Advice from Spill's therapists
Be clearBoundaries create better connectionsFour pieces of adviceRelated resources
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Setting boundaries with clients to protect profitability and relationships

Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees working on setting boundaries.

I struggle setting boundaries with clients. I end up doing more work rather than explaining we are going over the scope we discussed. I feel bad that the client is not getting what they want or they are not happy and I do not ask for more money. This fear is getting in the way of my company being profitable, and it's causing me to feel stressed and burnt out more than should be the case.

Our first therapist suggests...

Be clear

Think about how this will play out in the long run if nothing changes. I’m not suggesting this to make you feel even worse but to help you see that you are in danger of doing the reverse of what you really want to achieve.

If you keep doing free work for clients because they, quite predictably, try to get as much as they can for their money, your business will cease to exist at which point you won’t be able to keep any of them happy at all.

Quite apart from this, where did you learn that everyone else is important but you are not? It is neither reasonable nor fair for you to give your time for free and your customers would not respect you if they knew you did it.

When you haven’t set boundaries with people and then start to implement them, be prepared for some discomfort on your part and kick back on theirs. Be strong and walk through this because on the other side there is something far better for both of you.

Tell clients that you’re reviewing your pricing and proposals and trying to be more transparent about what is included and what is not. They will understand the benefit of this. Be as explicit as you can in your written proposals because that is where the setting of boundaries begins.

Then, when someone asks for something beyond the scope of the agreement be clear immediately and point out that you can do it but that it will incur additional cost.

Don't be apologetic, and don’t over explain because both of these behaviours indicate a weak sense of resolve and invite negotiation.

In terms of your fear that clients will be unhappy, part of policing your boundary is recognising that not every client is a client that you want.

You sound as if you do good, thoughtful work, and behave with integrity towards your clients. That is worth more than you may think, so establishing a clear boundary and maintaining it, even in the face of pressure,  will not lose you the clients worth having but it will garner respect and make your business profitable, which is no more than you deserve.

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Our second therapist suggests...

Boundaries create better connections

Sounds like you are trying to ‘people please’. We are prioritising someone else’s needs without looking at what the true need is in each situation (often giving up our own needs). This may lead to problems later down the line including practical issues with a work process, or emotional issues such as resentment or stress. Your worry about being liked is preventing you from setting clear boundaries. Setting boundaries actually makes things clearer and safer so it’s often a way that people interact with us more effectively, not less effectively, so don’t be worried about boundaries creating a disruption; they create better connections.

A boundary is an invisible line that says “this side of the line is OK with me, that side isn’t”. A clear professional line states what IS being delivered vs. what is NOT being delivered. It is really important to have clearly defined boundaries, especially when building relationships. The client needs to be clear about what they want (the scope of the work); you need to check understanding and get agreement on the final brief. If you’re unsure, check it out. Get clarity and understanding from the outset. You can then return to the original agreement when boundaries are moved (i.e. when the scope changes) and it will be clear to the client that the new work you are doing is above and beyond the original scope.

The client may change their mind from the original scope (which is totally fine) but they will understand this has cost implications. They will only be unhappy if this wasn’t made clear to them (no boundaries or clarity on this at the start) or if they are trying to manipulate the system (this sadly does happen which is where clear boundaries can protect us). Or if you haven’t actually met the need within the scope (in which case it would then understandably fall to you without cost implication).

Assertiveness can help communicate boundary crossing. It’s where we acknowledge the other person’s needs, but gently put forward our needs and check out next steps , e.g. “I understand that you would like to make changes on this brief HOWEVER, as you can appreciate, this is outside the original scope so will have a cost to it…. SO…..are you still happy to go ahead with this?” This little formula (your need…however…my need…what shall we do?) means that the other person feels heard which, in turn, calms their responses allowing a more successful conversation to happen, reducing risk of conflict and building connection.

Your skills and time are worthwhile; don’t give them away for free. It may be helpful to explore your ideas of self-worth with a therapist as it may be your own self appraisal that’s sabotaging your ability to set boundaries.

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Our third therapist suggests...

Four pieces of advice

I was sorry to hear about the current difficulties with your business and how this is making you feel. You mention that setting boundaries with clients is hard.

The following are tips to help you:

  • Ask yourself why you struggle to set boundaries. Many people struggle with this because they feel the need to please others and it makes sense in a business that we want to please our customers. There is a difference though between pleasing others and giving people what they need and what they paid for. Try to see setting boundaries as a positive. They provide structure, clarity, and safety. Without boundaries both you and your clients are likely to experience anxiety and confusion. Your clients are also more likely to express dissatisfaction.
  • Often when I provide consultation calls for my private practice people try to go over the 20 minutes I offer. To prevent this, I make it clear from the start what the consultation is for. I also aim to give a time warning when we are coming towards the end of the session, and I let people know if we have gone over 20 minutes. There are clients who do not like it that they are not getting more time to speak and who may not want to work with me because I have boundaries, but I am willing to let them go. Do you have a sense of scarcity when it comes to clients that is making you feel you have to do whatever a client wants? We build a good business reputation on professional standards not just by doing what each individual client wants.
  • People tell me they do not set boundaries because they do not know what to say. If someone is going outside of the scope of what you can offer, refer directly back to the initial agreement you made with them. You could say ‘In our contract in the first paragraph we agreed I would provide… In line with our contract, I am unfortunately unable to provide…’ You may decide to offer an additional service for an additional fee under a new contract.
  • Consider adding more checks when you onboard clients so you are clear about what they want and that you can meet their expectations for the agreed price and timeframe. If you are happy with how you set expectations with clients, then you should have no reason to worry if a client is dissatisfied because you will be able to demonstrate what you have done to meet their specific expectations.
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Watch a recording of our mental health webinar on 'How to set, respect & stick to boundaries'

This on-demand webinar looks at different types of boundaries, why we fail to set good boundaries, and how to set better boundaries at work.