I know it’s essential for me to maintain good relationships with my clients and ensure I give them my best work.
But, the better relationships I build with them, I find it’s easy to fall into the trap of giving the impression that they are the most important client on my list and that I’ll prioritize their deadlines and requests over anyone else’s.
This leads to them expecting faster communication, project delivery, and just general attention.
How would you change your communication with clients to remind them, from time to time, that they are not the only ones we’re working with and that it’s a two-way street, not an employer-employee relationship?
Dear Building Boundaries,
I was stoked to see this question—mostly because I spent so long trying to figure it out for myself.
That’s a lie.
I’m still figuring it out, if we’re being 100% honest.
In other words: you’re not alone in the ever-stressful tightrope walk between providing excellent client service and creating boundaries for yourself.
Yes, you want to give the impression to all of your clients that they are your most important client. No, you don’t want to bend over backwards just to keep clients happy if you’re facing unreasonable demands or pulling your hair out at 1am just to meet an arbitrary deadline.
What a pickle we freelancers have put ourselves in.
Over the last few years, I’ve decided to abide by a few rules of thumb that have helped mitigate misaligned expectations and made for more fruitful, partner-esque projects.
Set the right expectations upfront.
This is what contracts are for.
Yes, the contract should include the scope of work and the budget. But it shouldn’t stop there.
If you aren’t already, start including timeline, communication, and project management expectations in what you send over for them to sign on the dotted line.
These are some of the expectations I started including in my contracts back in 2019:
- Deliverable turnaround: Once you receive a brief or confirm a topic, how long do you need to turn around a draft? In my experience, two weeks is reasonable for both parties.
- Responsiveness: How fast can your clients expect a response from you? I’d leave out phrases like “will not respond to 1am text messages” but include something like “[client] can expect response to emails and Slack messages within 48 business hours.”
- Client responsibilities: This one is a big one, if you want to avoid situations where the client doesn’t give you what you need until the 21st but still expects a publish-ready draft by the end of the month. This one also took me a lot longer to come to terms with, but now we include a clause that puts the onus on our clients to keep their end of the bargain (via briefs, topics, or introductions) by the 10th of the month.
Don’t be afraid to communicate clearly and kindly.
It starts with the contract, but we all know it doesn’t end there.
Inevitably, some clients will ask for a three-day turnaround or get upset that you didn’t respond within three hours.
Ain’t nobody got time for that.
If you do find yourself needing to have a hard conversation: avoid the “I have other clients I’m working with” language altogether. It’s unnecessary and irrelevant. Instead, make it more about successful outcomes for the project and the healthy boundaries you need for your own workflow.
Turn the conversation around by advocating both for the project and for yourself.
For yourself, use phrases like:
- “As a heads up, I aim to respond within 48 hours.”
- “Can we discuss this on our recurring bi-weekly meeting?”
- “I can’t meet that timeline; what about [alternative]?”
I’ve rarely met a client who didn’t respect this level of clarity. If they didn’t, they weren’t a client for long.
If you really want to elevate the relationship, put your pushback in the context of advocating for the project with phrases like:
- “This level of content really needs at least ten days if we want to get it right.”
- “I know we confirmed the topic, but I could really use some more input from your end to get this right.”
- “I can prioritize [x], but it will likely mean delaying [y].”
It’s one thing to set reasonable timelines for yourself and for your clients. It’s another thing altogether to fall behind on updates, let Slack messages fall through the cracks, or sit on an unopened Google Doc for two weeks with the expectation that you can whip something up overnight.
Maybe it takes you five hours to write a draft—but it should take you 20 minutes to open a brief to ask questions or suggest adjustments well before the due date.
It makes a world of difference if you’re the one coming to your client, rather than the other way around.
Be okay with making exceptions.
Sometimes it is worth ignoring points one-through-four to keep a client happy and engaged. It could be your highest-paying client, your longest-standing client, or (let’s be real) your most interesting client.
It wouldn’t be fair to leave without telling you: I do make exceptions.
Not habitually, but when it makes sense. It could be turning around a draft in one week instead of three, as the need arises. It could be looking into a topic or reaching out to potential experts, even if that’s not (technically) in scope. It could be a faster response to something that truly seems urgent.
At the end of the day, you want to become integral to your clients’ workflow. Sometimes that means setting clear expectations; sometimes it means going above and beyond.
Clear as mud, right?