by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
One of the issues that all freelancers often have to deal with is availability to clients, both prospective and current. Not that we aren’t available as needed, for the most part, but that clients may have unrealistic expectations about our availability, and we may struggle with how to maintain both reasonable work hours and good client relations.
A recent Facebook group comment mentioned a client who was upset because an editor did not respond to 12 e-mail messages a day — during a holiday week. I’ve seen similar, although not quite as drastic, anecdotes from other colleagues, and I’ve had a couple of demanding clients, too — people who would call late in the evening or during the weekend even after being asked not to do so, or would get upset if their e-mail messages weren’t returned moments after being sent.
When you work in-house, you have to keep the hours that the business requires of you. Some of us have or have had unreasonably demanding bosses or work environments, and have seen the assumed flexibility of freelancing as an escape from such situations.
I’ve been there myself. As a community organizer for a local nonprofit, I had to go to evening meetings and weekend events fairly often, although we did get compensatory time off. As a reporter for a weekly newspaper, I expected to cover events in the evenings and on the weekends and holidays, but I didn’t bargain for being stuck at the office until 2 or 3 a.m. on press nights; I put up with it because that was part of the job, and we were all in the same boat. As the communications manager for a small trade association, I was expected to show up at 7:30 a.m. for monthly staff meetings over breakfast at a place near the office — and pay for my meals — when the usual starting time was 8:30 a.m., and we still had to stay at the office until 5 p.m. on those days.
Lawyers are routinely expected to put in long hours, and their support staff often are subjected to demands that go well beyond 5 p.m. or Monday to Friday; I do proofreading for a law firm where the information-processing center is staffed through midnight seven days a week. Medical staff often have to work ridiculous shifts, especially as interns and residents.
Many freelancers do work at all kinds of hours; setting my own hours has always been one of the major benefits of freelancing. The problem kicks in with clients who assume that freelancers are available to them at any and all hours, on any and all days, regardless of time zones, weekends, holidays, and personal preferences or issues. This tends to happen more with independent authors than with businesses, but it can occur with companies when in-house contacts are disorganized or under pressure to get things done.
There’s a difference between working “at any hour” and “working all hours,” and it’s vital that freelancers establish that difference. As long as we meet deadlines we’ve accepted, when we work and for how long at a time is up to us. When clients can expect us to be available, for work or for contact, is also up to us.
Both to establish yourself as a businessperson and a professional, and to save your sanity, it’s essential to set and at least appear to stick to standard work hours. That can mean:
- Posting your “office hours” at your website and/or telling new clients when you can be reached early in the relationship;
- Not answering phone calls and work-related e-mail messages before, say, 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m. your time;
- Telling an intrusive client that such calls or messages aren’t acceptable and won’t be answered outside those hours; and
- Sticking to what you tell people.
One way to explain this to a client who keeps calling or e-mailing outside your established business hours is simply that “I run a business, and I keep business hours. I’ll get back to you within 24 hours of a call or message during the week. Over the weekend or a holiday, it might be 48 hours.” Another is to say something like, “I need to focus on your project to do my best work for you, and I can’t keep that focus if I’m continually getting phone calls or e-mail messages that interrupt me when I’m trying to work. The more you do this, the longer it will take me to get your project done, which means it might cost you more money — and it might affect the quality of my work.”
Be prepared, though: Expectations about our availability can be disruptive enough that we have to end some client relationships. I recently had an author who wanted my phone number and wanted to know what I consider odd and irrelevant personal details about me: my hobbies, whether I was married, even what I like to eat! She said these personal details were more important to her than my professional skills and experience. I envisioned constant interruptions to my work for her and other clients. (That she didn’t notice my phone number at my website was a warning sign of another type.) When I said I preferred to keep business interactions on a professional basis, she went ballistic. This was a client I didn’t mind losing.
Another aspect of availability is when there’s an impending health issue of some sort — a baby on the way, a scheduled surgery, a trip to look after an ailing relative — or an upcoming vacation or conference trip.
In the regular workplace, you handle most of these events by asking a supervisor or human resources department for the necessary time off and checking with office mates to make sure someone can cover your work. Alerting freelance clients to such “absences” is trickier, because there’s always the worry that letting a client know you won’t be available for a while could mean losing that client.
I’m a believer in letting clients know that something major is coming up, but that (a) I expect to be available as needed soon after and (b) I have backup in case the situation lasts longer than planned. By now, I’ve had enough experience with keeping my freelance business going to know that I can continue working or get back to work fairly quickly in almost any situation — the bad (major surgery, postsurgical complications, parent’s death, spouse’s major surgery and lengthy recovery, other parent’s long-term caregiving and eventual death, broken limb) — or the good (vacation weeks, conference trips). Freelancers with children will have other kinds of demands to balance with their work.
Because it’s simple common sense to expect that these kinds of issues are going to arise, both scheduled and unexpected, it’s equally good sense to plan for how to let clients know about availability and communication for those moments. As with so many other aspects of life, and business life in particular, being prepared will make it easier to cope with importunate clients who call and send messages at inappropriate times, and with good clients who need reassurance that we’ll be available as needed to get their projects done, come what may.
Sometimes we have to manage not just the work, but the personalities and expectations of clients, especially those who haven’t worked with editors and other editorial professionals before. Clients don’t have to know that we’re working at 3 a.m. or during the weekend, or that we’ve put in 10 straight hours on a given project. They do have to learn that they can’t expect us to be available at or for those hours and beyond. When we work is up to us; so is when we can be interrupted or contacted about that work.
The point is to establish availability boundaries and stick to them.
How have you handled clients with unreasonable demands for contact and availability?
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.