Three ways to set healthy, professional boundaries with clients

Managing boundaries with clients is one of the trickiest parts of being a freelancer. It can lead to disagreements, overworking, and burnout if you’re not equipped to navigate these relationships. 

In all honesty, managing boundaries with clients is a lot of internal work — we have to define our own boundaries before we can ever expect our clients to respect them. 

There are really only three sections to managing boundaries with clients: defining boundaries, sharing boundaries, and enforcing boundaries. 

Defining your own personal boundaries from the start will set the tone for how you manage boundaries with clients.

One of the hardest things to do is setting boundaries for yourself from the outset– what are your boundaries? Begin by defining those for yourself. You may not want clients texting you or you might want to sign off daily at 5pm– your boundaries are unique and ever-changing.

Take some time to reflect on what ideal boundaries look like in your relationship. And make sure once you define these, you work them into your process. What does a day look like with these boundaries enforced? How can you shift your project planning to take them into account? Does it change your lead time or communication style? Make note of not only what boundaries you have but also how to enact them.

And check in on them frequently. Your priorities will shift and while boundaries are evergreen, some may evolve over time. By defining your boundaries in writing, you can go back and check in on them to see if you want to change them or to remind yourself that they need to be enforced.

Set clear expectations with your clients.

Once you know your boundaries, share them with your client. This may look like:

  1. Clear and concise proposals that outline things like project scope and schedule
  2. Contracts that outline fees and payment schedules
  3. Setting up how best to communicate with your client from day one (Slack, Zoom, Email, Text, etc.) This also includes how best NOT to communicate (weekend calls, late night texts, etc.) which is equally as important.
  4. Setting your office hours (maybe even adding them to your email footer or setting an automated OOO email).
  5. Consistently communicating about your project’s progress – this could mean scheduling check-in’s, sending calendar invites for revisions, etc. Make sure your communication is ongoing, a drop in communication can lead to frustration on both ends.
  6. Ask about your client’s expectations (urgent deadline, their working hours, etc.) – boundaries is a two way street!

Fostering a strong relationship has its bedrock in knowing and sharing your boundaries. It can be scary and intimidating to boldly state how you would like a relationship to work, but clients are looking to trust in your creative services. Having a strong process that includes strong boundaries helps fill in any gray areas and sets expectations for how a project will go from start to finish. Sharing these boundaries will only help guide you towards your dream client relationships. 

Enforce those boundaries and expectations!

This is where things can get tough and complex when it comes to client relationships. Do I not pick up the phone for a late night emergency?  Do I work late to deliver a last minute deadline? 

Before jumping to conclusions – I would say return to the step above – where did the communication lapse? Is your client crossing a boundary or is this an actual emergency? Usually boundary issues come from a lack of boundary setting at get-go. Most clients don’t have a process for their creative projects, that’s where they are leaning on you to set those expectations for them. Take a moment to look back at your process before crossing your own boundaries. 

That being said, if your process has been clearly defined and expectations have been set, feel free to enforce those boundaries. If your client repeatedly refuses to listen or acknowledge these boundaries, it may be time to reassess your working relationship with them. Not every client is going to be a long-term one. It’s okay to sever relationships that aren’t serving either party. Trust yourself, you will know when client relationships are meant to be. 

At the end of the day, don’t be afraid to set those boundaries, respect yourself and your time. 

It can be very scary to fire clients and in general, freelancing can be overwhelming and uncertain. But we don’t do our best work or live our best lives when we don’t have healthy boundaries. Take the time to explore your boundaries and incorporate them into your work, it will transform your client relationships and help you sustainably grow.

Sara Liberthorn

Art Director/Designer/Photographer

Sara Liberthorn is an Art Director / Designer / Photographer and founder of Libernans, a social forward content studio based in the SF Bay Area.