Over the holiday weekend, I received an urgent email from a client asking about the status of a newsletter that needed to be sent out before the end of the month. The only problem was, I hadn’t gotten the original email. Thanks to autofill, she’d accidentally sent it to another Jake in her address book. My decision was easy: She’s a fantastic long-term client who’d made an honest mistake, so I took a break from repairing the deck and completed her job. This event coincided with several discussions I saw on Facebook with freelancers talking (and some complaining) about having to work over the holiday weekend, which brings me to today’s topic: setting freelance client boundaries.
I realize that more than a few freelance pundits recommend that you enforce strict business hours, only respond to email twice a day, or don’t do phone calls or face-to-face meetings. That may work for some, but I personally tend toward being proscriptive rather than prescriptive. The fact is, we all draw the line in slightly different places. You need to figure out what works best for you and, yes, for your clients. (For additional thoughts on client communications, see my recent Writers Worth Month post about the freelancer’s platinum rule.)
5 Keys to Freelance Client Boundaries
- Cultivate freelance clients who intuitively understand and work within your boundaries, rather than trying to cajole troublemakers into compliance with your system. Succeed on this front, and almost everything takes care of itself.
- Recognize that you are actively choosing what to do and when to do it. I am not advising that you should be working all the time, because that’s not the point—and you will burn out if you keep at it long enough. Trust me, I’m an outstanding hooky player if I’ve had a couple of long days in a row.
- Whether you have boundaries in your mind or on paper, know when you need to bend: Great clients deserve VIP treatment.
- If a client chronically abuses your boundaries, you need to take remedial action up to and including severing ties.
- If you violate your own boundaries—working on a weekend you promised to keep clear or bringing your laptop on vacation—don’t feel guilty or foolish. Anyone who would judge you or think that’s a sign of weakness has issues of their own.
I felt no guilt at all about working on a holiday weekend, just as I’ve never felt guilt about occasionally sending in projects while on vacation. Frankly, I think it’s pretty swingin’ that we live in an age when I can effortlessly submit a document from a different state, country, or continent. Above all, I can think of worse ways to kill time in an airport or airplane than paying for the trip.
Louise Harnby says
Well argued, Jake, especially the point about cultivating the right mindset at the outset. A long-term client of mine recently asked whether I would consider doing a piece of work in August, a month he knows I usually take as vacation because of the school holidays. He acknowledged the fact that it was a big ask and offered to pay me nearly double my usual fee to compensate for the inconvenience. I said yes. For me, a VIP client is one who brings respect rather than entitlement to the table. Is it all about the money? When it comes to being asked to work outside my clearly stated workday/week/month parameters, and cutting into family time, yes, I expect financial compensation 100% of the time, and, even then, I still might decline without guilt. But I’m much more likely to say yes if such compensation is offered, rather than my having to ask for it. However, I had different parameters when I was in the start-up phase of my business. Back then, I viewed compensation in terms of gaining experience, portfolio-building and testimonial-gathering, rather than extra cash. I stand by that decision because it worked for me at that stage of my freelance career, and it paid dividends later. It’s important not to get stuck into one way of doing things, though, and to make sure that the goal posts are reviewed and moved appropriately. As you said, we all draw the lines in different places, and we should be prepared to redraw our own when necessary.
Jake Poinier says
Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Louise, and love to hear stories about the gem clients who are out there and “get it.” Excellent point about how your goals and parameters may evolve over the course of your business—and that’s nothing to feel guilty about, either.
Richard Adin says
I agree with your article with one caveat: I am a major proponent of creating a standard editing day and week and educating clients about it. It is not that I do not ever work on holidays and weekends; rather, I want to firmly establish in my clients’ minds that I am a business. This is important in the relationship. Just like my plumber charges me more to come fix a leak on a holiday or a weekend, I, too, charge more when a client asks me — directly or indirectly — to work outside standard business hours. My experience is that it is easier for clients to understand the additional cost when they understand that I am a business with standard business hours.
Thirty years ago I did not have business hours that I communicated to clients. It was not unusual for a client to call me on Thursday, ask me to take on a project, and then tell me they needed it completed by Monday. They would often say “You are a freelancer who sets his own hours so you can take a couple of days off during the week instead.” They assumed I had no other clients or plans. Establishing business hours ends those kinds of beliefs about my business and establishes that I am not just a freelancer but a freelance business.
I invite you to read my article on the subject, “The Business of Editing: The Standard Editing Workday & Workweek” at https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2016/03/16/the-business-of-editing-the-standard-editing-workday-workweek/.
Jake Poinier says
I’m with you 100% on the importance of setting expectations and establishing yourself as a business in the minds of clients and prospects, Rich. I also agree that work outside normal business hours comes at a premium—with exceptions such as the one I cited in my intro. (I didn’t say so explicitly in the post, but a new or chronically emergent client would not have received the same VIP treatment.)
I haven’t been at the game quite as long as you, but don’t ever recall someone using my freelance status as a negotiating tool. That would take some serious chutzpah!
Thanks for commenting.
Jake, amen. I will step up and help if it’s a long-time client.
What I won’t do is make it a habit with every client. We all know which ones will push boundaries, take advantage, or come to expect it. Those are the clients who don’t get the accommodation because it would become a massive hassle.
I’ve worked weekends, though few. I have worked a holiday weekend, and it was under the same set of circumstances — the client needed something ASAP and she was typically not one to ask. Someone on her side had messed up. I jumped in, spent a few hours on a Saturday morning getting it done, and had the rest of the holiday weekend. It’s really not a massive deal if the project isn’t one of those 20-hour deep edits.
Jake Poinier says
We’re on the same page, as usual, Lori. You need to be savvy about how much to bend (if at all) on a case-by-case basis!