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How to Stop Clients from Invading Your After-Hours Time

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It’s Friday afternoon. You clean up and get ready for respite. Surprise, surprise … within an hour of checking out for the weekend, a phone call comes in. What do you do? Ignore the call? Pick it up? As a web worker who can work anywhere, any time, is it possible to mark the end of the day?

The best time to deal with this situation is at the start of a relationship. “I treat my consultant/contractor work like a regular job, and set expectations when I first speak with a prospective client. I explain what my work hours are and that I’m not available in the evenings or weekends,” says Deborah Edwards-Onoro.

Like most web workers, you may be flexible and accept occasional out-of-hours work. Still, it could snowball into a regular thing. “Frankly, if you don’t set the parameters ahead of time, you’re setting yourself up for expectations that aren’t going to be acceptable,” says Michele Wilcox.

What if you have multiple clients and they all decide to call on you at the same time, or you bite off more than you can chew? Draw a line under your time by being proactive with these tips.

  • Discuss work hours at the start of a relationship. Specify your hours of availability and your flexibility. Set guidelines for special projects and emergencies that require out-of-hours work. These guidelines could include number of days or hours of advance notice for after hours work, list higher rates and how to handle emergencies. Get all of this down in a simple contract template that you can re-use.
  • Keep separate phone lines. Web workers should have separate phone numbers for home and business. It’s not professional to use one line for both, especially as there are plenty of telephony options available that can make it possible without a big expense.
  • Find a voicemail tool with features you need. Some voicemail providers offer features that give you more control over how the service handles your calls.
  • Let calls go to voicemail. Your client may be calling to share a thought without expecting you to answer. Let voicemail take the message and then check to see what the client has to say. Answering every time gives the impression you’re “always on.”
  • Turn off the phone. The phone should be there for your convenience. Despite this, some people struggle to ignore a ringing phone.
  • Set email guidelines. Tell your clients when they can expect an email response. You can set a rule that you reply within two hours during working hours and then a different rule for after hours and weekends.
  • Post your business hours. List your hours on your web site and in your voice mail, or indicate the best time to reach you. Prospective clients will respect your hours if they see your schedule before hiring you.
  • Turn off instant messaging, Facebook chat and similar tools. If clients contact you by instant messaging (IM) or on other platforms such as Skype, remember to switch your status to “away” as needed — or turn off the service.
  • Be proactive and present. Some clients don’t think to ask if you’re available for after-hours work. Rather than waiting for it to happen, tell the client that you’re flexible and would appreciate advance notice if something comes up. “If a client feels taken care of, he or she may hesitate before picking up the phone on weekends or after hours,” says Michelle I. Zavala.

Some people believe “always on” is the way to stay ahead of competitors, but it can harm your health and work quality. “How can you give your best to a client if they’re calling you, say, in the middle of the night and you’re asleep?” asks Teresa Nolan Barensfeld. “Another point is that your clients won’t see you as a professional if you don’t set any boundaries about your availability.”

Some freelancers say they compromise with after-hours work by taking time off during the day. You may run into clients who need 24/7 support. Steer away from such a set-up by asking questions and understanding their expectations. “Not everyone needs to set these boundaries for themselves and not every business model allows them. However, I have found that I am far more productive if I have a clear distinction between my office hours and the time I spend with my family,” says Laura Sultan.

How do you manage after-hours work?

Photo by stock.xchng user Hans Thoursie.

16 Responses to “How to Stop Clients from Invading Your After-Hours Time”

  1. Im a esthetician and I work Friday, sat, sun and Monday. My off time is tues-thursday. I have things I do outside of work not including family time and My clients are texting me and I used to respond through text back. Im getting a seperate phone line to seperate my proffesional and personal. my clients are invading my personal time and making me crazy. though it’s an odd schedule I need help on how to let callers know through voicemail that I am unavailable to respond after 6 pm on my weekdays only, and wont take calls tues-thurs. I will return call during my working hours to return phone calls between the hours of 10am-6pm friday through monday. It could be quite confusing. Any advice on how I can set my boundries. I am starting to resent people who think I am available 24/7…it rude to text me or contact me outside of business hors. They know it’s my personal cell as well. I cant get away from work…..Thank you so much….

  2. Good points, Meryl. When I was starting out in freelancing, I find it hard to just say NO, specially when its the ‘client invasion’ time comes. I thought I have to be there whenever they need me. I learned my lesson well and I’d say being clear about my work time in the first place have worked.

  3. I have recently moved to a virtual office solution, so that when no-one is in the office to take a call it re-directs to the virtual office where it is answered by a real person 7am-7pm who can take a message and pass it on by e-mail. They can also say that we are out of the office, in a meeting, on holiday etc.

    Outside of those hours and at weekends the lines go to voicemail, which sends the message as a WAV file to e-mail so that we can deal with them the next morning regardless of where we are.

    Our VIP customers have a separate number for after hours, which does not re-direct and even notifies my mobile phone, and they know that this is only for emergencies.

  4. Thank you Meryl for another helpful article filled with practical tips on how to manage clients and work. I always find great nuggets of wisdom in your articles that I can put to use quickly and easily. I’m honored you included my comments in the article, thank you!

  5. I have worked SO HARD to find a voice mail solution that takes into consideration the independent consultants’ personal life. I was blown away that for years, only $1000+ PBX boxes were able to let you schedule after-hours messages (without having to remember a button/switch.)

    Google voice forwards to a number, and some of my older clients have the “original” number… for those late night calls, I set up the following: In my home office, my ringer is always off, but I have a strobe light hooked to it so I know it’s ringing if I’m in the room. When I leave for the night, I just close the door. The strobe light can go nuts and it won’t bother me in bed or relaxing with family. I used to get client calls at 9, 10, 11 at night over stupid stuff that would be just fine over email. Like lost passwords. It didn’t matter if I told them my hours.

    Now… Google Voice has rudimentary after-hours scheduling and I’m limping along with that. Trouble is that many clients have my old phone number, which is a ‘regular office line.’

    Also.. I created a work-around for Google Voice so that you can schedule your SMS messages independent of voice. Until Google deploys this feature, that is:

    • Scott, many people tout the benefits of Google Voice. Thanks for sharing your situation and a workaround as I bet a few people are struggling with that.

      I opted to leave out products as this article is focusing on general options. I guess that’s one area where I am lucky in some ways… I never have to worry about the phone. (Hint: I was born without a sense of hearing.)

      Yes, we have technology (relay services) that makes it possible to make calls — but very few people have patience and it doesn’t reflect the personality of the person using the service.

  6. This is such an important topic! Thanks Meryl for the insightful tips. Even if you don’t discuss work hours with a client at the start of a project, it’s very important to teach with behavior as to what you respond to and what you don’t. If you take those weekend calls and respond to weekend emails you set a precedent that this is acceptable, and the client can take advantage of that. Very important to set boundaries with your actions as well as any discussions you may have.

    • Thanks for your sharing wise words, Lucy. And for those already taking those calls… try slowly letting calls go to voice mail and emails go unanswered a little longer. It also helps to have a conversation about it with the client, but it’s a hard thing for many of us to do.

  7. You are so right. I’m dealing with a client now who calls at all hours of the day and night and on weekends. I’ve created a monster by not setting boundaries in the beginning. I’m going to keep your words in my memory bank. Thanks!