As a business owner, keeping your revenue flowing and your mind at ease can be pretty demanding. It entails everything from justifying your prices to building solid customer relationships (even when dealing with challenging people).
The latter can be tricky, especially when you’re working as a sole freelancer or entrepreneur. But it’s just as critical to maintaining your business’s integrity and longevity as the former.
So, how can you ensure your business withstands tough customers? By managing professional boundaries wisely.
From justifying your rates to setting communications boundaries for a healthy work-life balance, this guide offers five key methods for keeping your business running smoothly and establishing rapport in each professional relationship. Read on to start building your entrepreneurial life with confidence.
1. Justify your rates to resistant payers
So what exactly does it mean to stand up for yourself?
When you’re working alone or at the head of your company, you are responsible for enforcing project deadlines, payment terms, and policies. This can be extremely difficult to do on your own, especially when you’re just starting out.
On the one hand, you might clash with prospective clients who have no intention to either pay you on time or adhere to your rates. You might get hagglers here and there who try to pressure you into reducing your rates or extending payment periods.
For example, a client once said that they wanted their partnership with my freelance business to “grow” over time. In other words, they wanted to start out at a lower rate and (maybe) increase the budget over time.
I stood up for myself by politely explaining the value of my work, the software and techniques that go into my services, and highlighting facets of my services that I offer for free against competitors who charge for them.
This laid the groundwork for the crux of my response to many prospective clients who make such “grow with me” proposals: My career (and therefore, my rates) is established and growing by its own accord. Use the template below if you ever need to justify your rates in a similar exchange.
*Note: This template is best for clients who get cold feet after the first payment of a long-term contract.
Hello [Client], Thanks for reaching out about your concerns. I understand that you feel that you’re [reflect your client’s language here: e.g., “spending a lot,” “exceeding the budget,” “paying more than you expected,” etc.]. So, I’d just like to review all that we’re doing:
[List the order details or contract terms here. Quote them if appropriate, especially when handling custom orders.]
So far, [item(s)] has/have been delivered, and [item(s)] is/are in progress. I/we have also delivered complementary [item(s)].
This work has been guided and shaped by highly specialized industry knowledge, in-depth research, and advanced software. [Feel free to detail special insights, research, and software used.]
All this considered, I understand that you’re beginning to feel your investments coming to fruition. I am here to help you get results, all at a much more affordable rate [or insert another competitive edge] than my competitors.
Rest assured that you are in good hands. Let me know how I can better support you during this time.
Each time I’ve had to whip out this “rate justification response,” we’ll call it, the client has followed through with a purchase.
Why? Because after walking them through the value of the service (by showing them the scope, detail, and expertise), they’re willing to set aside their worry and trust the process.
2. Set deadlines that work for you
Freelancers don’t talk about this enough: Setting deadlines is a crucial part of self-care as a business owner. You’ve got to know when to accept short-notice requests (and when to say no!) and how to organize the work week.
I’ve had clients request same-day work. The last time this happened, I gently informed them that I would not be completing such an assignment that day, and that my fastest turnaround is 24-48 hours for certain projects.
Now, there are a couple of ways you could go about defending your time when this happens. One of the most popular methods is the “rush fee.” This means that your customers need to pay additional costs when requesting expedited orders. Such fees can serve a few purposes:
Compensating for speed:Many service providers need lots of lead time to deliver a high-quality product. So, rush orders can disrupt personal and professional schedules pretty dramatically. Plus, the rush project might require expedited shipping for certain materials, or short-notice interviews for research purposes. All in all, the rush fee helps protect the integrity of your products and services, even when you’re not given the time needed for proper development.
Encouraging respect for your time:Rush fees help deter customers from regularly requesting unreasonably swift response times. The added costs also remind them that your time must be respected, as expedited orders often require schedule shuffling or the sacrifice of personal time.
If you’re anything like me, you might not employ a rush fee. A lot of people avoid it for various reasons. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary, since I can normally complete certain assignments within 2-3 days. When I need more time, I ask for it or schedule a project further out.
Still, every now and then, a client pops up and asks for a project to be completed on the same day. The first time can be discouraged with a gentle reminder of your turnaround times. However, repeat offenses are best met with a stern reminder that you’re providing a service and not working as their employee. Just remember to do so in a professional manner.
3. Defend the quality of your work
A small handful of times now, I’ve had clients tell me that they don’t want me to follow my standard content creation processes. Instead, they wanted me to phone it in to get a cheaper price (fewer hours, lower cost).
This is baffling.
For example, early in my freelance writing career, I was stuck with a client who would regularly push me to spin articles (regurgitate competitor content and change a few words here and there) to fulfill orders as fast as possible. And unfortunately, at the time, I was one of those freelancers who succumbed to the pressure just to get by. This forced me to churn out embarrassingly low-quality work again and again.
Eventually, the inhumane speed at which I was asked to fulfill these orders wore on me pretty heavily—to the point that I could no longer physically handle writing up to 1,000 words per hour. (Seriously, that’s how fast I was churning out content at about five articles daily.)
Thankfully, I later ended our partnership. It was unsustainable, toxic, and didn’t allow me to grow as a writer. And I’m proud to say I didn’t always adhere to his “spinning” requests. Given my fixation on research and expressive, informative writing, I simply couldn’t spin whenever he asked me to. Still, it took a while for me to find my own style and methodical approach to developing content.
How to maintain quality control
Remember that when you decide to bend to unreasonable customer expectations, you might open yourself up for future complications and weaknesses in your work. It could even damage your reputation if you’re publicly associated with clients who urged you to produce low-quality work.
The best way to defend yourself against these types of folks is to publish your process on your website. Explain your practices and standards to prospective clients during meetings or in writing. Either way you choose, be transparent and adamant about how you work. If the prospect can’t respect it, they may not be a good match as a client and that’s ok.
4. Establish communication boundaries
This is one of the hardest things to get down when learning to develop and maintain professional boundaries. It can take many forms. For example, you might expect clients to refer to you as “Dr.” You probably don’t read emails outside business hours or respond to orders on certain days.
All these have different functions to prevent customers from violating professional and personal boundaries. Here’s how to make different types of communication boundaries work for you.
How to set professional boundaries concerning communication
Let me tell you about a client I once had who just refused to respect my time and boundaries regarding communication. (And I’ll let you in on some of the mistakes I made in this situation, too.)
In the short time that our contract was open, this particular client made a habit of asking for same-day meetings. To many, this is a huge no-no. After all, you’re probably juggling multiple clients, and you can’t just shove someone into your schedule willy-nilly. That likely requires you to shift obligations around and force them to fit into your agenda like a game of Tetris. For this reason, most professionals require meetings to be made at least 24-48 hours in advance.
Now, my big mistake: Indulging one of his same-day meeting requests because I happened to have the time that day. This only made him feel entitled to my time and encouraged him to continue violating professional boundaries by repeatedly insisting on same-day correspondence and other slights.
I didn’t defend my time strongly enough against this client’s entitlement. Now, I’m cultivating stronger, mutually respectful professional relationships with these steps:
1. Charge for your meeting time. When you don’t charge for your time, your clients will inevitably drag your meetings out or turn them into free consultations. Sometimes they won’t even show up. Charging for your meetings will encourage prospects to be more cognizant of the amount of time they ask for, and reduce the likelihood of rambling and distractions while you’re on the clock.
2. Publish your business hours. Make it clear to your clients when they can and can’t expect a response from you. If you don’t stick to a static schedule, then you can either add a note like “hours are subject to change,” or create a general statement, such as “Clients can expect responses within 24-48 hours.” This way, when anyone tries to badger you for a quick response time, you can simply point them to your hours.
3. Don’t let your clients have your cell number. Okay, to some, this may seem a bit silly. But this is my golden rule. In my almost three years of freelancing, I think I’ve only given two of my clients my cell phone number. This is a tremendously helpful way to separate your personal life from your work life. It’s easy to avoid your email until the workday starts, but having your phone going off from a needy client during date night can be a real buzzkill.
5. Get that money, honey
I’ll tell you now—I hate talking about money.
It makes me so uncomfortable. When a client doesn’t pay me on time, it puts me in an awkward situation that I wish I didn’t have to navigate. But if you’re going to run your own business, it’s inescapable. That said, the best way to minimize issues with late-payers is to set and enforcelate fees.
The late fees don’t even have to be all that dramatic. In my case, clients who don’t pay their invoices on time are subject to a $25 late fee on the business day following the due date, and each week thereafter until the invoice is paid. And it works just fine! I’ve only had to enforce it twice, and each time the client owned up to their blunder and paid the fee.
Apart from this, a gentle reminder of the impending price increase is enough to get clients to pay up. For example, I once issued a polite late fee warning on a soon-to-be-late invoice and the client paid within hours. Sometimes it doesn’t even take that much effort—just knowing that you could pay late fees by neglecting an invoice is enough to inspire on-time and even early payments.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that payment problems are always simple to solve with a mere late fee, or the idea of one. In some cases, you’ll have clients who refuse to pay the penalty. When this happens, you need to whip out those communication and conflict resolution skills.
Here’s how all this should play out:
1. Include your policies and/or a link to your policies on every single invoice you send. That way, your client has no excuse for failing to adhere to your payment terms.
2. Cc yourself on every invoice you send. This way, you can prevent excuses like “I never received the invoice,” since it will be sent to both you and your client in the same email thread.
3. Leave a paper trail. Ensure your accounting software has an automatic payment reminder system. If it doesn’t, then send manual reminders before and on the due date. Be gentle with a statement like, “Just a reminder, this invoice is due today. See payment policies here (link to your policy page).”
4. If your client is still unresponsive, update the invoice with the late fee as soon as the clock strikes midnight or schedule it in advance. I’m not kidding. It may seem overzealous, but as a business owner, all you have to depend on for your payment security is yourself. You must be serious about enforcing your terms.
5. Now, if they refuse to pay, use the template below to follow up.
Hello [Client], I wanted to touch base to make sure we’re on the same page. I noticed that you have not paid the updated invoice amounted to [dollar amount]. My policies state,
[Recite specific clause that outlines late fees.]
Regrettably, this is why a [dollar amount] late fee was added on [date].
Please pay the total invoice amount as soon as possible.
Feel free to outline the circumstances in your correspondence. For instance, you might note the events that led to the late fee, such as a lack of a punctual response from your client. If you’re feeling kind, you can even offer to waive the late fee or include an extension if there are complications out of their control that are preventing them from paying the invoice.
Bonus tip: If you’re ever unsure about how your email communications might be received, get another pair of eyes on it! First, read it over a few times to ensure you’ve said exactly what you intend as professionally and matter-of-factly as possible. Then, ask someone else to read it to determine if you’ve achieved the tone you were aiming for. Typically, if your email didn’t come off as unkind to a third-party, then you’re good to go.
Establish and maintain professional boundaries as an entrepreneur
Standing up for yourself as a business owner is hard; I’m not going to lie. It’s easy to romanticize the life of an entrepreneur. Although it’s incredibly rewarding, it takes hard work and extensive character growth to ensure your customers respect your time, standards, and practices.
Practice these steps and use these email templates to develop and maintain healthy professional boundaries for your business’s integrity and longevity.