How To Get Your Clients To Respect Your Time

Respected TimeLast week you discovered the cure for “scope creep” as you learned how to set boundaries with your clients up front (and said goodbye to awkward client conversations forever). 

Now you’re ready to dive into an equally thorny area — how to get your clients to respect your time and honor the boundaries you set on email, phone and in-person communication. 

If you don’t nail this up front, you’re asking for a world of hurt down the road as needy clients suck away more and more of your precious, billable time.  Make sure that never happens again by mastering the basic communication policies that every freelancer should have.  We’ll start with email today.

How To Keep Client Email From Sucking Away Your Billable Time

The one place you don’t want to be is asking your clients, “Could you please stop emailing me so much?”  Try that, and you’ll come across like you don’t care, or worse yet — that you can’t manage your time.  It’s much better for you (and them) if you take care of this up front. Most people don’t though, because they are afraid of having to tell their clients “no” out of fear of losing them.

That’s why you’re going to spin your email policy into something very positive for the client, so that they will feel that your limited availability is actually in their best interest.

First of all, let them know up front that a prime reason you provide such great service is because you give total focus to the projects at hand.

First of all, let them know up front that a prime reason you provide such great service is because you give total focus to the projects at hand. That means that when you’re working on a client job, you only check email at certain times during the day so you don’t break your focus.  Set their expectation with a time limit — for example, let them know that during office hours, you’ll typically respond to an email in two hours or less.

Now, you can always respond more quickly if you feel like it’s the right thing to do, but having a predetermined buffer zone will give you breathing room if you are in the middle of things and don’t want to feel pressured to respond immediately.

Second, tell them that you have strict office hours that you stick to in order to make sure you balance work and life — and that guarantees you jump into each workday refreshed and ready to produce your best work. Let them know that though you may occasionally check in outside of office hours, they should expect that am after-hours email will not get read until the next morning — but that you’ll get back with them first thing if you find an email from them.

Doing this lets you send the message that “when I’m working, I’m 100% engaged in being the best at what I do,” so that your clients understand they can’t have you at a moment’s notice or abuse your time.

But What Do I Do If I Need To Be “Always On?”

The above advice is strong and powerful if you have the sort of working arrangement that lends itself to office hours; for example, if you’re a more established freelancing operation where your clients can live with waiting a reasonable amount of time before you get back to them (and if they can’t, that should send a message that you may have high-maintenance clients that aren’t good for you).

But what if you’re just starting out, or you’re running deals so fast that you feel like you have to be always online and ready to go?  In reality, there are some clients you get because they need to lock-in with a freelancer ASAP and they’ll go with the first one who gets back to them.

Once you land these clients, how do you keep “office hours” while maintaining your sanity?

Once you land these clients, how do you keep “office hours” while maintaining your sanity?

The solution is simple — have a slice of your office hours be in the late evening, and let your clients know that.  This works even if it’s just a small chuck of time – for example, you can let your clients know that your office hours are 9am to 4pm, but that you pop back in from 10:30pm to 11pm in case there are any fires to put out.  This way they can rest easy knowing you’ll see any emergencies if they happen, but they understand that you’re not on-call 24-7.

Again, letting your clients know this kind of information up front allows you to have an actual life without getting sucked into feeling guilty that you have to respond immediately or you’ll be viewed negatively.

Agree?  Disagree?  Does Something Different Work For You?

Freelancing businesses come in all stripes and colors, so I don’t doubt that many of you may have a different take on how to handle response time in your own business.  I’d love to hear you personal strategies, tactics, and horror stories in the comments below — I’ll see you there!

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Image by twon

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Comments

  1. says

    I’d put the control of contacting each other into my own hands and ask them if they want weekly updates, or if they “have” to have it more often, once a day. As for instant messaging, I would only be on for that client at a prearranged time if they request it by email. I’d try to show the point, before hand, of instant messaging is for when email can not be use efficiently, such as problem solving unknown bugs.

  2. says

    Agree? Disagree?

    Really…. i had to put so much pressure over my mind for getting one of these.

    well i like the idea of “Always On”…. most of time, it’s kinda scary for me… but it’s always necessary !!!

  3. says

    Terrifically sound advice, especially about spinning your schedule and email restrictions in a positive way. But I’ve learned the hard way that offering myself at any time outside normal business hours is a slippery slope. For the most part clients are a lovely bunch, projects are puppies and rainbows, and the idea of normal business hours and limited email are accepted. But the notable exceptions are the clients that want us to always be on, that think freelancing means being a doormat, and opening that door has led to catastrophe in these parts. At least they give good stories for blogging :)

  4. says

    What a timely article. I was just having a discussion the other day with a friend who asked what would make me happier with my work, and i said “being able to stop working at 5pm”….bc inevitably, my clients like to begin emailing me at 4:45 every afternoon.

    But, like your article says, i gave my clients upfront notice of my work hours and what they expect from me as a response time.

    I think the biggest hurdle to overcome is my OWN expectations. I expect that i can go to bed every night with an empty in box and no carryover work from that day. And that any email that comes in late at night needs to be answered right then. I’m working on getting past that.

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