Design Domination Podcast Episode #147: Setting Boundaries With Clients

Many freelance designers struggle with boundaries, taking on and putting up with bad clients. But setting boundaries with clients means good clients and a better, more profitable creative business. Find out 10 signs you need boundaries and how to set them.


In this episode of Design Domination, I’m talking about something most designers don’t have—and that’s boundaries!

Stick around to find out what boundaries with clients are, why they’re important, 10 signs you need to set boundaries with clients and how to set those boundaries.

I had to talk about this because I struggled with boundaries for years without even knowing it, and my business changed for the better after discovering that and addressing those issues.

I see so many other designers struggling with boundaries too and being unaware of the issue. They blame the clients and commiserate with other designers, and nothing changes. They keep attracting the same types of clients over and over again, and it’s a cycle they can’t get out of.

I know because I did the same thing!

Changing that was a bit of a process, because there was a lot of introspection, a lot of mindset shifts to make and new policies to put into place. I wasn’t comfortable in doing that at first, but it was 100% for the better and made things so much easier in my business.

I want that for you too!

What Are Boundaries With Clients

You may have heard the term “boundaries” and not truly understood what it meant in relation to your business.

I know I heard this term for years before I really understood what it meant and what I should have been doing about it. I think I thought it was a woo-woo term that didn’t apply to me or something.

Why It’s Important to Set Boundaries With Clients

In case you don’t know why boundaries are important or if you think you shouldn’t have them because clients are paying you, let me explain.

Boundaries are the rules we set up for clients who work with us.

These are rules for how to treat us, but not just in how they talk to us. You can—and should—set boundaries in quite a few areas of your business.

If you haven’t established any boundaries in your business, I’m willing to bet you don’t have any boundaries in your personal relationships either. I didn’t at least. The two went hand in hand.

Getting More Respect by Setting Boundaries

One reason is respect. Boundaries let clients know, just like with other people you have relationships with, how to treat you. You may have heard the saying:

People will treat you how you allow them to treat you.

If you’re a pushover, like many designers are—and, hey, I used to be too… Now I take no prisoners…

But if you are a pushover, then you’re going to be especially vulnerable to:

  • taking on bad clients,
  • letting clients take advantage of you,
  • lowering your pricing,
  • exhausting yourself,
  • always questioning yourself, especially when the client objects to something or you take it as them objecting to something even when they are just asking a question. This is perhaps the worst one, because if you constantly doubt yourself in business, it will create a lot of problems.

You will never be totally in control of your business. Your clients will always be running the show.

I know, because I did this for a very, very long time. It got to the point where I was just frustrated and crying a lot until I worked with several coaches to get things back on track, at least on the surface at first.

I say “on the surface at first” because it took a few years to discover why I was really like this to begin with—with everyone in my life, not just in my business. When I figured out all of that mess, which lead back to childhood issues, I came out on the other side.

You will get more respect when you set boundaries. Clients will see this as part of your business process, and having a process helps you get more respect. It says, “I do this all the time” and “I have a process,” and experts have processes.

It also says you mean business and aren’t interested in any shenanigans.

It’s vital when starting out any new relationship that you get respect. It sets the tone from there on, and that starts with screening clients.

Screening Clients

Screening New Clients

Setting boundaries in your freelance business also helps you screen potential new clients who might be waving big red flags.

If clients don’t respect your boundaries up front, do you really want to work with them? What a nightmare that would be!

Letting clients know your boundaries helps you screen clients and decide which ones you want to work with.

For example, I once had someone email me about design work. I responded via email with a few questions for him to answer to not only screen him but also prepare for a call, and I also gave him the link to schedule a call.

Well, he was mad. He told me he preferred to deal with people instead of forms. (It wasn’t a form. It was a few questions and a link, but that’s besides the point.)

My point is that that is not only my process and how I do things, but it also helps me filter out those who want to try to dictate the process. For what it’s worth, no one else ever complained about my process. In fact, many clients have said how much they actually appreciate my process.

I mean, having someone schedule a call eliminates back and forth trying to figure that out via email. Being prepared for a possible meeting with a client by asking questions before that saves both parties time.

I couldn’t understand his issue. So I told him we weren’t a good fit.

Screening Existing Clients

Screening can also apply to existing clients.

Now, as I’m sure you already know, some clients have a need to push us to our limits to see what they can get.

These are bully clients, who might try to get a lower price or free, or get their late fees waived or criticize your work so you’ll hopefully do more work than you promised.

I had a client I worked with for several years who began paying late all the time. I charged him late fees. One day he called me and asked me to remove the late fee. It was literally a few bucks.

I said no because he had made it a pattern of being late and I had even only recently started charging the late fees, even though they’d always been in my contract. He threatened to not work with me any longer if I didn’t remove the late fee.

So let me get this straight. You’ve gotten a free pass for a really long time. Now you want to try to bully me into removing the late fee? Sorry. Don’t think so.

When I said no—which was extremely hard for me to do, but I knew I had to stand my ground—he started in with insults.

“I can replace you. I can easily find someone cheaper.”

He had always praised my work—for years. So this was clearly a bully tactic, I knew. I was not about to give in. The thought of that made me absolutely sick. So I stood my ground and then after I got off the phone I cried.

Bully clients might even threaten you to get more than they were supposed to get. I’ll never forget this time when a crazy client did this to me.

I had a full-time job and was also freelancing at the time. I had a client that I did a logo design, letterhead, business cards and a folder for. I specifically stated in my contract what was included—how many designs, which files he got, etc.

He called to ask me for the native files to the letterhead, business cards and folder, and I told him they were not included and there would be an additional fee for those, unlike the logos files, which he would get.

He threatened me on the phone, saying something about coming after me and calling me “little girl.”

Scarily enough, this guy lived nearby and he was a security guard. He actually had the audacity to come by my house! I was completely terrified, especially because I was living by myself.

What a psycho!

Setting Expectations

Another reason why it’s important to set boundaries is to set expectations with clients.

How to Contact You

You may set boundaries for how you want clients to contact you, whether that’s through phone, email or something else. I know a lot of designers allow Facebook messages, texting or WhatsApp. If that works for you, that’s fine.

I personally only allow phone and email. I don’t want to be monitoring five different places for client communication. That sounds like its own job—and very distracting—to me.

Your Business Hours

You may also set boundaries around the hours you will be available or will respond to clients. That doesn’t mean you can’t work whenever you want to. It just means you’re letting them know what hours they can expect to hear from you.

Setting Time Limits

If you offer free phone or video consultations, let clients know up front how long to expect the call to be. One reason is because you want them to make enough time in their schedule. Two is because your time is precious, and you don’t want to be sitting there all day.

So say, “Here’s the link to my calendar to schedule a 30-minute call,” so they know what to expect.

Quite a few times, I spent hours on a call with potential clients. In my experience, the more time I spent on a call with them, the less likely I was to get the job. In fact, I didn’t get any of those projects I don’t think.

Why? Because I gave away way too much information for free and I made it look like I had nothing else to do.

Project Terms/Scope of Work

Be clear about the terms and scope of the project—what is included and what isn’t.

Do you want 50% up front? (I hope so.) Put that in your terms too.

Are you including up to 3 rounds of revisions or unlimited? What additional charges apply for any revisions outside the scope? You better specify that.

Responding to Clients

Another boundary I had to set was response time to clients. I created my own monster.

I would get emails from clients and respond right away. I thought I was providing good customer service.

But what really happened was that I trained clients to think I would always do that. So when I didn’t respond right away, within a few minutes, I would get nagging emails checking in on me and asking if I had gotten their email. I’m talking the same day, not like the next day.

Submitting Edits

You can also set expectations about how to send edits to a design proof. If you don’t tell clients how you prefer to receive edits, let me tell you… You will end up getting a Word document with or without tracked changes, an email with comments referring to page x or y or something else. These are actually not efficient for the client or you.

So if you don’t want them to do that, get in front of it. Tell them you want them to mark up edits in the PDF proof or in InVision or whatever you use.

Clients will fill in the gaps where you don’t provide that information.

When they fill in the gaps, you’ve got someone who doesn’t do this work or use the same tools we do trying to come up with how to do something. It’s not something they like doing. It’s also usually time consuming.

Client Satisfaction and Relationships

Having—and enforcing boundaries, which is key!—means that you will have more satisfied clients.

If you have one or two clients who suck the life out of you, you don’t necessarily have the time or mental energy to deal with your good clients.

Bad clients who don’t respect boundaries take away your time from those good clients.

Most clients want to help you get the project done on time and efficiently and make it easier for them in the process too. So sharing what you would like them to do just means you won’t have to go back to them and take up more of their time. They will appreciate that!

Your Sanity

If I haven’t convinced you yet, enforcing boundaries is good for your sanity.

Yes, I understand you might it hard to assert yourself. Hey, I get it. But hear me out…

If you’re spending mental energy on responding to clients outside of business hours, it is stressful!

If you’re always at the whim of your clients and whatever they want and when they want it, then I have news for you. They are running your business, not you.

You’ll be pulled in a million different directions all day long. It will be mentally exhausting. You will never be happy. Your business will not be profitable.

Is Setting Boundaries Controlling?

Like many designers, you might think that setting boundaries it being controlling.

Is setting boundaries controlling? You bet it is! But not in the way you’re probably thinking.

When you control the process, you lead the process. When you do that, you’re seen as an expert. When you don’t control the process, you may look like you haven’t done this before.

If you are a people-pleasing designer (I’m a recovering people pleaser), you might think it’s hard or not even right to say no to clients, especially because they’re paying you. That’s almost the worst part: that you should put up with it because they pay you.

But as I’ve said before, you do not have to pimp yourself out for the money!

Not only that, but you don’t even have to tell a client your boundaries on the phone or on a call. All you have to do is put the terms in your contracts. If you don’t yet have the confidence to say it to their face, that’s totally fine. Let the contract do the talking for you.

10 Signs You Need to Set Boundaries With Clients

There are several signs that you might have an issue with boundaries with potential or existing clients.

Some are more obvious than others but they are signs of disrespect, and so you need to recognize them if and when they happen.

  1. You take on bad clients.
  2. You feel taken advantage of by clients.
  3. You feel out of control in your business.
  4. Clients don’t respect the terms of your contract. They pay late, for example.
  5. They expect you to be available all the time, at their whim. Listen: unless you’ve agreed to this and they’re paying big bucks for it, then absolutely not, no way. That should be a minimum day fee.
  6. They contact you through ways you don’t want them to. For example, they are calling your home number, which you did not give them, or they text you when you ask that they call or email you. I once had a client who used to work at my place of work who actually sometimes called me at work!
  7. They speak to you in a condescending tone, like you’re beneath them—like if they pay you, you should put up with how they treat you. In fact, I had family members who would tell me to do that!
  8. They stand you up for meetings.
  9. They expect you to do more work than what was agreed upon.
  10. They demand priority treatment all the time. Everything is an emergency for them.

I am sure there are more I could come up with.

How to Set Boundaries With Clients

So if you know you have a problem with boundaries—and even if you don’t and you need to set them, because it is only a matter of time before the inevitable happens—then listen up.

Creating boundaries is easy. Enforcing boundaries is the hard part.

You can create boundaries by:

  • Reflecting on past client experiences and crap storms I’ve shared with you.
  • Making a list of things you refuse to put up with. When a new bad behavior comes along, add it to your list.
  • Setting expectations, putting terms in your contracts.
  • Asking the right questions up front to establish you as expert in their eyes and not another order taker.

All of these things will help you avoid these scenarios in the first place—and without actually having to have the conversation much about them unless they go rogue.

Like I said, enforcing boundaries is harder. That’s when you do have to put your foot down.

Don’t cry wolf! Don’t set boundaries then let clients run amok. That only perpetuates disrespect. It means you put something out there you won’t enforce, that you don’t mean what you say.

Listen, bad clients will always find a way to have a problem with you.

If you put your foot down and demand respect, they will probably get upset by it and go elsewhere. Let them. Get that toxicity out of your business, out of your life!

If you think being in business is about winning every project or client, then you will be unsuccessful in setting boundaries.

If you constantly fear losing clients, then your business will suffer. You will take on bad clients at any expense to your business, your sanity or your health.

Good clients will respect you for setting and enforcing boundaries. Sometimes they don’t intend to go astray and then you reminded them of something, and they appreciate that.

And it feels awesome when that happens!

So, please, set boundaries. Don’t be afraid to enforce them. You are the business owner. It’s up to you and you alone.

If the client doesn’t like your terms or that you enforced them, then they shouldn’t have agreed to them in the first place. That is not your fault.

It does not—I repeat: it does not—mean you did anything wrong.

Not every client is a good fit. That’s simply how it is.

You don’t need to change who you are or change your business practices to suit individual clients with unrealistic expectations or who are bullies or whatever they are.

If you want to start the client relationship right, you’ve got to know what to ask clients and when. If you need help with this grab the brand identity builder, which will help you stop giving away your expertise for free and stop you from being an order taker. This will also help you start being confident, leading the process and getting more respect.

It will lead you through the various phases of the branding process from consultation through delivery and showcasing the final work in your portfolio, so you can attract more good clients.

You’ll find out ways to present your work and address feedback, so that you impress the client and get less pushback—everyone loves that!

You’ll get worksheets and a checklist that you can print out and have on hand to guide you during the consultation calls, and discovery and delivery phases and you’ll also get a list of resources.

Get the Brand Identity Builder for only $27

2 comments

  • Thanks for this. I am a small business owner in a different people pleaser field (prek) and deal w not only boundaries w kiddo students but their hellish parents (or wonderful ones!!). Setting major boundaries and not responding to a shitty email request for a long (I’m sure) phone call just for a returning family not to attend this fall. Blessings to you. I’d buy you a coffee but I had to get my own this am! God bless.

    1. Hey there, I actually own a preschool, also. I feel as if my patience is tried daily. What really has burned me up is the late paying families or those who are disrespectful to my staff in other ways. When I put down my foot, I am sometimes still challenged but boy is it refreshing to kick out a toxic family who is not good for my program. I wish I could find more providers like me in my area, but people are afraid to stand up to bad behavior. I am not…

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