How To Set (And Sustain) Freelance Boundaries With Clients
Freelancing sounds like a dream, right?
You set your own work hours, you negotiate your own deadlines, and more often than not, freelance projects are a labor of love. People tend to freelance in fields that they’re passionate about, so these jobs are more fulfilling moneymakers. What a perfect setup!
However, even though you’re your own boss, it’s not smooth sailing all the time. Some issues are ones you can solve on your own, like lack of motivation, being stuck in a rut, needing to adjust your workload, etc. These are things you have control over.
But some issues are more complicated because there’s an unpredictable, free-floating radical in the mix: the client. Without clients, there is no freelance work. You could be the perfect freelancer: let’s say you never miss a deadline, they always love your final product, your pricing is fair, and you’re a great communicator.
Even with these great qualities and more, problems with clients can still crop up unexpectedly.
So how do you keep clients happy while also staying true to yourself and your work? How can you set and keep reasonable boundaries for all parties?
The freelancer-client relationship can be a tricky one to navigate sometimes, but we’ve got some tips for all stages of the process.
The first-impression stage is how you set the tone of the relationship for both you and the client. You’ve come into contact and verbally (or in an unofficial form of written communication) agreed to work together. It’s safe to assume that in most cases, your goals are the same: both parties are hoping to like the final product and to like each other, and possibly even work together long-term if everything goes well.
Entering a freelancer-client relationship also takes some trust on both sides. Neither of you wants to be taken advantage of, and the easiest way to make sure this doesn’t happen is to create a written agreement or contract outlining the work to be done, the timeline for the project, and the agreed-upon payment method, price, and deadline.
If it fits your project, you should also include in the agreement what will happen if your client sends the finished product back to you for edits. How many times can they send it back? How much will you charge for the extra work?
If your client doesn’t want to sign a written agreement, be wary. This agreement will help if you need to take legal action for whatever reason down the road (for both you and your client), and if they don’t want to sign it, then they may not be planning on holding up their end of the deal.
Lastly, this doesn’t necessarily need to go into the contract, but if it makes you more comfortable, you can put it there: your working hours.
Some of us don’t plan our days hour by hour, and we jump between projects frequently, especially if we’re working for more than one client at a time – so don’t promise specific time availability if you don’t have it.
But you can at least tell them (preferably in writing) when you aren’t reachable. For example, if you don’t check emails or take work calls between the hours of 8 pm and 8 am, if you don’t work on Sundays, etc.
This will put it all out in the open at the beginning so hopefully, your client won’t be frantically calling at 11 pm, pushing you for edits to be done by 8 am the next morning.
Just because you set your hours doesn’t mean you should be expected to drop other personal commitments and sacrifice your sleep and mental health to satisfy clients. Set your boundaries early, so it’s not a surprise if something comes up later. If they don’t like it, they can find a different freelancer.
The Middle of the Project
So, you’re doing the work you agreed to do. Hopefully, all this entails in regards to boundaries is enforcing the ones you’ve already set up at the beginning of the relationship. Still, unexpected things can happen.
Maybe you have a question or you need your client to send you more information or files – reach out and ask. If they don’t respond, keep asking and do as much as you can without it, so you’re not scrambling before the deadline.
If it’s essential, reach out again and let them know if they don’t send whatever it is by a certain date/time, you cannot continue without it. Always be clear and firm in your communication.
If you find that a client is demanding unrealistic deadlines or requests, let them know that the timeline isn’t realistic and the reasons why. You can also point back to the terms you agreed on.
If they continue pushing or start threatening, tell them you are working on projects for other clients as well and that you need more time and suggest another date. Make sure you have that signed copy of the written agreement if your client tries to pull something shady.
Don’t let your client push you. Don’t give in on your boundaries because if you do, they will push you to do the same thing in the future. Stay firm in what you agreed upon, as this will either earn you respect or your client will go find someone else (which is fine because you no longer have to deal with the stress of them disrespecting your boundaries).
The conclusion of the project
So you’re done with your work and you’re turning in the final product. Now what? Well, hopefully, it’s payday.
First, your client may decide to change something – which is okay as long as it’s within the parameters you set for extra work at the beginning of the project (if it’s not let them know and you can decide how to proceed). Once the final product of the project is agreed upon, you’ll send your invoice. Now all you have to do is wait.
Payment is the part where a lot of my clients try to get tricky. They either tell me that they want to pay less, or they conveniently forget to answer the reminder messages I send the day before the payment deadline.
When someone asks to pay less than the price we agreed upon, the answer is always no. If some catastrophic event happened and they want to pay in installments instead, that’s fine, but otherwise, I insist on having it all at the same time.
Some clients may ask for an extension. Depending on how long it is and how badly you need the money, that’s your call. If you do decide to extend their payment deadline, make sure you set a limit on the number of extensions they can ask for, or they will keep trying to do this until you eventually forget about it. I usually don’t give extensions (because they typically ask after they’re already late and therefore have created their own extension), and in special cases, I only give one.
Other clients will go completely silent when it’s time to pay. Instead of asking for an extension, they won’t say anything and hope you don’t notice. They won’t respond to your calls, messages, or emails until it’s convenient for them, if at all.
After the deadline has already passed, they may say “oh sorry, it’s been a busy week! I will have it done ASAP.” This isn’t ideal but it usually means they’re at least planning to pay you at some point. Tell them that’s fine but to be mindful of the deadline next time.
Maybe you put a late fee into the agreement you signed – if so, add that to the invoice. If it’s a long-term client, I usually set a “dealbreaker” limit. In my contracts, I put limits on how many late payments I will tolerate before I end our cooperation. For example, three consecutive late payments and our collaboration is suspended.
It’s stressful to be chasing people down for money all the time. You have better things to be doing, such as freelance work for better, more respectful clients. If they don’t like you enforcing the written agreement when it comes to the payment, speak to a lawyer if you can. As long as you can prove that you’ve upheld your end of the deal, you will be fine. Even just the mention of a lawyer will get some clients to pay up pretty fast.
Other than the payment, the end of the project should be smooth sailing as the work is done. Hopefully, you can even cultivate a long-term working relationship with the client or get them to leave you a review to help you land new jobs.
Got a tip to add that we didn’t mention? Let us know!