Do you find yourself stressed or irritated that your clients are contacting you at all hours… or on personal channels like Facebook messenger or text messaging?
The reason that your clients are contacting you ALL THE TIME on ALL OF THE CHANNELS is because you've trained your clients to know that using any channel at any time of the day is totally okay by you.
I know what you're thinking... "Hold up, Kathleen. I never ever told them that they could contact me nonstop on every communication channel they can find."
You absolutely did tell your freelance clients it's ok to contact you at all hours or on any channel – and you did that in TWO different ways.
1. It wasn't in your contract!
You didn't set the expectation of how and when you would like to be communicated with when you signed them as a client.
I'm guessing you didn't explicitly tell them, "My working hours are 9-5pm EST from Monday to Friday. Emails and phone calls are totally welcome although I check my inbox and voicemail 1-2x day to catch up with all communication so you might not get an immediate response that day or I might need to get back to you the next day."
And I'm also guessing that you didn't put that in your contract. So start there for any new clients going forward – add it to your kickoff discussion agenda as well as your contract.
2. You encouraged your client's behavior!
Secondly, I'm guessing that when they started out calling you later in the evening that you answered their call.
Or if the problem is that they're using informal channels like text or FB messenger, I'm going to go out on a nearby limb and say that you've either initiated communication using those channels. At the very least, you've responded to the client's communication on those channels.
Either way, you're training your client that it's perfectly okay to contact you during off-hours and expect a response or to use informal channels and to expect a response.
Clients don't think about these things and they rarely will cross boundaries knowingly so they almost without a doubt haven't even considered that calling you later at night or shooting a FB message to your personal account might be problematic for you.
And if you've welcomed (in their mind) these types of communication in the past, it's a signal to them that it's perfectly acceptable so they're going to continue doing so unless you speak up.
Now, let me add one quick caveat to all of the above guidance. If your client is emailing you at odd hours, that's totally okay! People send email at the times that are most convenient to them or when something is top of mind. Don't sweat it – you don't have to respond to things like email or Slack in the moment.
So when you have a client that you've been working with for a little while (or a long while) and they're communicating with you during off-business hours (and they've articulated that they expect a response immediately) or they're using a non-preferred channel like text or a FB message, how can you retrain them?
The next time they contact you either late and night or using a channel that's too personal – you hit them with the MAGIC PHRASE.
This is the magic phrase: "Hey Ms. Client – thanks for letting me know (or thanks for reaching out about that). Can you please shoot me an email with this question/info so that it doesn't get lost? That way I can get back to you when I'm back online tomorrow (or Monday if on the weekend)."
Here's why that response is perfect:
For one thing, it's not a non-response. Just flat out ignoring the client request when you usually respond during those hours or on that channel is very poor service. Don't do that – yet!
It gives the client a clear ask and expectation of how to communicate with you – by email – and WHY doing so is in their best interest – "so it doesn't get lost"
It provides a timeframe for when you'll get back to them and subtly lets them know that you are currently 'offline.'
Now, when you institute a new policy with your freelance clients you need to give them some grace as you reframe how you will accept communication. You may need to send them a version of that magic phrase a few times before they start to see the pattern. 99% of the time, they will get it by the second or third time you respond in this manner.
If your client is SERIOUSLY not getting it by at least the third time you respond with the magic phrase – then it's time to have a Come To Jesus Meeting in which you put on your big girl or big boy pants and have a nonemotional conversation (or better yet! include it as a discussion item in your regular catch up meetings) where you flat out ask them to stop texting you or calling after hours. That's it. They'll either comply or they won't at that point and like anything else that has to do with client behavior, at that point, it's up to you to decide whether to continue working with them.
One last thing: I've heard from freelancers who are ready to throw in the towel because this type of communication behavior is driving them nuts. Understandable... we all need to feel like we have work/life balance and if client relationships feel like they're intruding on your personal life, it can be tempting to want to bail.
If you bail on a client every time you feel like things aren't going perfectly smoothly, you'll struggle to build your roster of clientele. Instead, get into the habit of solving for what's not working. In this case, it's that communication isn't happening how you would like it to. That doesn't mean that it can't be changed.
Try some of the suggestions I've outlined here and work with your client to find a better way to communicate so that you feel that your personal time and space is better separated from your work time and space.