What do you want your client relationships to look like? Client relationships are critically important for service-based business owners. However, sometimes clients push things too far with their expectations or requests. They want things done immediately without giving you adequate notice, or they email late on a Friday night and expect a response before Monday morning.
These kinds of client relationships can be incredibly frustrating. Unfortunately, if you’re not managing things correctly, they can also become increasingly common. In this episode, I look at setting boundaries for your business. I’m a big proponent of using your contract as a way to set and enforce your boundaries because when you’re able to do so, it can ease tensions that arise when you’re unsure how to respond or act in a certain situation.
I often like to emphasize clarity and specificity in contractual agreements. So listen in as I touch on several areas to focus your attention and offer guidance on how to most effectively communicate your boundaries to your clients.
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In this episode:
[03:10] – Danielle discusses how boundaries aren’t meant to be a punishment.
[04:55] – Before you do anything else, start by clearly defining your scope of work.
[05:39] – Danielle addresses a few topics to include in your client agreement for establishing boundaries, beginning with operating hours.
[07:01] – Set expectations on turnaround times for your clients and alleviate concerns about feedback response time frames.
[08:41] – How do you ensure smooth communication between you or your team and your clients?
[10:10] – Consider the communication methods you want to use to talk to your clients.
[10:37] – Are any communication platforms off-limits for you or your clients?
[12:26] – Danielle reads an example where she combines hours of operation, response times, and communication methods into a single paragraph.
[13:18] – Danielle talks about language considerations for your agreement.
[14:04] – For due dates and turnaround times, should you add rush or delay fees?
[15:44] – Danielle reveals today’s action steps.
Links & Resources:
Welcome to the Simplifying Legal podcast, brought to you by Businessese. I’m your host, Danielle Liss.
Many years ago, someone told me I was the least lawyer-y lawyer she’d ever met because I helped make legal easier to understand. To this day, it’s one of the best compliments I’ve received in my professional life.
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Hey there, I’m Danielle. Welcome to episode 26 of Simplifying Legal for Small Business Owners. Today, we’re talking about how to use your contract to set boundaries.
Disclaimer: As always, before we get into today’s topic, a quick disclaimer. This podcast is meant to provide you with legal information only. It’s not legal advice and does not create any type of attorney-client relationship between us. Please don’t take any action without consulting your lawyer first.
Now, let’s get started with today’s discussion.
For service-based business owners, your client relationships are critically important to your business. And, yet, with most business owners, there are sometimes complaints that a client is pushing too far. Whether it is emailing late on a Friday night and expecting a response before Monday morning. Or always wanting things done right now without giving you adequate notice. These types of client relationships can be incredibly frustrating.
I think it’s important to establish boundaries in all areas of life, but of course, for this discussion, we’re looking specifically at boundaries for your business. When you are able to effectively set boundaries with your clients, it can ease the tension that can arise when you aren’t sure how to act or respond in a certain situation.
I am a big believer in using your contract as a way to set and enforce those boundaries.
At Liss Legal, whenever I meet with a new client to talk about a new client agreement, we spend a lot of time discussing the type of boundaries that they want to set. If it’s not a brand new business, I also like to explore past issues that may have arisen from clients. It can also help to consider where you want to be in your business in a few years.
From there, we can build a better client agreement that serves as a tool to help define the relationship between your business and your clients.
Remember, these boundaries aren’t meant to be a punishment. Instead, they should be a tool that allows you to have a smoother interaction with your client since everyone knows what to expect.
Of course, you probably won’t include a specific section in your client agreement that you will call relationship boundaries.
Instead, you’ll need to consider exactly what you want to convey to your clients and the best language to do that. And, you’ll also want to think about where you want to convey these boundaries.
Most of the areas I’ll discuss in this episode can be handled in your client agreement. If it gets into a lot of really specific detail and you don’t want to include it in your agreement, I’ve also seen some business owners who will split the information. They’ll give a broad overview of their client agreement. Then they will give more specifics in some type of intake document.
Just remember, it’s critical to share the information with your clients. You can set the relationship up for success from the onset by sharing with your clients exactly what they can expect. And, if you have a client who reviews your agreement and says, oh, I don’t know if I can’t deal with a two-business day response time, then it is up to you to evaluate whether or not you think it will be a good fit to move forward.
Establishing Boundaries within Client Agreements
So now, let’s look at how you can proactively establish boundaries in your client agreements.
When it comes to your client agreement, as I’ve said in so many past episodes, specificity and clarity are key. This is especially true for the areas that I’ll be reviewing here.
One of the most important areas to start is your scope of work. Your scope of work defines what services you will complete for the client. We’ve talked about the importance of your scope of work in a number of episodes. By ensuring that your scope of work is clear, you are setting clear parameters for the goals of the client relationship. This can be one of the biggest boundaries that you set as it indicates exactly what you will be doing for the client.
When the scope of work is vague, the client may come to you and say, wait, I thought you were doing this. By getting specific, you can ensure that your clients know what to expect from you and that’s the first step for a smooth client relationship.
Next, I am going to address a number of topics that you can include in your client agreement to establish boundaries. If these areas make sense for your business, you can insert them wherever it makes the most sense in your client agreement.
The first is a relatively simple one, but it can be really important. What are your operating hours?
Establishing what hours you are in the office can be really important if your clients want to reach you with questions or to schedule appointments.
For example, I live in Las Vegas and I’m in the pacific time zone. Let’s say I have a hypothetical client who I’m working on a trademark matter with and she is located in my former home state of Delaware. There’s a three hour time difference, so I find it is important to let my clients know what my hours are. If they can only work with someone who is available early in the morning for them, I might not be the right fit to serve them.
If there are certain days of the week that you don’t work, be honest about that. For example, I know many offices that close at noon on Friday. As long as your clients know what to expect, it’s usually not an issue.
Along with your hours of operation, find a good way to communicate when you are in and out of the office. This may include holidays or vacations. This particular area might not be included in your client agreement, but you could state that you will notify them of times when you will be out of the office.
Next, let’s talk turnaround times. This can be really frustrating for both you and your client, so be sure to set expectations on what the expected turnaround times are. This is important for your timing to deliver the services and their timing for review and feedback.
If you, as the service provider, won’t have anything for them to review for a couple of weeks, be clear about that. Even if you aren’t giving them a specific date, you can give them a general idea about what to expect. I find that it helps to give updates to the client on when to expect things from you so they aren’t left wondering and potentially growing frustrated.
On the other hand, if your services require that your client give you feedback, it can be very frustrating if the client is taking a long time to get back to you. Because, as a service provider, you may be setting your calendar and capacity on work taking a certain amount of time to complete.
To alleviate this, advise them of what their due dates will be for providing feedback and ensure that works for them. Then, give them reminders for expected turnaround times when you send the draft.
For example, your agreement may state that feedback is required within 3 business days. If that’s the case, when you send the draft, remind them, please provide your feedback by X. It may also help to ask them to notify you as soon as possible if there will be any delays. Then you can proactively plan for the scheduling differences.
The next thing I want you to consider is ensuring that your agreement is clear regarding the points of contact for both you and your client. Make sure that you each have the appropriate information to ensure smooth communications.
For example, if you are the business owner and you have a team working for you, what is the client’s expectation about who they will be working with? If it isn’t you, I recommend that you are very clear about this. As the face of the business, some clients will expect to interact with you.
If you work with a team, having your clients constantly reach out to you, instead of the appropriate team member, can be a big boundary that you need to set. By addressing it early, you can usually avoid some of these potential conflicts.
Depending on your business, you can accomplish this in a couple of ways. First, you may say that you will assign a particular person to work with them and then give contact information. Additionally, you may want to say that you work with a team and that you are not necessarily going to be the person that they work with directly. Or, you may advise them that they will work with a number of members of your team, but they will have one primary project manager.
Another area to consider including in your client agreement is communication methods. How do you want to talk to your client? Are there any methods that are absolutely required? For example, can they only ask you questions through a portal or a project management system? Or do you prefer email? In most relationships, questions will come up from your clients, so make sure they know how to reach you.
Additionally, are there any platforms where you won’t accept messages or questions? For example, if you don’t want texts or DMs from a client, make sure you are clear about that.
I’ll use myself as an example here. My preferred communication method is email; however, I am also fine with communicating through a private chat in Voxer. This works really well for a number of my clients who prefer to talk through questions and explanations. For my outside in-house counsel clients, we often have a dedicated slack channel for legal, if they are already using Slack.
Because confidentiality is critical, I do not accept certain types of text and DMs. For example, I’m fine with some basic texts. Our potential new clients can text to set up a consult and we also have appointment reminders through text. I will not, however, review any type of confidential information via text and I specifically ask for clients not to send me anything that way. Same for DMs.
For me, this is about ensuring that I can preserve client confidentiality. But, for your business, it may also be a matter of convenience. I’ve worked with some companies who will only accept client questions through a basecamp project. This helps them ensure that all team members are receiving the information and it allows them to better track the communications.
When you’re considering what to include in your contract about this, determine how you want your clients to reach you and then include it in your agreement. I often mix hours of operation, service provider response times, and communication methods in one short paragraph.
An example of this type of clause might say:
Company’s office hours are 9-4 eastern time, Monday through Friday. Company approves communications through email and Voxer. All communications regarding the Services will be conducted only on these approved channels. Client understands and acknowledges that questions or messages sent in any format, other than the approved channels, without prior approval from Company will not receive a response. Client should allow two (2) business days for a response to all communications; however, most responses will be received within one (1) business day.
Next, consider what kind of language you use in your agreement. In some agreements, I see companies say things are unlimited, but in actuality, they don’t want them to be.
For example, if you are a coach or consultant and you offer coaching through Voxer, would you be fine if they sent you multiple 15-minute messages every day? If the answer is no, please don’t say they have unlimited access to you via Voxer. You can say that they have reasonable access with messages of 5 minutes or less with an expected response time of 1-2 business days. This sets a reasonable boundary for your client.
When to Consider a Rush or Delay Fee
When it comes to boundaries, particularly around due dates and turnaround times, many business owners ask me about rush or delay fees. A rush fee might be applicable if a client comes to you and asks you to turn something around in 24 hours, rather than the week that it would normally take. A delay fee would be applicable if a client is supposed to review something in a particular period of time and they haven’t done it.
For either of these types of fees, it depends on your business. Will a client’s delay derail your calendar and lead to you losing money? If so, a delay fee may make sense so that you can ensure they stay on the anticipated timelines.
For rush fees, if you have a set turnaround time for your work, a rush fee may make sense. Just make sure you have the capacity to be able to respond to those requests in the expedited time frame.
We’ve covered a number of areas that will help you to create boundaries, but I don’t think this is an exhaustive list. It may help for you to brainstorm and consider the different aspects that come into play with your client relationships. If you aren’t sure, think about what a perfect client relationship might look like. Is there anything that you can add to your contracts to put boundaries into place so that your client relationships more closely align with that vision?
Now let’s shift and talk about today’s action steps.
- First, how are you addressing boundaries in your client agreement? Do you cover communication, response times and other necessary areas? If not, should you add anything?
- Next, are you respecting the boundaries that you set for your business? If you are including boundaries in your client relationship, please respect them for yourself. You set them with intention, so you shouldn’t feel forced to respond with urgency to after-hours emails that are not urgent.
- Last, as always, if you need assistance updating your contract, please reach out to a lawyer. This is something I work on regularly with my legal clients, so I’d love to chat with you to see if Liss Legal would be a good fit to help you with your contracts. Visit lisslegal.com for more information.
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