When a relationship with a client has lasted years, it's tempting to settle into what seem like comfortable patterns. But if you're not careful, those patterns can become self-destructive over time.
Has your client started asking you to work at weekends? Do they expect you to take their calls at 10pm? Maybe they've got into the habit of adding on extra tasks – beyond what you originally agreed – under the guise of a casual request ("You couldn't do me a quick favour, could you?"). And worse still, you've got into the habit of letting them, for fear of rocking the boat.
But it doesn't have to be this way. April is a new financial year: traditionally a time for businesses to focus on new budgets, new projects and an organisational spring clean. So it's a great time to reset your relationship with your clients and get your dealings with them back on an even keel. In this article, we'll walk you through how to go about it.
1. Hold an annual review
Call or email your client, and tell them you'd like to conduct an annual review. This is basically a meeting (in 2021, most likely over Zoom), which typically might last 30-45 minutes. Explain that you're doing this with all your clients to ensure everything is working well, that they're happy, and that you're doing the best you can to support them. Tell them it will give them a chance to bring up any issues from their end.
That last part might sound scary, and of course, you're now laying yourself open for criticism. But let's face it, if the client has issues with your work, it's going to come out sooner or later. Much better it does so during a process you control, allowing you to handle any feedback calmly and confidently.
And more importantly, by prompting the client to share any concerns they have, it will seem much more natural and reasonable for you to bring up issues at your end.
2. Redraw your boundaries
From your perspective, the annual review should be a chance to reset your relationship and redraw any boundaries where you feel that the client has crossed the line in the past. However, that's obviously not how you should present it to the client.
Rather than being defensive and aggressive, you need to strike a calm, assertive, and constructive tone. Rather than say, "This is how I'll be running my business from now on", you'll say something like: "I've had a look at what isn't working and to become more efficient, here's what I'd like to do."
3. Set new boundaries
Setting new boundaries, or resetting existing ones, can be a tricky business. You don't want to feel exploited as a freelancer, but nor do you want your client to feel they're losing out. So you need to come up with a formulation that meets their needs too.
To take one example, it's not okay for clients to call you at 10pm whenever they have a problem that could wait until the morning. However, sometimes they might genuinely have an emergency, particularly if they're an international client in a different timezone. To meet that need, you could give them options for 'out of hours support' at a higher price than your usual freelance rate or at a one-off fee to compensate you for the extra hassle.
4. Discuss expectations
Another common bone of contention between freelancer and client is the speed at which you're expected to get work done. Is your client prone to sending feedback last thing on a Friday and expecting the work to be done by Monday morning? If so, you're not alone.
This can be very frustrating, but often the client simply has no idea how long things take. Think of it from their point of view. Genuinely: do you know how long it takes your accountant to compile your tax return? Or how many other clients' tax returns he or she's got to finish in the same week? Unless you're personally close, probably not.
For this reason, it's useful to manage your client's expectations by, for example, spelling out that you require X number of working days following feedback to provide amended work.
Once that's been made clear, you may be surprised by how relaxed the client becomes about how long the work takes. Often, there's no actual rush from their end: it's more about the client feeling they're being ignored or that they have to pressure you or it will never get done at all. Give them a clear timeline, and all that stress just melts away.
5. Follow up
As with any meeting, the key to an annual review lies partly in what's discussed but equally in what happens next. There's no benefit to getting the client to say all the right things in the meeting, only to see them slip back into their old ways a couple of days later.
So it's vital to put everything you've agreed in writing and email it to them as a reminder, which essentially acts as an unofficial new contract between you. Then if the client later makes a request that overreaches your new boundaries, push back in a polite and friendly but firm way, and refer them back to what you've agreed.
6. Protect your downtime
Just as important as being firm with your clients is being firm with yourself. For instance, it's natural to want to help clients with a problem, even after you've clocked off. So set up your out-of-office response, and make a point of never looking at your work emails after-hours.
If you have an alert for work emails set up on your phone, cancel it. If your clients tend to contact you by phone, get a separate phone for work, and switch it off when you're not working. In short, protect your valuable downtime by any means possible.
Follow the same approach when it comes to holidays. Give clients fair warning by emailing them reminder emails that you'll be away on those particular dates.
One reminder usually isn't enough: better to do so three months, two months, one month and then two weeks before you go away. No one will complain about being over-reminded, as clients are busy and often forget. Also, put your next holiday dates in your email signature, and add a similar message to your voicemail. In short, keep reminding clients that you won't be around during that specific time, and most reasonable people will respect that.
7. Be prepared to lose the client
Worried the client would find someone else if you set boundaries in this way? Then the answer's simple: do a great job for them the rest of the time, be loyal and be caring, and it's unlikely they'll go elsewhere.
And if they do? Well, that might not be such a bad thing. Most of us went freelance, so we didn't have to answer to a boss, but serving an unappreciative and difficult client is hardly better. If you're good at what you do, there are plenty of great clients out there who'd love to work with you, so be confident and take advantage!