While I’ll be the first to tell you that running a business well requires plenty of strategic planning, there’s one thing I think we all need to talk about a whole lot more — how to set boundaries with clients.
We often relate the idea of setting boundaries with people in our personal lives, but learning how to set boundaries with clients or customers (and stick to them!) can literally end up making or breaking us.
Not having strong boundaries with clients or customers can leave us feeling like we’re swimming upstream. We’re constantly shifting gears, putting out fires, and managing expectations which can leave us feeling exhausted. Most of us started a business because we wanted a level of freedom or flexibility, and for that to happen, we need things to run smoothly.
Understanding how to set boundaries with clients can help make that a reality, and establishing clear boundaries can actually create more freedom in your business.
Before we get into this, I want to dispel any ideas you may have that having strong boundaries with clients is all about saying no. Learning how to say no is only a small part of setting and holding your boundaries.
What we’re going to focus on here is setting boundaries with your clients by addressing different areas of your business, some of which you may not have ever considered as part of building boundaries.
Let’s take a look at the 5 Cs of setting boundaries with clients.
When thinking about the best way to communicate with my clients or team, I like to follow the adage, “to be clear is to be kind”.
We know that good communication is a cornerstone of any great relationship, and great relationships are built on trust. That’s why when it comes to learning to set boundaries with clients, communication is always the best place to start.
Choose Your Communication Channels
Think about how, when, and where you communicate with your clients or customers and your team.
Do you have a consistent location where all communication happens? It could be a project management system, a Slack channel, or anywhere else that works for you and the team.
The key here is consistency. If you tell your clients and team that all communication goes through one channel but then talk to them in a PM system AND email AND instant messaging, everyone will likely carry on with multi-channel communication.
Having one spot for all communication also makes things far easier for everyone to reference previous conversations. Plus, when everyone and everything is in the same place, it’s easy to go back and reference what was said, what was promised, and what was agreed to.
Set Limits on Communication Times
Next, think about when you communicate. Do you answer client messages at all hours of the day? Do you answer on the weekends or when you’re on vacation? If so, you’re training the people around you that you’re always available — which is completely unrealistic!
From the beginning of the relationship, clear boundaries need to be set about expected response times from both you and your team.
Keep in mind that this goes both ways. If you’re working on a project that requires clients to review or approve different steps, what’s the timeline for that? Do you need a response within a certain amount of days to keep the project on schedule? If so, that needs to be communicated clearly to your clients and team.
Know Your Deal Breakers
You’ll also want to establish if you have any communication dealbreakers. Communication dealbreakers could include clients who:
- Disrespect you or your team.
- Refuse to stick with your preferred communications methods.
- Require quick turnaround responses.
- Demand a response when you’re unavailable.
- Won’t use your project management system.
Who’s Talking to Who?
Finally, within your own team, you’ll need to establish who is responsible for communicating what with clients.
Clients sometimes expect to only talk to you — the business owner — but if you work with a team, that’s probably not a realistic way to do things. If you set boundaries with your clients about who handles what on your team right at the beginning, you can avoid the friction of them being unhappy they aren’t only working with you.
From my years of experience, SO MUCH angst can be avoided with clients by having clear boundaries about communication. When everyone is on the same page about what to expect, you’re setting everyone up for success.
#2. Clients (Or Anyone Who Pays You!)
One of the greatest kindness you can do for your clients or customers is to set firm boundaries in your business. This applies to whether you deliver products or services, or you work 1:1 or in groups. Whatever way your business is set up, knowing how to set boundaries is your business matter — a lot!
Just because someone is a paying client doesn’t mean they own alllllll of your time. You have other clients, a team, and a life that needs your time and attention — but sometimes we can get stuck in the trap of thinking that a paying client means we need to deliver what they want right this minute.
However, if you set boundaries with clients from day one, you’ll likely save everyone some time (and potential frustration) later on.
Set the Precedent From Day One
One of the best things you can do for everyone is to set boundaries with clients when they are onboarded. By letting them know what to expect for everything from turnaround time on deliverables to response time to emails, you’re setting the tone for how your relationship will function.
You may even want to consider spelling out your boundaries with clients in their proposal so they understand how you work together before they commit.
Work With Your Ideal Clients
Now, think about who you work with. Does everyone in your client roster reflect your avatar for your ideal client?
There’s a reason you’ve identified what your ideal clients look like, and when we make exceptions, it can be a slippery slope. The reality is that you can’t predict pitfalls when you’re doing things you don’t usually do, making it that much harder to set boundaries with clients.
Remember: just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to!
Consider how your business would be impacted by saying no to:
- Clients who are less-than-ideal and suck up too much of your time.
- Clients who don’t want to follow your processes.
- Potential clients you know aren’t a good fit.
- Projects you aren’t interested in or excited about.
So much stress and frustration can be avoided by sticking within a specific target market or type of project, versus taking every client who comes your way.
How Do You Work With Clients?
Next, think about how you work with your clients. One of the things I’ve learned over my years of business is that having clear guidelines around your deadlines and deliverables makes things much easier for clients.
When they know what to expect and when to expect it, there’s likely to be less drama.
If you don’t already have a deliverable and deadlines list, that’s a great place to start. Identify what deliverables you do for clients and what the normal turnaround times are for each.
Your turnaround timelines aren’t just about how the execution time needed to complete the task — they also need to include how long it takes for the deliverables to get from beginning to end.
Consider the following:
- How much lead time you need from clients to complete different tasks.
- How many layers of approval will be needed for each step?
- How much client input may be required throughout the process?
All these things will impact your turnaround time, and by mapping this out ahead of time, you can clearly set boundaries with clients and manage their expectations.
Part of the process of building your deliverables and deadlines list needs to include identifying who does what. If someone on your team will be the main point of contact, you can let your client know that.
Finally, when it comes to your clients, there WILL be times when you decide to make an exception. And that’s totally okay!
Sometimes we need to be flexible. However, if you’re committed to working on figuring out how to set boundaries with clients, it’s always good to spend a little time thinking about what your boundaries will be if a client repeatedly disrespects those boundaries.
Sorting out your money can sometimes be fraught with anxiety or stress. But having a defined money management system for handling cash flow can make things much easier.
Watch for Scope Creep
One of the most insidious business owners can face is scope creep. You know the drill — you started out doing A, being paid to do A, and the next thing you know, you’re now doing A, B, and C, and not getting paid accordingly.
Part of having to set boundaries with clients is managing scope creep effectively. Scope creep can show up in various ways: not billing for all of your time, not charging for overages on hours, and providing extra services at no cost.
All of these things add up to you actually losing money because these things DO have a cost, and you’re the one absorbing it.
Having processes in place — like tracking time on client work — can help you identify scope creep more quickly, allowing you to correct course and reset boundaries with your clients.
Nail Down Your Pricing
As an entrepreneur, you’ve probably heard the advice to charge what you’re worth. And while that advice is usually shared with good intentions, it doesn’t actually tell the whole story.
Why?Because charging what you’re “worth” will probably end up with you pricing yourself right out of the market.
Every industry has an invisible cap on what people would be willing to pay. When you choose to disregard what the common pricing range is for the industry, you’re likely going to find yourself stressed out and scrambling to find clients.
Understanding what the market will bear isn’t you imposing limits on yourself. It’s you being realistic about what you can charge and strategically working within those ranges.
In terms of clients, if you were to charge a higher-than-average rate, you can expect that expectations will be immensely high, and as a result, keeping boundaries in check may be a real challenge.
Provide Clear Payment Terms
When it comes to getting payment from clients, the goal is to make it as easy and smooth as possible to pay you. The payment terms need to be crystal clear from the start of the relationship so everyone is on the same page about how much and when.
Like so many other things in business, there will be times when being flexible is the right call. However, that doesn’t mean you need to be a doormat. There’s nothing wrong with being willing to work with a client regarding payment terms, but we don’t want it to be to your detriment.
In my business, I prefer to be paid upfront, but not everyone is comfortable with that. And again, that’s fine! But for me, I generally choose not to work with people who aren’t willing to prepay for hours upfront.
When it comes to using payment plans, these often take more time for the team and have additional fees associated, so adding a small surcharge for the client is reasonable. (Note: I said small. Charging 20 or 30% more because someone is using a payment plan penalizes them, and this is NOT a practice you want to be engaging in.)
The bottom line about your boundaries for payment terms is that you can do whatever makes the most sense for you and your business. But keep in mind that requiring steady cash flow is a reality of running a business, and don’t let anyone take advantage of you.
Compensate Your Team Appropriately
Team compensation is often a really hot topic when I speak with people in just about any industry, and my stance is always firm:
Pay people appropriately for their skills.
Sometimes businesses will try and save some dollars when it comes to paying their teams, but this isn’t the place to cheap out.
Hiring overseas employees can seem appealing in terms of saving some money, but I can tell you from firsthand experience that while it may be cheaper in dollars and cents, the actual cost to your business is much higher.
Your team isn’t the place to cut corners in your business because you get what you pay for. When you hire the wrong person for the wrong role or underpay and overdemand, you can quickly end up overwhelmed and not any further ahead.
When you have a team that interacts with clients, you’ll likely expect that they participate in holding your boundaries — which is a tall order for people who aren’t getting paid well.
As for finding the right person for the right role, a word of caution. Avoid trying to fit one person into multiple diverse roles. A VA isn’t a solution for everything, and by trying to put someone in a jack-of-all-trades role versus something tailored to their primary skill set you’re setting everyone up for failure.
If you know you can pay appropriately but are worried about hiring the wrong person, you can find out more about which hiring mistakes to avoid right here.
Accept the Reality of Business Costs
I’ll keep this point short and sweet: Running a business costs money.
There’s no way around it. So it’s in your own best interest to accept that things like merchant fees and paid tools are necessary expenses.
Obsessing about spending money on certain things is a waste of time, as certain things are non-negotiables.
However, that doesn’t mean you want to spend money on the business needlessly. With every paid tool you choose, consider what the return on investment will be and whether it’s actually worth the cost.
Don’t worry about what everyone else is spending their money on, just worry about what you need to run your business effectively.
You Need a Paycheque, Too
As an OBM, the clients I work with often include me in conversations about their cash flow and budgets. One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen over the years is taking an “I’ll pay myself when I can” approach to their paycheck.
Here’s the thing. Your business isn’t a charity and you NEED to pay yourself regularly. Not drawing a salary isn’t sustainable for the long term.
Although you may have times when the business has less capital, on the whole, your business needs to be able to afford to pay you a reasonable salary based on your skill level and expertise.
Another important note regarding your pay is that you must treat your business as a separate entity from your personal finances. For a successful set up, we don’t want any mingling of funds where the lines between personal expenses and business expenses can get blurry. (Trust me when I say your lawyer and accountant will thank you for this one later!)
When you run a business, it can be all too easy to slip into the role of the person who does all the things for all the people. But we all know that isn’t realistic or sustainable.
Both you and your team only have the capacity for so much. Do you know what those limits are?
The reason capacity is so important when it comes to learning how to set boundaries with clients is that we need to have a realistic view of what everyone can accomplish in any given week or month. That’s how we can deliver on our promises AND ensure we don’t overextend ourselves.
When we’re all trying to do too much, everyone suffers. Whether it’s dropping the ball on an important piece of a project, producing lower-quality work because we’re strapped for time, or not being able to complete internal tasks, capacity issues can show up all over our business.
Sort Out Your Schedule
Let’s start with our schedules. Having scheduling boundaries is critical for those of us who run service-based businesses. Client calls and meetings are often a big part of what we do daily, and if our schedule is a mess, that’s not good for anyone.
By having boundaries with our schedules, we have a greater capacity to serve our clients. When I counsel business owners on taking control of their schedule, we focus on three main steps.
#1. Define your work hours. What times of day are you most productive? What days of the week do you have set appointments? What life stuff (like picking kids up from school) do you need to include in your schedule?
#2. Figure out your daily limits. How many calls can you reasonably make in one day? How much time do you need in between calls? How much time do you need daily for other tasks related to managing your team or operations? Is there anything you can delegate? Are there certain days that work better for you to do client appointments?
#3. Decide on your deal breakers. Sometimes we have to be flexible, so what are you willing to bend on? Let’s say you have designated Mondays and Fridays as days you don’t do calls. Are you open to taking a call on those days if a client has an emergency? Or if your workday ends at 6 pm, would you be willing to bend and schedule a call a little later for a client in a different time zone?
Once you’ve figured out what you want your schedule to look like, block out your calendar.
Get Real About Your Workload
A common challenge I have to help business owners work through is the simple fact they are doing too much. And not only are they doing too much, but they’re also often spending time on tasks that could be delegated to someone else.
The first thing you’ll need to ask yourself is, “do I know where all my time is going?”.
When asking this question, I’m not just talking about what you think. This isn’t a guesstimate situation — you need some real data.
Time tracking isn’t a task many people would say they love, but it can be incredibly useful and illuminating when it comes to figuring out where your time goes each day.
You’re busy, and there are likely projects or clients where time gets away from you (see above re: scope creep). On top of that, there are also very likely tasks that could be delegated to your team.
Once you know where your time is going, you can much more easily make some shifts to create better capacity for yourself.
An exercise I like to do with my clients is to go through the $10, $100, $1000 task matrix to help them start prioritizing. The purpose of this is to identify what can be handed off and what can be kept.
As the leader of your business, it can be all too easy to put off necessary tasks that actually help drive the business forward. But by learning how to delegate strategically, based on the “value” of the tasks that need to be completed, you can expand your capacity for higher-value tasks while ensuring the other tasks are still handled.
Leverage Your Team
Our team is often one of the biggest costs we incur when running a business, so optimizing the capacity of your team matters.
As a leader, you need to know what your team’s up to.
Do you know how much work everyone currently has on their plate? Do you know how much space or time they have to take on additional work? Is there any wiggle room built into their schedule? Are they spending all their time on client work or internal work?
Most importantly, is everyone spending their time on the right tasks? Two things to consider:
- Do you have any specialists spending time on basic admin tasks?
- Is anyone on the team not contributing proportionately to what you pay them?
Setting boundaries with clients can be really tough when your team isn’t functioning the way you need them to. How can you expect a client to adhere to boundaries when your team struggles to do the same?
For example, if you have a team member over capacity and missing deadlines, this can damage your client relationship and erode the trust you’ve built.
Over the years, I’ve heard from more than one person that they find it tough to set boundaries with clients.
This often boils down to a lack of confidence in our actions. We worry whether we’re being reasonable and professional, or if our clients will see our boundaries as too rigid.
Like anything else, enforcing boundaries takes practice! The more you do it, the more confident you will feel.
From my experiences setting boundaries with my clients, I can tell you that you may be pleasantly surprised at how people react. You chose to work with your client for a reason, so I find assuming positive intent when going into a discussion where you need to lay down a boundary is always a good approach.
The fact is, the boundaries you build up are based on what works for you and your business. If someone can’t respect those boundaries, they aren’t a fit.
When each of the other Cs — communication, clients, cash and capacity — are solid, you have the confidence to run your business with ease.
You Don’t Need to Set Boundaries with Clients All at Once
If the idea of trying to set boundaries with clients feels overwhelming, that’s okay!
Like anything else, you can start small.
Think about your past and current clients. What sort of boundary issues have popped up before? What issues have come up more than once? And most importantly, what boundary issues cause you or your team the most friction?
Once you’ve identified those, you can devise a plan to implement some boundaries.
From there, choose one of the Cs and make the necessary changes to set boundaries with clients. Once things are settled and running well with your changes, move on to the next C.
Setting boundaries takes thought and work, but with a plan, you can do it. You just have to take that first step.
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