How to stop getting annoyed and start establishing boundaries with ongoing, casual clients

“Hey can you make this PDF smaller than 4MB?"

“I need something done, and I need it in a day or two."

The casual freelance client you picked up a while back is now getting annoying. You’ve now got some better business chops since graduating and working in the field, but still don’t mind a freelance gig here and there. So you gladly take on the extra work but that extra work has now turned into creatively unfulfilling projects with really tight deadlines, like having to downsize a PDF with a deadline of hours from being asked. You’ve had an ongoing working relationship with the client for a while now and have outgrown the short deadlines, small projects, and expectations.

You’d like to establish some stricter boundaries, but you’re not sure how.

If left unchecked, this situation can ruin long-standing client relationships. We, as designers, need to learn how to establish boundaries as we outgrow situations that may have worked for us in the past but aren’t serving us in the present.

Here are 3 boundaries you absolutely need to establish for your long-term clients who are starting to kill your vibe.

Before the client reaches out to you again about a project, send out a general letter to your client giving them a heads up of the changes.

You will want to include the following 3 boundaries:

Boundary 1: Address your current situation is changing and update them with the type of work and clients you are now accepting.

First, address the overall change by saying something like:

"I appreciate you as a client and therefore want to keep you up to date with changes in my business. As of (insert date) I will be taking on a limited amount of clients and projects."

This lets them know that you may not be able to help them out as willingly because they know you’re taking on a limited amount of clients now. You could also switch that out to say you are reaching full capacity with client work. Either way, you’re giving them a heads up that things are changing.

If you're not getting paid for the small, annoying projects or requests (which you can totally charge for!), you can also include a "minimum charge"  for changes, edits, etc. in that general letter where you’ll also advise them that you’ll be invoicing every two weeks.

Boundary 2: Outline your turnaround time for projects as well as addressing inquiries.

Next, address the quick turnaround time issue with:

“Please note that this also means I am booked out 1-2 weeks in advance and will address all inquiries within 3 business days."

That way, they can't pull the 2-day turnaround on you and they now are aware that you may not even address their inquiries for a few days. They will have to now plan ahead if they want to continue to work with you.

Boundary 3: State what you will do if they don’t like the changes.

They may not change and give you more notice. Instead of doing the work and resenting them, you will need to address what you will do in that situation by including a recommendation like this:

"If you need something addressed sooner than that I have some great recommendations of other designers.”

This will let the client know that there are other alternatives if your new boundaries do not work for them.

With these kinds of clients, I've noticed that I "train" their expectations . So if I reply back to their inquiries immediately and finish their work in less than a day, they will keep expecting that. The trick is to first set your boundaries before you have another encounter with the client so that you won’t feel the pull to react unprepared.

Setting boundaries with your clients can feel difficult and uncomfortable for some designers. I have experienced many different client situations over the years and as a result, this has allowed me to build a backbone for creating boundaries. That’s one of the reasons why I started teaching graphic designers how to freelance in my course, Pre-lance. I even have a whole lesson dedicated to “red flags and boundaries” because this can literally make or break you as a freelancer. 

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Melinda Livsey

Orange County, Ca