When working a 9-5, your boundaries are usually well-defined. You’re required to complete a specific set of tasks each day, and you report to your superiors with questions or concerns.
You fill out W4s, discuss salary or hourly wage during the hiring process, and sometimes even fork over your bank information so that your payment is automatically deposited. And staff meetings? Those generally happen at the office, on company time.
You see, the 9-5 life has its perks… we all know that. We know that the client of a large corporation isn’t likely to call an office worker at 11 pm on a Friday night demanding that a website color be changed from “midnight rose” to “mauve.” We all know that it’s easier to have someone above your head to make the difficult decisions, and that it’s easier and often less-stressful to know exactly how much you’re getting paid, and when.
When freelancers decide to kiss that life goodbye in exchange for freedom of schedule and creativity, they are forced to accept the responsibility of setting boundaries for themselves.
Setting boundaries can be tough to do if you’re just starting out (or tend to freak out when it comes to confrontation), but it’s more than important- it’s essential to your success as a freelancer.
Think of a boundary as a protective road barrier. You know, those cement or metal walls that line a mountain road or dam? These barriers are for your protection. These barriers are what will keep you from crashing and burning.
Hiring a freelancer can feel like hitting the jackpot. You’ve found a person who can meet your needs on their own time, without the confines of business hours keeping them from working on your projects, right?
Sure. We know that’s true, but we also know it’s only part of the story. We’ve walked the plank of the “business hours ship” because we want to spend more time with our families, climb mountains, or learn how to sing opera. We did not leave our traditional jobs to be at the beck and call of a few select people… but it’s up to us to make sure our clients understand that.
When you set boundaries during your onboarding process, think of the whats, whens, and how fasts.
form of communication do you prefer? Skype? Phone? Email? Communication is not the same across the board, so think about what works best for you. I, personally, would have an anxiety attack if all of my clients decided to call me on the phone with questions. I leave revisions, project questions, and suggestions for email, and choose to do brainstorming or new client inquiries over phone or video call.
are you most freely available? If a client has an emergency, what time of day is the best to contact you? When do you generally check and answer emails? Being clear on this topic will prevent communication frustration on both sides.
do you respond to emails or phone calls? Giving a new client the impression that you will always respond as quickly as possible will give them unrealistic expectations and will give you an ulcer or a constantly twitching left eye. It’s perfectly acceptable to say “While there’s a good chance I’ll respond to you sooner, I can’t guarantee it. You can always expect a reply within 24 hours.”
Feedback and Revisions
The creative process can get a little messy sometimes, and that means that open communication throughout a project will keep both you and your client on the same page. While this is a very good thing, it’s also something that will require you to set boundaries, yet again.
Feedback is good. You want feedback from clients so that your revision process doesn’t take 4,000 years… but feedback can get tedious if you aren’t setting boundaries. Give your client a time limit for feedback; you can’t work if you don’t know what they want. Evaluate the estimated timeline for the project and your overall workload. How long can you afford to wait for feedback on colors or writing tone? Once you’ve determined that, be sure your client understands how slow feedback equals slow results.
Once you’ve received feedback and turned in a first draft, you’ll enter the revision stage. How you decide to go about revisions is up to you, but you’ve got to communicate strict revision guidelines to your client. How many revisions are included in your estimate? If the client requests more revisions, what are you going to charge for that?
Meetings and Reports
It’s common for clients to request meetings midway through the project. Whether it’s a simple check-in or a full-on brainstorming session, the fact of the matter is that it’s taking up a chunk of your most precious resource: time.
Charge the client for meetings. Make sure the client knows what you charge for meetings.
Setting boundaries like this can seem a little harsh, especially when you’re starting out, I know… but trust me. Sitting down at night in your favorite chair with your favorite beverage and your favorite show seems relaxing… until you get an email notification from that one client who makes you miserable every time you ignore them. Setting boundaries can be the difference between making a mental note for the morning or lugging your disappointed butt out of your favorite chair so you can work during your downtime.
Another boundary to set is that of reporting. Some clients will expect a regular progress report on their projects, and that’s fine as long as it doesn’t interfere with your process. Discuss reports with the client (if they’ve requested them) and plainly lay out your terms as far as frequency. One of the perks of freelancing is getting rid of that boss over your shoulder; you don’t need to add a virtual boss back into your life.
We’ve all (hopefully) got a few fantastic clients. It is, of course, up to you to decide what kind of non-work relationship you have with them, but it should require some heavy thought on how you define your personal boundaries. If a client sends you a friend request on Facebook, think long and hard about how much you want them to know about your life, and vise versa. If your client is also a good friend, that’s not such a big deal… but if your client is the type to ask you why you’re relaxing at the pool with your family instead of working on their project, that’s a level of drama you don’t need in your freelance life.
Honesty is the best crash-and-burn avoidance policy.
You owe it to yourself to set boundaries and stick to them. By compromising your standards, you’ll compromise your ability to tend to your overall workload, and that’s a one-way ticket to Burnoutville. If you’ve got a long-time problem client, it’s okay to reevaluate your boundaries with them. As long as it doesn’t violate any previous contracts, you’ve got every right to negotiate boundaries that work for you, and ultimately, provide a better product for your client.