As an interior design firm owner, you may have struggled with clients who push your boundaries. Even when you explicitly outline boundaries, some clients make unreasonable requests outside the scope of their project that frustrate your team. Certain clients call after hours or demand special treatment. In some cases, their behavior can border on condescending, offensive, or even abusive. You want to keep clients happy, but at what cost? Establishing boundaries with clients is essential to maintaining a healthy and productive working relationship that serves everyone. In this post, we explore ways to respectfully but firmly set boundaries with clients. If approached correctly, you can do so without compromising your professionalism, the quality of your work, or your team’s mental health.
How to Set Boundaries with Clients
As a firm owner, it can be tough to say no to clients who demand more than what you’re willing—or able—to give. However, setting boundaries is crucial to maintaining a healthy and productive working relationship that serves everyone involved. Remember, saying no doesn’t have to mean losing the client altogether.
Start by defining your boundaries early on in the project. Clearly communicate what you are and are not willing to do, and make sure the client understands this before any work begins. This helps you manage expectations and avoid misunderstandings down the road.
Another way to set boundaries is by establishing clear lines of communication. Let clients know when and how to contact you or your team, and set realistic response times for emails or calls. Stick to these guidelines, but also be flexible and responsive within reason.
Finally, don’t forget to prioritize your own mental health and well-being. It’s okay to turn down projects or clients if they go against your values or cause undue stress to you or your team. Your business will thrive when you establish firm boundaries and stick to them confidently and professionally.
Below are thirteen ways to establish and enforce boundaries with clients.
#1 Create a List of Boundaries and Response Triggers
First, create a list of boundaries and response triggers. This is an internal list that you and department directors or managers have access to.
Certain boundaries absolutely cannot be crossed when you or a team member interacts with clients. For example, you might decide that invoices past due thirty days or more are unacceptable. Or you might determine that repeatedly contacting the team after set hours constitutes harassment.
Define these boundaries and assign “triggers,” each resulting in a particular consequence or response intensity level. Though you might eventually part ways with one or two clients, most issues will be resolved long before the “let-them-go” trigger is activated.
#2 Put All Prospective Clients Through the Same Consultation Process
Next, put all prospective clients through the same consultation process. Even if someone was referred to you by someone you trust, put them through the same introductory processes as you would a prospective client utterly unknown to you.
Ask all the same questions, be upfront about your pricing, and only work with them if you come away with a good feeling about the partnership. While this is easier said than done, ideal court clients instead of accepting anyone willing to pay.
#3 Set Boundaries with Clients by Eliminating Cost Confusion
Third, eliminate cost confusion to avoid sticker shock when billing clients or expanding the scope of a project. Be explicit about how much your services cost, and do not compromise. Creating a fee schedule everyone in your team can easily reference is one way to do this.
A professional fee schedule in which every team member who works on a project charges for their time at an hourly wage based on their level of experience and expertise is common practice for professional service firms.
Law firms are a good example. Associates and partners bill clients at different rates – even when working on the same project. They do not charge a set business hourly that covers all contributors.
We tell our clients that we bill like any other professional service firm. This helps us communicate pricing in a way that should be familiar and acceptable to most prospective clients.
We only do hourly billing with estimates – not fixed sum because we just lose money. Some prospective clients won’t be comfortable with that, and we have to walk away from them.Laura Umansky, CEO & Founder of Laura U Design Collective, Co-Founder of Design Dash
You should also be clear about what percent commission you charge on top of wholesale. Your expertise in selecting and sourcing comes with a cost to the client; don’t budge or be bullied on this. Explain that “this is how you do it,” and if that doesn’t work for them, your firm is not the right fit.
#4 Set a Project Minimum
Fourth, set project minimums for each service line, and stick to them! You might feel like a minimum budget threshold locks out clients who might fit your firm. However, setting project minimums ensures your team is fairly compensated for their hard work and time spent. It prevents cost overruns and limits project creep.
If you don’t already, create a rubric for taking on the right clients. It could include a minimum budget threshold, project type, project location, or any other criteria that you find important.Melissa Grove, LUDC COO & Design Dash Co-Founder
When communicating with a prospective client whose budget is too low for your firm, be kind in your rejection. Never criticize their budget or condescend; refer them to another design firm if possible.
In a post for Curate, Ryan O’Neil recommends creating a “budget calculator” that lives on your website or your project inquiry form. O’Neil notes that “this allows potential clients to self-qualify.” It also gives prospective clients the “opportunity to consider if their budget is flexible enough to stretch up to [the] minimum.”
A tool like O’Neil’s calculator eliminates the shame a client might feel if they consult your firm directly and are rejected based on budget.
#5 Define Boundaries Early On
Next, it’s essential to define boundaries early on. Be clear but polite with clients about expectations regarding billing, contacting your firm, and more.
Clients are more likely to respect your boundaries if they are explicitly defined at the onset of your working relationship. Your limits differ from those at other firms, and particular behavior may have been tolerated elsewhere.
#6 Establish Clear Lines of Communication
As a firm owner, you should also establish clear lines of communication from the very beginning. This is one of LUDC COO and Design Dash Co-Founder Melissa Grove’s top tips.
I’ve received new project inquiries at 9 pm before, and I’ve wanted to reach out right then! But it sets the expectation that I (or worse, my team) is working a 24-hour day. Setting a tone of balance starts with that first contact.Melissa Grove, LUDC COO & Design Dash Co-Founder
Before taking on another client, identify opportunities for standardization and automation. If possible, automate messages to reinforce these lines of communication. Create automatic messages on Facebook or via email when you are unable to respond or clients email you after working hours.
#7 Speak Respectfully About Your Employees
One common boundary issue with clients is a lack of respect for junior designers who lead or play an active role in a project. Newer members of your team may not yet have the confidence or experience to assert their own boundaries.
As their boss, it’s your job to make sure they feel valued and respected in the workplace. At the same time, make sure that team members know what kind of behavior is acceptable from clients and which they should report to supervisors or department heads. Empower them to speak up.
#8 Address Any Issues Immediately
Eighth on our list of ways to set boundaries with clients is to address issues immediately instead of pushing them off. Don’t ignore issues and allow them to escalate.
In an article for Entrepreneur, Paul Fitzgerald underscores the importance of reacting swiftly and appropriately to client misbehavior. Fitzgerald recommends that firm owners “remain firm on your previously established boundaries.”
Instead of ignoring behavioral issues that frustrate your team, “gently remind [clients] of the agreed-upon terms.” Listen carefully, and then “explain why their request will not work in the form in which it’s been proposed.” By making the client feel heard instead of overreacting to their requests, you are more likely to diffuse a difficult situation.
#9 Track Your Time Closely
Ninth on our list is to track your time closely to ensure clients are running over the amount of time you agreed to. Project creep is common.
Especially in residential, we’re working inside our clients’ most intimate spaces, and while I’d love to be very structured and rigid with my boundaries, it doesn’t always work that way as the project progresses. If something is really important to the integrity of the work or the profitability of the project, like scope creep, we outline that in our design agreements. Those really important pieces of the work relationship need to be in writing.Melissa Grove, COO of Laura U Design Collective & Co-Founder of Design Dash
Tracking your time helps you catch project creep before it overwhelms you, your team, and your contract.
#10 Keep Up Your End of the Bargain
This goes without saying, but building trust with clients — even the difficult ones — starts with respecting their time. Show up on time to client meetings and respond to messages promptly within the timeframe you have outlined. This will show clients you and your team are professional and committed to delivering an excellent result, all while reinforcing your boundaries.
#11 Take Client Feedback Seriously
As a firm owner, it’s important to take client feedback seriously. Client opinions can help you improve your services or products. However, taking feedback seriously doesn’t mean that you have to implement every suggestion that comes your way.
When receiving feedback from clients, it’s essential to listen carefully and ask questions if appropriate. This will help you understand their perspective and identify areas where you can make improvements. It’s also important to thank them for their input and let them know that their opinion matters to you.
Once you’ve received feedback, take some time to evaluate it objectively. Determine whether the suggestions align with your business goals and values. If they do, consider implementing them in a timely manner. If not, respectfully explain why you won’t be making changes based on their feedback.
It’s also crucial to communicate any changes made as a result of client feedback. Letting your clients know that you value their opinion and take action based on their suggestions can go a long way in building trust and loyalty.
#12 Apologize Sparingly
When it comes to setting boundaries with clients, you must also learn when and how to apologize. While apologizing can be a powerful tool in maintaining positive relationships with clients, it’s important to use this tool sparingly.
Apologizing too frequently or unnecessarily can actually undermine your authority and credibility as a professional. It can also create unrealistic expectations for the client, who may begin to expect apologies even when they are not warranted.
So, when should you apologize? The key is to reserve apologies for situations where you or your team have made a mistake that has caused harm or inconvenience to the client. In these cases, a sincere apology can go a long way toward repairing the relationship and restoring trust.
However, if the issue at hand is simply a matter of differing opinions or preferences, an apology may not be necessary. Instead, focus on finding a solution that meets both parties needs and move forward from there.
It’s also important to remember that apologies should always be genuine and heartfelt. Avoid using generic or insincere apologies that come across as robotic or disingenuous. Instead, take the time to understand the client’s perspective and express empathy for any negative experiences they may have had.
Acknowledge issues and offer to resolve them, but if the client is bullying members of your team or otherwise behaving badly, don’t apologize just to placate them. As Geoffrey James writes in an article for Inc., “You’re a professional, not a doormat.” Instead of apologizing immediately, “state clearly that you’re willing to help resolve the problem, but you’re not going to be yelled at.”
#13 Tactfully Sever Ties if Unacceptable Behavior Continues
As a firm owner and team leader, it’s essential to ensure that your team members feel confident and empowered enough to set their own boundaries with clients. Creating an environment where employees feel valued and respected will help them speak up when faced with unacceptable behavior from clients. It’s crucial to have clear guidelines on what kind of conduct is acceptable to clients and which should be reported to supervisors or department heads.
However, even with these guidelines in place, issues may still arise. In such situations, addressing any problems immediately is key to preventing the situation from escalating further. Despite all efforts, some clients may continue with unacceptable behavior despite repeated warnings.
In such cases, tactfully severing ties might be necessary for the well-being of your team and your business. While this step shouldn’t be taken lightly, your team will appreciate your willingness to put the good of the firm over short-term financial gains.
Remember to keep communication respectful, professional, and empathetic throughout the process. Losing a client may not be ideal, but it’s usually best to prioritize your team’s welfare and well-being.
Final Thoughts on Setting Boundaries with Clients
Remember, it’s okay to say no if a project goes against your values or causes undue stress on you or your team. Prioritize your mental health and well-being above all else because, without them, everything else falls apart.
Setting firm boundaries with clients is critical to a successful and sustainable business. Be confident, professional, and assertive when establishing these boundaries because, ultimately, they will benefit both you and your clients in the long run.
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