without any talk of extra pay, that’s called scope creep—and it’s a really garbage thing to do. This is your livelihood, kiddo. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you’re worth.
3. How you want to be talked to. I have a face that asks people to tell me their life story. It’s not something I chose to have, and it’s not something I want; it happened to me. This makes life double-hard when trying to set professional boundaries.
The easiest way to do this is to make professional talk a habit; when you feel the conversation going out of bounds, bring it back to business. If you don’t let the personal talk get started, your all-business message will come across quick.
But in the event that it doesn’t—read on for that.
Does your client play nice?
Beyond your work hours, you’ll need to be vocal about your work process. As soon as you’ve determined a project’s scope, sit down with your client to go over what assets you need, when you need them, and how to receive them. This seems obvious, but—I had a client named Daniel, and this concept baffled him completely.
Daniel owned a wedding planning agency, for which I ran Facebook and Instagram accounts. The deal was that every Monday Daniel would email me 10 event photos, and I’d write captions and upload them according to our schedule.
This never happened.
For three months, every Monday I’d send Daniel an email to ask where the photos were—and would receive, in turn, a barrage of photos on Whatsapp. Sometimes 10, sometimes 30. This wasn’t his channel! Why was he torturing me?
Every week I’d say, please Daniel, this is very inconvenient and annoying. And every week he’d promise better behavior. Finally, I told him starting the next Monday, I’d charge $5 for every photo sent to Whatsapp.
I made more money from those photos that month than I did from the project itself, and my client learned that emails mean emails. It’s an extreme situation, but it’s what helped me set boundaries with Daniel in a language that he understood.
Related: Dear client—We need to talk
You can’t be expected to do your best work without having a good partner. If your clients don’t play along and don’t help you work your best, then how are you supposed to give them great results?
Before starting a project, meet with your client and lay out what you expect: what you need from them and when, and why that’s relevant for the project’s success.
Once a client understands how your success will directly lead to their success, they’ll be more likely to play along and help you get your job done right.
Talk clean to me
The ickiest freelancer boundary-crossing issue is emotions.
You have to dig your clients. You’re a 3D human, and you have a soul in there somewhere. However, and this is a big however, Liking your clients makes life Very Complicated. And worse than that is when a client Likes you.
The most important part of setting boundaries is knowing when it’s not worth the effort. If you don’t feel good about someone, you don’t have to work with them! I promise. No matter how stressed you are for money, or how cool the project sounds, there are few work situations less comfortable than having to take someone’s hand off your leg.
If you’re concerned but it’s not code red, go for formal. Stick to phone calls and emails instead of texting; spend more time on video calls and less time in person. Stick to work topics and work talk, in the hopes that you’ll be able to set an implicit example without having to say anything out loud.
If you’re already working together and the client starts getting weird, whether by starting to ask more personal questions or text you more regularly or something that just feels not right, then it’s okay to be more up front.
Obviously, if you feel threatened at any point—bounce out of there fast. But if it’s maybe a misunderstanding, especially if you like the project, try having a conversation.
Tell your clients what you want
Have you ever thought someone was interested in you, when they just wanted to be buddies? And had no idea you felt some kind of way?
In case you haven’t—I have. It suuuuuucks. It’s the kind of humiliation that makes you question your place on this earth. So imagine, when you’re sitting your client down to tell them to pump the brakes, and to treat you more like a professional contact and less like a trusted confidante, that’s a little bit of what they’ll be feeling.
This conversation shouldn’t have to happen unless nothing else is working, but the relationship is worth saving. Be gentle but firm. This hopefully won’t be a breakup—just a change to the status quo.
The risk of having this conversation over the phone is twofold; first, you might catch them at a bad time (though for these conversations pretty much every time is a bad time), but you also don’t want this to leave a bad memory for the client. If you can manage to sit with your client for this talk, you can phase out the conversation into something more pleasant; on the phone, they can always “have a meeting” or some kind of reason to hang up, stat.
When it comes to the actual conversation, say it straight.
Hey, I know this is weird, but I want to redefine my work hours. Nights and weekends are my downtime, so after 8pm I’m off limits. That’s why I wanted to meet today at 4—isn’t this place great in the sunlight?
With all that being said, feel no need to be apologetic. These are your hours, and your boundaries, and it’s up to you to protect them.
The risks and the rewards
What’s a freelancer without clients? A pal with a laptop.
Setting these kinds of boundaries is unpleasant work, no doubt. It’s not just baseline awkward; it’s risky. Your clients might not like your new reduced availability, or your all-business-only approach.
But what’s a freelancer with garbage clients? An overworked, overstressed person with a laptop that they probably want to toss out the window.
Resentment isn’t a feeling that you can keep inside for long. When you start to hate your clients for intruding upon your space and not respecting boundaries that for you seem obvious, they’ll feel it too—but they probably won’t know why. And it won’t get them in line; it will just make working with you unpleasant.
The goal of defining your boundaries isn’t to keep clients in line; it’s to create a sustainable business wherein your clients respect your skills and time, and you’re able to work in peace.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of self-respect. Laying down the law shows that you take yourself seriously—and that’s the kind of attitude that will make your clients take you seriously too.