Setting Healthy Boundaries Without Sacrificing the Client Experience

Boundaries allow us to retain control over our lives in both personal and professional realms. When they do not exist, it is easy to feel stressed, exhausted, overwhelmed or disrespected. 

In the creative industry, especially, it is natural to feel like you need to be a people-pleaser to succeed. “Yes” quickly becomes part of our everyday vernacular, whereas “no” seems to be missing from our vocabulary (unless, of course, it’s part of “no problem!”). 

Yet, it is important to recognize that setting clear boundaries with clients and colleagues alike is not akin to losing respect or being a nitpicker. In fact, those who do set firm boundaries (and stick to them!) tend to be the ones leading the industry because their priorities are straight and they know how to manage their time wisely.

If you struggle to draw or enforce those ever-important boundaries, rest assured that you are not alone. Fortunately, it is a skill you can practice and improve upon — and don’t worry, it does not mean you are letting your clients down in the process. Here are a few key tips for becoming comfortable with boundaries while ensuring your clients get the superb experience they expect from your brand.

Do Not Leave Room For Misinterpretation

Before you even draw up a project brief, your client must sign a contract and agree to your terms. Although you may have spelled out some boundaries in your sales meetings, clients may have glossed over those guidelines with more attention given to what you can do for them. Thus, your contract becomes the single most important document for solidifying your client’s expectations. Be sure to include everything from your office hours and preferred method of communication to the specifics involving what is and is not included in a clients’ package.

In your online contract, you must also include the penalties for crossing the outlined boundaries. Your clients are not entitled to disrespect you or your team, so you must set the rules straight from the start. Consider implementing a tiered approach, with minimal repercussions for minor transgressions (like a one-on-one meeting) that scales up to heftier penalties like added fees or even termination due to breach of contract.

If any issues come up throughout your working relationship, you will always have a signed copy of the contract to remind them about the terms they have agreed upon.

Be Honest About The “Why”

Sometimes, miscommunications are less about the “what” and more about the “why.” Your client might be upset that their dream photoshoot cannot happen at their preferred time, but it can help them to know that it is a matter of daylight and not simply a meaningless rule. Likewise, a graphic designer may get pushback on pricing (particularly for digital products), so explaining the cost breakdown can make clients understand the “why” behind it all. 

As the professional in the situation, it is your responsibility to educate your clients about your industry and why your boundaries are set in place. If you do not take meetings on the weekends because they are filled with busy event deliveries, tell them so. If your online course is self-guided, explain why you do not provide one-on-one consultations. 

Understanding the context behind a rule makes it far easier to accept, even if “no” is the last answer a client wants to hear.

Offer Up Alternative Solutions

Designers, planners, coaches, photographers — above all else, creatives are problem-solvers. The part of our brain that draws up unique ideas and brings a vision to life is the same part that allows us to get innovative when an issue arises. When you have a few alternative ideas up your sleeve, it becomes much easier to turn down a request. Instead of a no, you can offer up a “no, but” which ensures your client does not feel like they are being dismissed.

Although your ideas may not be an exact replacement for their own, it shows that you are willing to work towards a solution that will satisfy their needs. When paired with the “why,” it will be clear to your clients that your suggestions are the best choices available.

Know When To Call It Quits

Sometimes, despite all of your efforts, clients continue to push the limits and disrespect your boundaries. If this is the case—whether it’s a single egregious case or a matter of repeated instances—it may be in your best interest to dissolve the contract and walk away. Since your contract details all of the rules and repercussions (right?), you have the right to fire your client and retain the deposit due to breach of contract.

There’s no denying that this is one of the harder decisions a business owner has to make, but it is one that can protect you and your business in the long run. Seeing a project through with a difficult client can come back to bite you in the way of negative reviews, bad press or even legal complications depending on how far the person is willing to go.

However, it is just as important to give clients a little grace as they learn the ways of working with you. They might need a few extra reminders to submit deliverables on time or to stop calling after 7 o’clock, but it may not call for escalating penalties. Start with a meeting to discuss the issue and redefine your boundaries to be clear that your client understands. Restate the “why” behind your rules and get a feel for how your client responds. If the problem behavior continues, then you may consider taking more drastic measures to settle the matter.

It can feel uncomfortable to set boundaries and even more so to enforce them — especially if you consider yourself a people-pleaser. However, it’s important to remember that boundaries are not an effort to displease people. It is simply your way of retaining control over your business and ensures a positive, respectful working relationship between you and your clients.

Jen Taylor

Jennifer Taylor is the principal of Jen Taylor Consulting, a consulting firm that works with creative businesses of all sizes to implement streamlined workflows and organized systems to find more time and space for business growth and personal development. She is also the owner and founder of Taylor’d Events Group, a leading event planning company that serves local and destination clients in Washington State and Maui, HI.