“That’s because you’re incompetent. That’s not my problem.”
I watched, amazed, as a leader in the innovation space spoke those words to his client.
This was some years ago; I was a hired gun on the innovation leader’s team. This guru – not a word I ever use lightly, but it fits here – had been hired to help his client generate bold new product ideas, and he had delivered.
Now the client was complaining that the execution was difficult. (This is often the case with new-to-the-world ideas.)
And that was his blunt, matter-of-fact reply: “That’s because you’re incompetent. That’s not my problem.” The complaining stopped immediately.
Were it me, I would have chosen different words and tone. But I was also impressed by the guru’s complete and total unwillingness to take the client’s problem and make it his own.
Problem-Sharing and Boundary-Creep
If you’ve been a soloist for more than about 15 minutes, you’ve encountered a client who stretches the boundaries of your working agreement, or who tries to put their problems on your plate.
“You’re already doing these things, so could you just throw in this new thing?”
“A problem’s come up – can you help us solve it? For free, I mean.”
“We agreed that you’re not doing execution… but could you help us execute?”
To be clear, I do believe in over-delivering. And, certainly, there are times when it makes sense to go above and beyond. For instance, my favorite clients often get free thinking, because I value those relationships.
But that’s a right that should be earned – not assumed by the client.
And when we fail to uphold our boundaries, we set a bad precedent. We train our clients that our time and outputs have low value. We lose time that we could have invested elsewhere. We take on the stress of problems that aren’t ours.
For those of us who are wired to be “pleasers,” this problem can be particularly acute. And that’s a lot of us, because, unsurprisingly, the client service trade attracts a lot of pleasers. I count myself among them.
So what to do?
First, Establish Your Boundaries
This is not purely a mental exercise. Your boundaries should be established in the formal agreement or Statement of Work.
This way, you have an agreed-upon document that clarifies “what’s in” and “what’s out.”
This is your responsibility. The client will always choose an interpretation that’s most favorable for them. So don’t leave room for interpretation.
Some common boundaries we soloists must cover:
Be crystal-clear in what the deliverables are.
For example, a “marketing plan” is awfully vague. And your definition is unlikely to match the client’s definition perfectly.
So detail exactly what will be included in that plan. Share an example or a blank template if necessary.
Unending revisions can exhaust your patience and torpedo your hourly rate. Don’t let that happen.
First, cap the rounds of revisions. My default is one round, though many creatives I know allow two. More than that, and you’re inviting a drawn-out, unfocused discussion.
And specify who you will accept revisions from. Typically, this is the client’s project leader. This keeps you from receiving emails from five different people, and trying to assess if their feedback is mandatory, a suggestion, or just someone thinking out loud.
It’s reasonable, in a working relationship, to expect both parties to hit their deadlines. If the client is slow with their feedback, that shouldn’t mean an overtime situation for you.
In the SOW or project timeline, establish a fair window: “All feedback must be received within five business days of presentation to the client.”
When I share a timeline, I also specify the following: “Delays in any step will necessarily result in delays in future steps.”
Your All-Purpose Safety Clause
“But Matthew,” you may say, “I’ll never be able to address all possible scope-creep scenarios in advance.” And you’d be right. Neither can I.
So let me give you an all-purpose safety clause that you can copy and paste into your agreements:
“Any work not explicitly stated above is out of scope and will be dealt with under a separate agreement.”
You’re covered! You now have a firm leg to stand on if things get a little hinky.
Then, Pick Your Battles
In covering your bases, you’ve given yourself options. You can stick to the letter of the agreement, or not, as you see fit.
When boundary-creep rears its ugly head, here are some things I factor:
- The size of the project
- The size of the new ask
- The nature of the relationship
- The extent of my control relative to the problem
In one recent project, the client asked for an additional on-site workshop when we were deep into the project. It was a large project, and I loved the client, but it was also a big ask: Building, traveling to, leading and summarizing a workshop is a significant chunk of time.
So I directed the client’s attention to our agreement, which did not include an on-site workshop. I quoted a fair fee for it, and the client accepted. Done and done.
At times, you may elect to go for extra credit and allow a little scope-creep. If you do, make sure the client knows you’re doing them a favor: “This is out of scope, but I’d be happy to make a one-time exception for you.”
Cover as many scenarios as you can in your agreements. Use the language I shared with you above. Protect your downside.
But new situations will inevitably arise. When they do:
- Deal with it in the moment. Make the best long-term decision you can.
- Take the lessons from it.
- Add the appropriate language to your next agreement.
Your time is valuable, and I hope I’ve rewarded it. If so, your shares are greatly appreciated, as I try to spread the gospel to as many freelancers as possible.
Need help setting and keeping your boundaries? I have a limited number of slots available for 1-1 coaching. Click here to find out more about how my customized coaching can help you level up.
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