Client Boundaries. It’s an Inside Job.
We all want to make our clients happy and we’re even willing to go the extra mile, but when does the extra mile become an unreasonable burden? And, if the request is unreasonable, is that an indication the client is out of bounds? Probably not. In my professional experience, client boundaries are an inside job.
I have received hundreds of emails and phone calls over the years from design professionals whose complaints sound like some variation on the following:
Help, my clients are constantly texting me. I can’t believe my clients phoned my vendors to check the pricing. My clients keep asking me to do more work, but they are behind in their payments. I’m working as fast as I can, but it’s never enough for these people. My client is insisting I finish the job without billing him any more fees. My client says she’s not comfortable with a retainer. The client is asking to see the original invoice. My client says he doesn’t need a project manager, he’s good at managing people and trades.
Often, coaching “experts” tell us the solution to such problems is to set boundaries. Ok. Sure. But in my experience, both as an interior design professional and as Advocate-in-Chief at Business of Design®, setting boundaries is the easy part. It’s much more difficult to enforce those boundaries once they’ve been defined.
It isn’t a question of creating a boundary that will prevent clients from pushing the limits. They will. I can guarantee that. It’s a matter of standing firm in your resolution to protect the boundaries you set.
For instance, one of my professional boundaries involves texting with clients. Years ago, I decided that texting should be reserved for family and friends. All work correspondence is via email. I recognize it’s a changing world and we may need to amend this in future, but for now, email allows me to indefinitely keep a record of client interactions and removes the expectation of an immediate response. It happens, from time to time that a client does send me a text. I’ve learned to speak up when that happens and say, thank you for your note. I am going to email this note back to you now. For project interactions, we use only email. This allows us to store and manage a large amount of communication more effectively. We reserve text for personal correspondence. Thank you for understanding.
It wasn’t easy for me to send that note the first couple of times. But today, I’m grateful I had the courage to protect that boundary. See, boundaries are an inside job. I must have the courage and confidence to insist my boundaries are respected.
Most of my project and client boundaries—payment terms, markup, trade management, retainer usage, deficiencies or punch list items, start dates, project management protocols, project termination agreements etc. are in my contract. The right contract is essential. But too often, I meet professionals who have a clear, concise boundary in their contracts and for whatever reason, they don’t stick to it. Let me give you recent example.
A well-known, highly respected interior designer from Virginia booked some coaching time with me to resolve several project issues. One of them involved a client who was insisting she finish a project without billing him any more design fees. In his estimation, she had billed “enough”. In addition, he was promising her more work, down the road, if this first project came off well. By the time we Zoomed she was distressed; she hadn’t billed him in months, and the work continued. We reviewed her contract, which clearly stated her fee schedule and payment terms and then I asked her, why haven’t you billed him? The response: he told me not to.
Believe me when I say, there is no judgement here. I’ve done that and worse in my 30 years as an interior designer, but today, I’m clear that the issue is not the client—it’s deviating from the prescribed protocols and boundaries we know we need in place.
Situations like the one I described above, or similar, are happening every single day in our community. Yes, we need to support one another, but we also need to hold each other to account and on occasion, deliver a much-needed swift kick to the proverbial backside as a reminder to follow our own rules.