How to Handle Clients with Boundary Issues

Posted 5 years ago in Small Business Tips
by Katie Pryal

If you work with clients long enough—no matter what your field—you will encounter a client with boundary issues. This is the client who really needs a friend, who forgets that he’s paying you to do work and not to chat with him on the phone. This is the client who wants you to “meet him for coffee” rather than have a professional meeting in a place of business.

This client can be difficult to handle.

You could bill by the minute like lawyers do, or even ask for a retainer—but would these tactics really help you handle a client who can’t tell the difference between friendship and a business relationship? Here are some better suggestions.

The overly friendly client

I’m a journalist and novelist. (Among other things—my business card should really say “dilettante.”) Some people, those people who aspire to publish books or articles in major media outlets, think what I do is cool. (They’re really, really wrong, but I can’t seem to dissuade them.)

Because working as a journalist and novelist is so very not cool, I have to do lots of jobs to earn money besides working as a novelist and journalist. I have to take other jobs because writing for work pays terrible money. To earn money, I work as an editor and as a teacher. And, so very often, my students and editing clients end up crossing boundaries.

Ordinarily I would worry about telling you this story—and revealing personal client information—if it hadn’t happened so many times with so many different clients. Consider this anecdote a conglomeration of many similar stories.

One time, an editing client had a hard time figuring out that our relationship was a professional one. She’s a gregarious person, perhaps even an extrovert. (I am not an extrovert. My office is best described as “cave-like.”) I was helping her edit a short writing project, and she kept asking me to “take walks” and “meet for coffee.”

Now, in-person meetings to discuss editing projects are things that I charge money for, in thirty-minute increments. I spent a some time feeling annoyed, feeling like she was yet another grabby client trying to push the scope of work beyond what I’d quoted. But then I realized what was really going on: she wanted to be my BFF.

She was never going to be my BFF.

Why does it happen?

Sometimes clients are lonely. Sometimes clients think you’re cool. (Recall: I am not cool. It’s all about perception.)

(The cool thing happens all the time to my friend who actually IS cool—she’s a ski instructor and famous to boot, a skier in old Warren Miller films and friends with Olympians. Her private lesson clients are constantly asking her to get coffee. She is constantly fending them off.)

Sometimes clients are just gregarious extroverts who talk too much. Whatever the reason, it is your job to protect your time.

Another reason—the most common reason—you end up with clients pushing your boundaries is because of you. You let it happen. If you let clients run all over you, they will do it. Or many of them will—enough that it will seem like all you are doing is fending off clients who are demanding your attention in weirdly personal ways.

Avoid the personal when doing business

If you show a client pictures of your children, then you have a social obligation to look at pictures of your client’s children. Moreover, you’ve opened the door to other personal sharing. Keep your Instagram account closed when in a client meeting, no matter how tempting it is to share. Resist the urge to share personal stories. If you start a business relationship in a business-like manner, the likelihood that the relationship will cross boundaries decreases.

Along these same lines, don’t add clients to your personal Facebook account or your other personal social media accounts. Keep your personal online world separate from your client-facing online world. If you haven’t done a good enough job separating the two yet, now is a good time to start.

Offer alternatives to the personal

Instead of saying “no” when a client suggests an overly personal interaction, offer alternatives to the personal.

For example, if a client wants to add you as a friend on Facebook, suggest instead that your client follow your public, client-facing Twitter account. Or, you can create a public, client-facing Facebook business page that clients can “like.”

Similarly, if a client suggests “grabbing coffee,” suggest an alternative meeting in the office instead. Meeting in the office will keep the get-together more formal, and will remind the client of the nature of your relationship. It’s up to you if you want to bill for your time, but at the very least, your meeting location sets a business-like tone.

Never take abuse

If a client crosses a line, any line, that makes you feel uncomfortable, you should fire that client immediately, without a second thought. You never need to take abuse.

You do not need to explain to the client why you fired the client. In fact, you are likely better off cutting off all interaction and avoiding explanations. If you have a client whose boundary issues are so out of line that they’re creeping you out, any attention from you, even negative attention, will likely feed the client’s need for that attention.

Don’t feed creepy clients.

Cease all interaction and walk away. Don’t worry: you will get more clients, ones who respect your boundaries, and you will have the skills to maintain good relationships.

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