Open all hours? How to set boundaries to when your customers can call you

Richard Tubb

As a former owner of a Managed Service Provider (MSP) I’m all too familiar with receiving “emergency” telephone calls from clients, at all hours of the day and night.

“I’m really sorry to call you, but it’s an emergency!” the client says, before proceeding to tell you that they’re unable to open an Excel spreadsheet at 10pm on a weekday evening. Your heart sinks and you want to ask: “Could this not have waited until the morning”. But you don’t!

The challenge is that while the majority of us in the IT sector work from a desire to help people, responding to these late night telephone calls from needy clients can not only cause you stress, but can cause ructions with your friends and family too. Your dedication to work might seem important, but do others understand why you put work ahead of them?

With all of this in mind, here are some tips on how to set boundaries around when clients can and can't telephone you.

Don’t set inappropriate expectations

time-managementIf you respond to an email or a telephone call from a client outside of your normal business hours, even if it is just a “one off”, you’re giving them permission to contact you this way again in the future. And trust me when I say that they will!

By setting your clients' expectations that if they contact you at any time of day or night that you will respond, guess what? They’ll contact you any time of day or night!

On the other hand, if you don’t respond to that telephone call or email immediately, but do respond as soon as the office opens the next day, you’ll be setting the expectations with your clients that you’re ultra-responsive… during the hours they pay you to be!

Do set appropriate expectations

Set-BoundariesWhat happens if you’ve already inadvertently set inappropriate expectations and you’ve already educated your clients to expect an out-of-hours response? How can you re-educate them that you work business hours alone?

With out-of-hours telephone calls, try this tactic. The next time a client calls you at 9pm with an Excel spreadsheet problem, don’t respond immediately. Leave it at least 30 minutes to an hour, then call the client back and say “I’m sorry I missed your call, I was at a family meal with my phone turned off. How can I help?”

You’re immediately offering up two thoughts to the client:-

  1. You’re letting the client know that you have a personal life.
  2. You’re still being helpful.

In nearly all of the cases I’ve used this approach, a surprising thing happens: the client apologies for disturbing your family time (they know they were being naughty anyway) and advises you they’ve found a solution to their problem anyway. They then conclude by thanking you profusely for responding to the call.

It’s my observation that if people believe that they can resolve their problem quickly by sharing it with you, whether it disturbs you or not, they will. But once they don’t get the immediate response they are expecting – they’ll go about fixing the problem themselves.

They’ll do an Internet search on the issue or do something to help themselves – something they probably should have done before disturbing you.

The client will think twice before calling you out of hours next time, because you’ve educated them that you won’t respond immediately, that they’ll be disturbing not only you but your family, and that they’re perfectly capable of solving their niggling problems themselves anyway!

Conclusion

If you give your time and expertise too freely outside of normal business hours, you’re educating your clients that this is OK and giving them permission to call or email you at all hours of day and night. That’s something that most of us as IT Professionals – not to mention our family and friends – don’t want.

Instead, set barriers around your personal time and resist the desire to immediately jump in and help clients who can probably just as well help themselves.