How to Set Professional Boundaries with Freelance Clients

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This post was originally for my column, “Freelance by Lauren,” on the now defunct DIY Writing: A Writer’s Bucket List.

Illustration by Ramiro Roman
Illustration by Ramiro Roman

Most of us know the importance and inherent value of personal boundaries. We know that it’s “weird” to lean in too closely or say inappropriate comments to strangers. Still, so many freelancers neglect to set boundaries for their business.

Most of us work online, where we don’t get the benefit of face-to-face interaction to gauge how a client reacts to conversation. While we may know better than to tell a client to his face that we missed work because of atomic diarrhea, via email, it’s all-too-easy to drift into TMI territory.

There’s no reason you can’t be friendly with clients, within reason. Setting professional boundaries with freelance clients is in the best interest of both parties – you’ll get the job done better, and they’ll maintain more respect for your work.

Try implementing some firm rules in the following areas:

Insist on a Contract

It’s a HUGE mistake not to start freelance work with a contract. A contract not only protects both parties – by ensuring you get paid and that your client gets the work they asked for – it also subtly defines your relationship from the get-go.

By mutually entering into a professional agreement, especially a legally binding one, you and your client have already drawn a line. You’ve stated exactly what to expect from working with each other; and have a signed document to make sure you follow through.

Be Clear about Project Scope

When the time comes to draw up your contract, make sure you and your client are on the same page. Before anyone puts pen to paper, make sure that you’re both clear on:

  • The timeframe. (When’s it due? Are there separate due dates for each draft? Is this an on-going project?)

  • The amount of work. (How many articles are you writing? How many words do they each need to be? Is there formatting involved?)

  • Your revision process. (How many edits do clients get before you have to charge them extra? Is there a time limit for when they can ask for revisions?)

  • How you’ll be paid. (How much will you be paid — and how? PayPal? Check? Something else?)

By getting everything crystal clear from the start, you’ll be showing your client that you’re not the type of freelancer who stands for lines like “since you’re already doing [blank] can you also do [blank]?” or “This is good, but can we add just one more [blank]?”

Know Your Don’ts

As freelance writers, we’re a naturally people-pleasing bunch. We strive to perform excellent work and pretty much live on praise (who needs water, oxygen, or food when you can get a glowing testimonial instead?). However, there are three “don’ts” you should keep in mind if you want to maintain a healthy professional relationship:

  1. Don’t give discounts. If you chose your clients well, you probably like them. But being on friendly terms doesn’t mean you should be wishy-washy on price. Set your rates and stick to them. Don’t let anyone take advantage of you; you can be kind without running a charity.

  2. Don’t say “yes” to everything. If a project isn’t right for you, you’re allowed to say “no.” This might be harder to remember if you’ve been consistently working for the same person for any length of time. But, even if multiple projects have been easy “yeses,” that doesn’t mean you have to say “yes” to everything. Know your limits, and honor them.

  3. Don’t rush…unless it’s extremely worth your while. When discussing deadlines with your client, make sure you give yourself a reasonable amount of time to complete your projects. Only take on rush jobs if they’re willing to pay a little extra (a “rush fee”) and, even then, don’t make rush jobs a habit. Why? Because your client will start to think of your “rush” speed as your normal speed – and soon you’ll be giving up your sleep, your social life, and your sanity trying to scramble to meet their demands.

You teach clients how to treat you. If you don’t value your time or services, they won’t either. By being overly available or accommodating, you not only decrease your overall productivity, you’ll begin to lose confidence in your abilities.

Be Professional. Always.

We live in a writing era where transparency is valued almost above all else. And that’s fine and dandy; however, even if you actively practice “transparency” in your writing, there are a few things you should keep from your clients.

My rule is this: Keep your personal life personal…until you absolutely can’t.

For example, last month I was having some serious health issues. Did I tell my clients about them? No. Because my health issues were my problem; not theirs. That is…until things got so bad that I was no longer able to work. As deadlines crept up, I decided to let my clients know what was going on. No specifics. Just enough to let them know I was struggling and would need an extension on my assignments.

I didn’t tell all of my clients about my health issues. Only the ones who needed to know. And I didn’t make it a pity party (despite how panicky and scared I was at the time). I made it about them, the work they expected, and what we could do together to make sure everything worked out for both parties.

And they were cool about it! Why? Because I’ve always kept my boundaries.

You aren’t “being mean” to clients by setting boundaries. On the contrary! By clearly defining exactly what to expect, you’ll be creating a calmer, more productive, trustworthy environment. And that’s a kind prospect for both of you.

Do you actively set boundaries with your clients? Or do you struggle to draw the line? Let us know in the comments!

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