Without boundaries, you don’t have a clear cutoff point of what you’re willing to do, and what you’re not willing to do.
Whilst this may be ok at the beginning of your business, in the long term knowing exactly where your boundaries are, and communicating these to your clients and staff - will allow you to be more proactive and less reactive.
Let’s run through an example without any boundaries set, then the same example of clear boundaries set.
Without boundaries 🤷♀️
- It’s 7:15 am and your phone rings just as you get out of the shower, you see it’s a client you worked with mid-last year, so you pick it up.
- Turns out their website’s stopped working for some reason, they are pretty angry as a lot of their business is online.
- You let them know you’ll look into it right away, quickly get dressed, and head over to your computer (a little annoyed, and a little sleepy)
- The client rings you back, just as annoyed - and asks if you have fixed it. You mentioned you have literally just sat down to start looking into it, and you will let them know once it’s fixed.
- It takes you an hour or so to figure out the problem, which turns out to be one of the APIs they use on their homepage has changed overnight, and it’s stopped the site from loading.
- The API provider didn’t announce this change which is frustrating. You find the updated API documentation, and in just over an hour you have fixed the problem.
- You ring your client back and let them know you have fixed the problem. They are still annoyed, but less annoyed.
- You’re happy that the problem’s over as you have a lot of other work to do, finally eat a quick breakfast - and head into your office.
- At the end of the month, you invoice the client for the 2 hours of work.
- They are furious, and ring you instantly, saying how it’s completely unprofessional to deliver a website that breaks and loses them money - and then charge them to fix it. They refuse to pay the bill.
This is an extreme example - but it’s also typical of how many client services business function.
There are no clear boundaries, expectations were not correctly set - and it affects everyone.
Let’s look at this scenario again, if clear boundaries had been set.
With boundaries 🙅♀️
- It’s 7:15 am and your phone rings just as you get out of the shower, you see it’s a client you worked with mid-last year, but you let it go to voicemail. You have no ongoing agreement with this client, and besides - your day doesn’t start until 9 am.
- You have your shower, do a quick meditation, and have some coffee and breakfast.
- You get into the office just before 9 am, check emails, and then check your voicemail from the client. You understand the issue and confirm that their website is actually down.
- Instead of calling the client back, you shoot them a quick email letting them know that you understand the problem, but are very busy at the moment, and as they are not on any support or retainer agreement unfortunately you won’t have time to look into the issue for 2 days. You also remind them (like you have before) of the support plans you offer and attach a PDF outlining the different response and rectification times they get for each plan.
- They reply to the email slightly annoyed - but understanding that as they chose not to go on a support plan previously, the response and rectification times are “as soon as possible”.
- Two days later you look into the problem, see it’s a change in the third-party API that’s in use, and take a quick look at the documentation. You then get back to the client and let them know the problem is not to do with the code you delivered, but that a third party you rely on has changed their API. The fix will be around 2 hours - and you check if they are happy to pay for this - if so, you can schedule the fix for tomorrow morning, so should be fixed by 10 am.
- They agree, the fix gets done, and they pay their invoice.
With the above example, boundaries and expectations had already been set with the client.
You had previously let the client know about the support plans you offer, and the different response and rectification times they get for the monthly payment.
They previously understood this, and specifically choose not to go on a support plan - which they then understood meant they get the lowest priority if they have any issues.
This meant that you didn’t need to answer the call out of hours - in fact, you didn’t have to reply to them until you had the time. This is a boundary that you understood, and they understood - so they could not be surprised when you didn’t pick up the phone.
The client also understood that after the project is signed off and live - all work is charged for and that there is no free support. This is a boundary you set, and they understood.
So when it came time to pay for the time spent resolving the issue, there were no questions.
What boundaries to set 🚫
You don’t want to be an over-the-top dictator who demands everything has to be done your way - that’s not the way to keep clients long-term.
The boundaries you want to set are the ones that keep you and your team happy, efficient and make for a healthy sustainable work environment.
For me this meant…
- The working hours for me and my team keep (Mon-Friday, 9-5, not including public holidays or the week between Christmas and New year)
- Unless they are on a high-priority support plan which can include weekends
- The response times for getting back to client requests
- During project delivery - 1 day
- After project sign-off and the project is live - 2 to 3 days, unless on a support plan in which case it depends on their level of support
- Resolution times for dealing with issues reported
- During project delivery - the next sprint
- After project sign-off and the project is live - As soon as possible, but may be up to 2 weeks depending on current projects, unless on a support plan in which case it depends on their level of support
- Costs for dealing with issues
- During project delivery - no cost
- After project sign-off and the project is live - all work is charged at the standard hourly rate
- Issue communication methods
- Email is preferred
- Phone if urgent and on a support plan
- Scoping new work (after the project is live)
- As soon as possible, but may be up to 4 weeks - unless on an ongoing retainer (in which hours can be used for scoping)
Your business may require other boundaries, such as having graphic design files delivered X weeks before development, or never contacting you directly, but instead via your account manager. This is all up to you, and the boundaries you need for your business to thrive.
How to set boundaries ✅
You don’t do this in a “boundary-setting session” - you do it in an ongoing, consistent manner throughout the life of your relationship.
It starts with setting expectations up front, letting them know how you work, along with what you are willing to do, and what you’re not willing to do. A project workshop is a good time to introduce this, but you should also capture this in a signed agreement with your client, as talking is great - but things need to be written down.
As the project nears delivery you should remind them how you handle ongoing support and maintenance - and that if they want priority service they will need to pay monthly for this.
And lastly, you need to reinforce your boundaries every time they get stretched.
Whilst it’s ok to break your own rules every once and a while (e.g. doing a small change on the weekend for a very important client) - you need to show your standards and be consistent - so boundary setting is often an ongoing task.
Without setting boundaries, you will always be reactive, acting based on how you feel on the day as opposed to a strategic, consistent method you’ve laid out - and clearly communicating to your clients and staff.
Build a business you want to work in
Build a business with boundaries that protect you and your team.