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Setting Boundaries

If you are a lawyer, consultant, or own your own business, I am almost certain you have run across clients that you love working with and others that are so overly demanding you want to rip your hair out. You find that some abuse the relationship by contacting you at all hours or continuously asking you to complete deliverables outside of the original agreement. When contracts are not properly defined and adhered to, this allows for behavior to take place that can cause you to resent the client or, even worse, yourself for not being able to stand up for yourself. For these reasons, it is so important to set boundaries early on in the professional relationship before the work begins. 

Define your boundaries

Every business is different. The type of business that you are running will dictate what type of boundaries need to be set, but there are a few general boundaries that can be defined and even potentially incorporated into the agreement with your client.  Let’s take a look:

  • Deliverables - As with every project or contract, both you and your client need to understand what is in the scope of work. This needs to be clear for both parties so the client feels the agreement is fulfilled and you don’t leave feeling abused and overworked, forced to complete deliverables that were not otherwise agreed upon. Once those are defined this needs to be put in written form (ideally signed by your client). 
  • Time - Let’s face it, you have a life outside of work. You don’t want to be answering phone calls or emails at 2:00 am. This is why it’s important to set a timeframe when you will make yourself available to respond to your client. If the contract is not deliverables based, meaning you are getting paid hourly and not by the job completed, then it is important to define various aspects of time and communicate it. Be specific: “I am available for 8 working hours each day, anything over 8 hours will be billed at $XX rate/hour.” or “I am available to my clients from 9 am - 6 pm.”. This can and should also be included in the signed written agreement.
  • Form of contact - Every person/business has their desired form of contact. For some, business clients should be reaching out via an app, for others it is phone/email/etc. I am also very specific about this point as well. “You can reach me via email from 8:00 am - 6:00 pm. If you send me an email during this timeframe I typically respond within XX hours/minutes. I take phone calls from 10am - 12pm every morning. I am usually sitting in meetings all day so if you have an urgent matter please send me a text message.”
  • Define urgent matters - I have found throughout my career that the term urgent is relative. For some, it means an entire manufacturing line is shut down. For others, it means their alarm clock didn’t go off and they will show up 30 minutes late. Your client needs to know what an urgent situation is defined as and how they can reach you in those instances. Depending on your industry you should have a good idea of what this definition means and be able to communicate this so that your client knows how to reach you (and only in those situations!). 

These are just a few examples of types of contractual line items that can be set, but other items can include: invoicing terms, forms of payment, how to handle disputes, etc. I always find it important to communicate these in both verbal and written form. People often forget what was said and, with any good working relationship, we need to be able to refer back to the written agreement.

Be tough on enforcement

From Day 1 we are training our clients on our behaviors. Do we answer all emails from the client within 5 minutes of receiving it? Do we pick up their phone calls at 9:00 pm as we are putting our children to bed (because we cannot miss the phone call!)? Or do we leave our work phone in our car the moment we pull into the driveway and only pick it up again once we hop in the car the following morning? Whatever the habit is, the client will get used to it very quickly.

Keep in mind that you are (most likely) not getting paid for extra deliverables or time, unless previously outlined in the agreement. If you decide to start at 5 o’clock in the morning and complete deliverables outside of the agreed upon scope of work, your clients are likely to expect this behavior. This could unintentionally set a precedent to extend your work day. Why? If you make a conscious decision to overstep the boundaries on your end, they won’t understand when you try to revert back to the contractual agreement. “But you picked up my phone call last week at 2 am!” or “On Monday you completed a similar deliverable and this was not in the original scope of work, so why can’t you just complete this small task?”. These are situations you need to try your best to avoid. This requires discipline on your part to adhere to the contract.

My advice to you: If you have an exception to your rule, starting early certain days or answering late, make sure that is communicated. For example, I have a prior obligation that will mean I am unavailable Thursday afternoons, but can be reached from 5:00 pm until 10:00 pm on that day. If you know in advance that you will be on vacation for a certain period of time, make sure that is communicated. If it is an extra deliverable that you are completing free of charge, make it clear that this was an exception and include what any further deliverables would cost.

Throughout your career you will start to learn who is most likely to abuse a client relationship. Many will do their best to avoid these clients. Whether you are working with an ideal or frustrating client, remember that you are defining contractual parameters to protect both parties and ensure a healthy working relationship. You are not going to lose a client by setting and enforcing boundaries, but you might if you piss them off by allowing them to walk all over you and trying to enforce said boundaries too late in the contract. Always be professional, one of the biggest steps you can take in that direction is to protect both parties by defining contractual boundaries in written form and being professional enough to enforce them.

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