Boss Up or Burnout: How to set Professional Boundaries with Clients

It’s Saturday night, and the clock just struck 9 pm. You’re finally ready to put your laptop away and “go play with other kids”. Your phone flickers and you see it’s your new client, requesting changes (read: changing the brief) and asking for a revert by midnight. You’re tired, you’ve eaten little except a wilting slice of cold pizza, and you’re ready to tell them to shove it. But you don’t, because you have to pay rent. After all, this is what it means to be a freelancer right? Wrong.

In his now cult-classic book Essentialism, author Greg McKeown is clear. Either you set priorities or other people set them for you. Tech Guru Marissa Mayer shares the same sentiment, sharing the shocking 130-hour work weeks that were commonplace in Google’s formative years – a heavy price to pay for the company to succeed. While most of us in the freelance game understand that principles don’t pay the rent, there are better and healthier ways of working as a freelancer, and fundamentally they require a shift in the minds of creatives to get clients on board. Here’s a guide to some key boundaries you need to have in place when working as a freelancer, and tips on how to communicate them to your more sticky clients.

Go on a first date.

No, not like that. Your first engagement with a new freelance client can tell you a lot about them. Do they spend the duration of your meeting fidgeting with their phone, complaining and trashing their previous contractors? While these may not be dealbreakers (we’re all a little uptight), they do give you signs as to what kind of client you’ll be dealing with. Take the opportunity to ask them about their career journey, their work schedule and if appropriate, what they do outside the office. All of these initial questions will signal either a magical alignment or a fundamental misalignment of values, expectations and work ethic. If you’re a Type A personality who enjoys clear deadlines, regular-check ins, then a more ‘uptight’ client will be a good match, but if your craft requires space, quiet and a text-free Saturday night, then perhaps you’re not ideally suited. Either way, like a first date, state your intentions upfront. 

Sign, seal, deliver.

Much of the frustration creative freelancers experience can come down to simple misunderstandings. Similarly, it can occur if your client expects a champagne fountain output on a beer pong budget. Insist that you receive a written brief at the start of the job, which states the objectives, the key deliverables, the resources the client will provide and of course, the deadlines. This needn’t be overly formal – even an email will do, as long as there is a record of the stated expectations.

This allows you as the freelancer to cost more accurately, ask for any additional information and resources before you start, and figure out whether you can (and want to) deliver. There is often some resistance to this at first, and it’s important to explain to your clients that the intention is not to cage them in, but rather to ensure everyone is on the same page. If your client cannot write a brief (maybe you don’t either), reach out to a friend at an advertising agency, or corporate feild for advice on how to structure your own, which new clients can simply fill out and send back. Whatever ends up in the final brief must be agreed to, in writing, by both parties – this includes payment.

Make sure your bag is secure.

Oh money, always the elephant in the room. While there are a hundred strategies on how to negotiate your best rate, how to ensure you’re not scammed, or how to increase your rates with a retainer client, the most important element to understand are payment terms. Often you spend gruelling hours on a job, forking out money to rent studios, fix equipment, bring in an assistant, only to find that the client only intends to pay you in 30, 60 or even 90 days. Ensure that before you start working, you have a clear sense of the payment terms – and if necessary, make the deposit a non-negotiable part of your business dealings. In addition to this, find out how to craft and issue a letter of demand. These are nasty pieces of work, which everyone would rather avoid, but sometimes it will become necessary to invoke the law – make sure you know-how to.

You used to call me on my cellphone (please don’t!)

Considering the flexible and often tech-driven nature of freelance work, communication can be tricky. As a general rule, I try to avoid having work-related conversations on WhatsApp. It distracts me from the work I have in front of me, the cumulative hours of endless (mostly unnecessary) texting are never paid for, and it opens doors I’m not interested in opening. While you may feel differently, the communication procedure must be part of your formalised discussions. Maybe your boundary is that you will not respond to work-related texts after hours, maybe you will only engage on email, maybe you’re happy to text but will not have contact with clients on weekends. Depending on the nature of your work, your propensity for distraction, and the relationship with the client – everyone’s approach will not be the same. As a general rule, I use the old-school landline rule we had in my house – you don’t call (or text) anyone after 7:30 PM. Rather use that time to unwind, practise self-care and regenerate those creative juices.

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