Set clear boundaries with clients

“I’m always anxious; my client calls or texts me at all hours!” 

What to do?

A story.

Years back, I worked in a consulting agency where we built apps for large companies. One day, we had a meeting with a new client. One of the C-suite people there gushed about the experience they had with another firm:

“Those guys are great; they stay late, order in pizzas, and generally go all out to get things done—you know?”

I smiled politely and said:

“I prefer regular office hours: you’ll find you get my best work then.”

I worked on that project for a year. I can count on one hand the days I stayed later in the office than 1700. In a debrief afterward, the client’s project manager explicitly noted that he always felt he could count on me.

Determine constraints and expectations early.

As you’re onboarding a new client, talk through—in detail—how you usually work. Make sure it’s a good fit for them.

Be clear on your schedule, your availability, and the best way to communicate with you.

Here’s an example of how this can look in practice:

“I can be available up to 30 hours per week. Depending on my family’s logistics, I can be on-site twice to thrice weekly. I primarily work between 0800 and 1600.

I can stay at this availability for the next six months—I’ll do my best to inform you well ahead of time if anything changes.

Both of us should focus on Slack and email for communication rather than phone calls and text messages—that way, we can have all the conversations in as few places as possible, and I can provide better responses to you.”

Having most of these details explicitly laid out in your contract is a good idea—especially your availability.

Have clear expectations on both sides

Be cheerful and solution-oriented, and acknowledge that you’ll work together to make something good. At the same time, make it clear that you’re a professional: boundaries are essential for getting the best possible work from you.

Remember: it’s just business. There’s nothing personal about setting ground rules.

Strike a balance: strict vs. approachable.

How rigid should you be about your rules?

You don’t want to come off as grumpy and off-putting. At the same time, you need to protect your time and mental space.

I leave a little bit of wiggle room verbally. I usually touch on it like this: “If there’s a true emergency, I’ll do what I can to help out outside of normal hours.”

Unless you work on something like a critical banking system or medical software, clients will probably not need to call you in the middle of the night. If you need to be on-call at odd hours, you should have that explicitly in the contract (and get compensated accordingly). But, for most software projects, everyone involved can afford to wait until the next day for that answer or bug fix.

And if you do find yourself on a project where real or imagined emergencies come up every week? Unless it’s due to something you can control and fix yourself, you should probably drop that client.

Be a good communicator: less need for checkups.

Another way to make it less likely that clients ping you constantly is to push frequent updates to them. Send task/project status on a regular cadence—on your schedule.

Much client communication is simply, “How’s the thing coming along?” So, if you’re proactive enough with updates, you’ll have fewer incoming status requests.

Incidentally, the client will feel safer as well when you do this.

You almost want to over-communicate; we’ll revisit this later!

Use tools to enforce limits.

You can constrain your communication with tools, as well.

For instance, always set Slack to mute after office hours. They can call you if they genuinely need to reach you for an emergency.

Consider getting a separate mobile phone for client calls. Or set up a proxy service like Google Voice. This way, you can adjust your phone availability separately from your personal life.

Stick to it.

It can be tempting to reply rapidly late in the evening when you see a Slack message. That ugly bug is trivial; I could deploy a fix in five minutes!

Doing the occasional surprise flourish for your client is a good idea. As I mentioned, you don’t want to come off as too rigid.

But as a general rule, once you have a project going with clear expectations from both sides, stick to it from your end as well. Don’t let your constraints slide.

Stay positive yet professional