It’s every business owner’s goal to provide a fantastic experience for every client or customer and ensure that each of them walks away happy. But when you work in a service-based capacity, these aren’t just clients you deal with once. As a web designer, you have to develop a relationship with them as projects could last anywhere from a couple weeks to months, and you need that positive rapport and trust to carry you through the end of the job.
While this might seem simple enough to do—be nice, be polite, be professional—if you’ve worked in web design for long enough, you know that some client relationships just aren’t easy to navigate.
It’s tough. You know that the client has crossed a line, and you might even feel a little guilty if you enabled their bad behavior. But if you want your design business to succeed, it needs to stop.
This guide will cover ways in which you can effectively establish the right kind of relationships with your clients from the get-go.
How to Set Boundaries with Freelance Clients
Hopefully, the bad client scenario isn’t one you run into often. But rather than have to deal with each situation as it arises, I’d suggest creating a process now that ensures that boundaries are established right from the very start. It’ll help you avoid many of the negative consequences that can arise from these client conflicts, like:
- You get burned out from always dealing with drama, conflict, or putting out fires.
- Your reputation suffers as you’re unable to deliver 100% for other clients whose projects are compromised in order to cater to an unruly client.
- Scope creep causes you to lose more and more money.
Here’s what this self-protective process should look like:
1. Read the Signs
You can tell a bad client from a good one before you ever sign them:
- If they complain about the cost and “joke” about you working for free…
- If they ask you to expedite the process without even talking about the scope of the project…
- If they are unresponsive when you contact them…
- If they promise to send you everything “later” and urge you to just get started…
You’d be better off walking away and spending that time finding a better client.
2. Get It in Writing
Document absolutely everything and require the client sign off before you begin any project work. This ensures that you have a clear process and guidelines which you expect the client and yourself to adhere to. The client’s signature acknowledges that they understand this and also serves as future leverage if or when they try to gaslight or dispute part of the project.
Here is what you will want to procure from the client:
- An official freelancer contract which outlines project costs (including rush and cancellation fees), required payment milestones, numbers of revisions allowed, copyright ownership, and so on.
- You should also clearly explain what you expect from the client. How quickly should they get back to you when feedback or materials are needed? What happens if they disappear for an extended period of time? All of this should be defined within the contract as should your cancellation policy.
- A scope-of-work (SOW) which lays out the project plan in minute detail. This will cover things like project phases, corresponding deadlines, deliverables owed, etc.
Never do anything for free and never exceed the SOW. If you give some clients an inch, they’ll take a mile. And that’s just a really bad precedent to set.
3. Automate Payments
Set billing milestones and stick to them. The easiest way to do this is to program them into your accounting software and send them on the agreed-upon schedule. Then, don’t begin work again until you’ve received the required payments.
4. Set a Strict Schedule
As a freelancer, sometimes it’s easy to justify working at night and on the weekends, but that doesn’t mean your clients need to know you do. In fact, you should never let on that you work non-traditional hours because that opens up the door to communications during those time periods.
Instead, let them know you’re available during a traditional schedule. If they try to contact you outside of those times, don’t answer your phone, don’t reply to email, don’t look at the comment they uploaded to your designs. Just put it away and deal with it when work begins the next day. The same goes for you. Even if you work outside of those hours, be sure only to send communications when you’ve indicated you are available.
5. Centralize Communications
Ideally, you’ll have a task management software that enables you to invite clients to join the platform. Once you’ve introduced your clients to it, continually reinforce that you need all communications to go through it. For clients that like to backpedal or claim that something was never approved or agreed upon, having a centralized communication platform where everything is documented is incredibly helpful.
If you should need to call your clients, capture recordings of those calls and save them in the management software.
6. Give the Illusion of a Private Workspace
It’s none of your clients’ business if you work from home or a co-work space. That said, you should never allow those surrounding distractions to infiltrate your conversations with clients. When you have calls or video chats scheduled, go to a quiet and professional workspace to conduct them.
7. Keep Them in the Loop
While your contract and SOW should outline everything you’re going to do for your client, they can still get antsy while they wait to see what you’ve been working on. Rather than let your silence rile them up or stress them out, maintain regular contact to communicate progress.
8. Control the Feedback Loop
The key here is to be able to have an honest and constructive conversation with clients. Identify what it is they’re really trying to say. Don’t just accept “I don’t like it”. Also, don’t take it personally if they are unhappy with your work. Just listen to what they’re saying and try to better align the designs to what they need.
That said, sometimes the issue is that what they’re saying isn’t quite right. After all, these clients are probably executives and entrepreneurs who don’t know anything about design. The best way to communicate with them then is by using a mockup and prototyping software whereby you can share designs and allow them to mark them up directly with feedback.
9. Be Friendly… Enough
You need your clients to trust you if you want them to feel good about your designs, which means being nice to them. But that doesn’t mean being overly friendly. Some people may misinterpret your friendliness and think it’s okay to cross certain personal boundaries.
If that should happen, only give what’s absolutely necessary. They don’t need to know that you’re single or you’re going to school to be a mechanic or that you’ve had the worst day ever. Keep it light, keep it professional, and focus on the task at hand so you can get their job done as efficiently as possible.
10. Feel Confident Saying “No”
There may be times where your client keeps asking for more. No matter how seemingly small these additional requests may seem, it’s better to just say “no” and reiterate the additional scope of the project. If they really want the extra work, prepare an amended contract, require a signature, and then get to work.
And if it’s a case where you’re simply not comfortable working with the client anymore—perhaps they were abusive or repeatedly missed payment with the promise that they’re “good for it”—don’t be afraid to cancel the contract. You already defined the terms in your contract, so you knew this was a possibility. It’s better to cut the cord if it’s not working out between you two than allow your business to take any further damage.
Look, it sucks when a client gets out of hand, in whatever form their lack of boundaries takes. But you have to hold yourself accountable here. There’s no HR team to protect you in case they overstep a line and there’s no manager to swoop in and talk to a client if they’re running you ragged with reworks.
This is your business and your professional relationship, so you must control it. And, if you can’t, then you need to be willing to say “no” when you find a client relationship particularly harmful to your business.