Setting boundaries with your clients.
This week Frankie Tortora and Steve Folland have a chat in response to a question from Christmas elf Perky Chocolate Plum, AKA Anonymous. They say:
“I don’t know if this is a consequence of being both employed and self-employed for many years, but I find myself being “led” by my clients. I struggle to say no or to set boundaries with them as I don’t feel like I control the relationship. This leads to me working every night/weekend and feeling exhausted and frustrated. What can I do to change this?”
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Take note dear listener! We might swear a bit. This one’s for the parents. To be enjoyed at your desk or once the kiddos are in bed.
Here’s what was said in this episode:
Comments on the previous episode:
[00:01:59] – Frankie
Hello, you’re listening to the Doing It For The Kids podcast where we swear a bit too much and talk a bit too fast about freelance life with kids in the mix. I’m Frankie and this is Steve.
[00:02:08] – Steve
Hello! Yes, each week we take a question from the Doing It For The Kids community, do our best to answer it but we start each episode by looking back at the last episode. Last time we were talking about…
[00:02:19] – Frankie
Must haves, nice to haves and things you really don’t need when starting up as a freelancer.
[00:02:23] – Steve
Penny Brazier got in touch.
“Other freelancers are essential. I couldn’t have survived my first few months without the help of a few key people. I am continually surprised by how generous people are with their time and knowledge. There are so many good folk out there who want to help!”
[00:02:40] – Frankie
Helen Diplock says:
“Must haves: people who believe in you and who you can bounce ideas around with. They don’t need to be in your business, they just need to be your people. Things you don’t need: every shiny course, by every influencer going. Say no to the shiny sh*t! Especially if it costs lots of money.”
[00:03:00] – Steve
I might rename my course “the shiny sh*t.”
[00:03:03] – Frankie
Yes, do it.
[00:03:05] – Steve
Lillian Caller says:
“Definitely make sure you have a sense of perspective about how much you can actually fit into the week. Saying yes to too many things makes for a very tired working parent. Also, I don’t yet have a website, so it’s not essential to start off with, although it would have had its uses.”
[00:03:22] – Frankie
See, it’s still a grey area! Still up for debate.
Nicola Moss says:
“I’ve been freelance for over five years and I’ve never had a website. As most of my work comes from recommendations. I would say — don’t wait to have a perfect website up and running in order to get started. Get a couple of clients under your belt, then use what you’ve learnt to put a website together.”
[00:03:42] – Steve
And Dee Primett says:
“Must haves: a contract template, systems in place, a community of like minded people. Biscuits.”
[00:03:51] – Frankie
We forgot biscuits!
[00:03:53] – Steve
We are such amateurs. Biscuits.
I do like that bit about the course, though. Just going back to Helen’s point. There is literally a course for everything. Maybe just do the thing and then when you find that there’s a knowledge gap, then go and find how to fill it. And if you’re somebody who likes doing courses — brilliant, there’ll be a course for it! But the key with courses is then to take action on what you actually do. Otherwise you can feel like you’re taking action just by doing the courses, when actually it’s the work you do after the course that actually makes a difference.
[00:04:26] – Frankie
Just watch yourself. Is it a delaying tactic? Is doing another course a means to put off the thing that actually you’re afraid of doing or scared about doing?
[00:04:35] – Steve
And I’m not just saying that as somebody who’s just launched a course about how to get started being freelance, or as it’s now known — the shiny sh*t course.
Our answer to this week's question:
[00:06:58] – Steve
This week’s question is from an anonymous person. Now, we haven’t had an anonymous question for a while. Instead of a detective name that we normally go for, it’s Christmas so I thought we’d go for elf names…?
[00:07:09] – Frankie
Nice. Sure, why not?
[00:07:11] – Steve
So, Buddy Ribbon Cake? Perky Chocolate Plum?
[00:07:16] – Frankie
Oh my God. Surely.
[00:07:17] – Steve
Mistletoe Gift Cheer? Shimmer Hot Knight?
[00:07:22] – Frankie
[00:07:22] – Steve
Sure, I saw her in a movie once.
Tiny Goody Sledge? Noel Chimney Laugh?
[00:07:29] – Frankie
No. Perky… Perky… What was it?
[00:07:32] – Steve
Perky Chocolate Plum?
[00:07:33] – Frankie
Perky Chocolate Plum. Yeah, I just like the word perky. Quite enjoy it.
[00:07:38] – Steve
Well, that’s good because this week’s question for episode 58 comes from Perky Chocolate Plum.
“I don’t know if this is a consequence of being both employed and self-employed for many years, but I find myself being led by clients. I struggle to say no or to set boundaries with them as I don’t feel in control of the relationship. This leads to me working every night/weekend and feeling exhausted and frustrated. What can I do to change this?
Thanks. Yours, Perky.”
[00:08:11] – Frankie
Okay. I feel like the first rule…
Oh, no! Steve’s just showing me his notes of preparation. Last week we had columns. Did you colour code this week?
[00:08:22] – Steve
I went with a mind map.
[00:08:24] – Frankie
Mind map. Nice.
I was going to say… first rule of being freelance and having children is boundaries. You have considerably less time and energy than somebody who is freelancing without the family shit. So the first rule of freelance parenting is many types of boundary. And one of those boundaries is 100% with your clients. You can’t be taken for a ride, you do not have the time or the headspace to be dealing with that shit. You really don’t. So I guess my first point is like… it’s okay to push back on this stuff. It’s a self preservation thing and is very much a necessity for us Doing It For The Kids lot.
[00:09:06] – Steve
So how do we do it? Obviously it’s easier to set boundaries with a new client than one that you know. It’s like any relationship, isn’t it? It’s easier to set new rules with somebody you’ve just met rather than somebody you’ve been with for years.
For example, your office hours.
[00:09:24] – Frankie
[00:09:25] – Steve
Even if you choose to work beyond them into an evening and weekend. And just to say by the way, it sounds like you don’t want to be working every evening/weekend. Working evenings and weekends isn’t always a failure, sometimes it’s a choice that we make as freelance parents so that we have more flexibility during the day when our kids are around. Yada, yada, yada… So don’t go feeling bad about it. It doesn’t mean that you’re always failing, but it sounds like you want to change that?
So yeah. What are your office hours? Decide on that and then knock a bit off. So for example, don’t think that you’re available 9am till 3pm while your kids are in school. Really maybe you’re available from 10am until 2:30pm. Those office hours can be communicated in your initial proposal or terms and conditions, certainly in your email signature. I don’t have this in my email signature, but when I email freelancers and I get an automated email back and it says when I can expect a reply, I don’t ever go, “Why are they never available?” Actually, I like the fact that I know when they will be available
[00:10:26] – Frankie
And I think it depends a lot on what other freelancers and small businesses those clients work with because they might have become accustomed to other people’s ways of working. Because a lot of freelancers are available in the evenings and you don’t want your schedule to be defined by somebody else’s, in that… Maybe the client has come to expect you to work evenings through working with somebody else who does. That has nothing to do with you. So you need to be clear on it and give them lots of opportunities to know when you are and aren’t available.
[00:10:51] – Steve
Then you need to stick to it.
[00:10:53] – Frankie
[00:10:54] – Steve
Because the fact is you might see their email out of those times, but you mustn’t hit reply. Or you need to have one of those email tools that allows you to reply but it will send it further down the line so that, you know, yes you were checking your email on a Sunday but they’ll get the email first thing Monday morning.
I think as well, when we’re talking about setting expectations early on, you also need to set expectations about how you like to be communicated with. Again, when you first start on a project, it might be that the best way to get hold of me is by email at this time. I, for example, never have my phone number on any of my communication because I don’t want people to phone me! Like if you put your phone number out there, you’re going to expect some people to phone you. So I only ever give it if I really need to.
So yeah, how you like to communicate is key and really make that your own. Because otherwise you can end up in a situation where a client might contact you via Instagram messaging or WhatsApp, or Facebook Messenger, and it becomes a nightmare to deal with because messages are all over the place. But also, there’s no way of cutting that off. It’s quite easy not to look at your email at a certain time, but like if you’re enjoying looking at Instagram and yet the messages are still coming in from clients… ugh.
[00:12:11] – Frankie
Oh totally agree, again you want a process for that. So a lot of people get work through Instagram, for example, and it’s fine to have that initial conversation through DM, “are you available or interested in this project?” Blah blah blah. But you want to shut that down. You want to be like, “here’s my email address, send me more stuff to my inbox, please”. Even if you try and introduce boundaries like within your Instagram inbox as a user — we just don’t see them.
Instagram is instant. Literally, it is there all hours of all days. And WhatsApp it’s one of those things where they can see if you’ve read the message and if you’ve read the message, they’re therefore expecting you to get back to them immediately kind of thing. You don’t want to be dealing with that. By all means, get inquiries through those platforms, but signpost them somewhere else where you can deal with it on your own terms.
[00:12:58] – Steve
Also in setting expectations — set expectations around your turnaround time. When can they expect the work? When can they expect to hear back from you? And so on and so forth. And that’s slightly different from a deadline. If they think that if they can give something to you that you will always turn it around by the end of the day or whatever, then they’re only ever going to give you things at the last minute. Or if you get given something on Monday and in your head you’re planning on turning it around by Friday, in their head they have heard nothing. So by Wednesday they’re going to email you and say, “err have you got that thing?”
So yeah, just communicate, “oh, thanks for the brief, I’ll get that to you by Friday”. Be clear about when to expect it.
[00:13:39] – Frankie
And a bit like the what hours you work and cutting that down by an hour. Always extend your expectations of when you’re going to turn stuff around slightly to buy yourself some slack!
[00:13:50] – Steve
When a client comes to you with a project, you talk about being led by them and not feeling in control. I would throw some questions back at them, one of which should be like, “is this a real deadline? How crucial is that deadline you said?” Because sometimes clients will just set a deadline for the sake of it, which is fine, because it means that there’s an end in sight, but doesn’t mean it has to be your deadline, it doesn’t mean that it’s a deadline that they really need to match. So if you know you’ve already got a lot of work on your plate — can that deadline be pushed back?
[00:14:20] – Frankie
So I think the point Perky makes about mixing self-employed and employed is an interesting one because I guess traditionally — or one would assume in an employed job — you are more likely to just do what your employer tells you to do. Within reason, obviously. And I guess with being self-employed, we expect more autonomy in our relationships. But I would argue, I’m sure I’ve said this in previous episodes, I would argue autonomy is a positive for both you and whoever you’re working for, in both an employed and a self-employed job.
Like, I don’t think it’s healthy and normal to just be passive in that relationship and just say “okay”. You’re not a machine. You’re not. You don’t just sit there and go, “yes, yes, let me churn that out for you”. You have ideas and input and experience and stuff to bring to that process, whether you’re working for somebody else or working for yourself. I feel like Perky might be happier and feel more rewarded in their job if they feel like they’re more proactive in the relationship rather than just being told what to do and getting on with it.
[00:15:29] – Frankie
Is there also a point here… because Perky hasn’t mentioned it, but I feel like reading between the lines, maybe they don’t feel they’re getting paid enough or working too many hours for not enough money, do you think? I don’t know.
[00:15:40] – Steve
Well, I don’t know. I mean the crux of the question is more about them not feeling like they’re able to say no, that everything is driven by the client’s schedule and that becomes their schedule. Maybe we just need a reminder that you can say no! Yes, you can question deadlines, you can push them back. That’s not saying no. It’s just like… “what’s the flexibility in this?” But if you can’t/don’t want to turn something around by tomorrow and they absolutely have to have it tomorrow, you can say no.
You could say, “I’m sorry, I’m fully booked up. I’ve got obligations”. In fact no, don’t say sorry! Say, “I can’t do that. I’d love to, but I can’t do that at the moment. I’ve got other projects I’m already working on. Can I do it for you on Friday? Otherwise I could recommend somebody else to help you with it”.
Ultimately, you don’t need to be doing that. You can just say no. You can be strong about expressing your boundaries and saying no and stuff like that without being an a*sehole. You can be nice.
[00:16:45] – Frankie
Oh definitely yeah.
[00:16:45] – Steve
And there is opportunity for you occasionally to flex, to fit things in. But when you do, make sure that they know that you are doing that. If somebody says, can I do this video and it’s a quick turnaround — I charge a rush fee. So that, yeah, if I am working like an extra long night shift in order to get that video to them on time, financially, I feel like it’s worth my while.
Also, it’s, I don’t know, not punishing them as such, but it’s making them realise and appreciate the extra effort that you’re going to and then making them realise the implications of their request. Because clients don’t want to spend extra money when they don’t have to. So it might help them to come with more lead time for the next job.
So, yeah, don’t go doing extraordinary things for normal prices.
[00:17:32] – Frankie
Put that on a t-shirt!
But it’s tricky though, isn’t it? All of this stuff is all well and good, but if you’re genuinely a Christmas elf…
[00:17:42] – Steve
Oh my God.
[00:17:43] – Frankie
You know, the deadline can’t really be pushed. And like, questioning your boss’s authority on what the child should or shouldn’t receive? I just don’t think that’s going to wash. So I appreciate Perky’s struggles, I really do, and particularly at this time of year. The burnout the burnout is real. I see you.