I'm amazed when I hear designers, and independent creatives, constantly complaining about the client who calls at all hours or sends emergency emails in the middle of the night. My immediate thought is: Why are you answering the business phone call, or responding to the midnight email missive, during personal time?
While there may no longer be real geographic boundaries to working independently, establishing a successful client relationship, and maintaining some degree of sanity, does require setting up parameters in regards to communications and time. Doing so may initially require some patience during the process of training your client.
Establish "office hours" for your business. The vast majority of businesses have set hours of operation. Why should yours be any different?
Early in my career, my office hours were 8:00 to 5:00; Monday through Friday. I certainly worked additional hours, but that didn't mean I had client contact before or after those times. In the summer I had "summer office hours" of Monday through Thursday; 8:00 to 5:00. I had no client contact on Fridays. It drove a few people crazy, but it's my business and I get to set the rules. Following Labor Day weekend I would revert back to the normal "office hours" and change my voice mail message to reflect that fact.
One year, after Labor Day, I went to change the message and suddenly realized that I didn't want to work (or at least have client contact on Fridays). My "summer office hours" have been my regular "office hours" for over a decade now. Again, it's my business and I get to set the rules.
A ringing phone doesn't require that you must answer it. That's why some brilliant person invented voice mail. My office hours determine when I will be answering my dedicated business line. If I'm busy with a project I may not answer the phone when it rings, but I will check my voice mail messages several times during the day and get back to the caller later. Caller ID, and dedicated rings for clients calling in, can also help keep business calls from infringing upon your personal life.
I don't have a cell phone. I had one for three months about 12 years ago and it drove me crazy. I hated being that connected. At that time, I'd run my business for about 18 years without a mobile phone and my business did just fine. Besides, I do love the look on a client's face when they ask for my cell number and I tell them I don't have one.
It's much the same with email. A client's perception that a 3:00 AM email is addressing an emergency situation doesn’t necessarily mean that it's a real emergency demanding immediate attention (as if you are actually sitting at your computer at such a time waiting for their email). I respond to client emails during my established office hours - and as timely as my schedule for that day allows.
Admittedly, there are exceptions to the "rules." An occasional true emergency may require an immediate response. I simply don't often find myself needing to respond to situations outside of my established hours of operation.
Being an independent creative does allow you to determine how you choose to establish the communication boundaries between clients and yourself. The limitations put in place may be very helpful in maintaining successful client relationships - and keeping any possible resentment of clients to a minimum. Remember; it's your business and you get set the rules.
This piece was originally posted on the Creative Freelancer Conference blog. Jeff Fisher, the Engineer of Creative Identity for Jeff Fisher LogoMotives, will make his presentation "Reaping the Rewards of Creative Independence" at the Creative Freelancer Conference, to be held August 27-29, 2008 in Chicago.
© 2008 Jeff Fisher LogoMotives