how to explain lack of availability to clients

A reader writes:

I’m wondering how much of an explanation I owe clients for lack of availability.

Outside of my regular full time employment, I do what’s coined as “respite” or “community support” for children with special needs. Respite is basically babysitting, and community support is supporting children in community settings such as swimming lessons or dance class so that they can participate along with their peers. I generally keep my client list quite short, only making myself available for families I really enjoy working with.

Recently I’ve had issues with parents calling me at the 11th hour asking me to take their child to this event or that class. One even emailed me with only two weeks notice asking me to please take her daughter to an weekend-long overnight camp over an hour away! I don’t generally accept work on weekends because I work full-time plus two to three evenings of extra time during the week, and I need that time to relax and get personal errands done, plus I do have a social life and family to care for outside of work.

I enjoy working my regularly scheduled hours for these families and value my relationship with them, and I understand that parenting a special needs child is demanding and that they’d like their child to participate in as many typical aspects of childhood as possible — but I can’t drop everything and cancel all my plans every time they ask me at on Monday evening if I can accompany their child to a birthday party on Saturday.

How much of an explanation do I owe these clients? Is “I’m sorry but I have plans” enough, or do I owe them a reason such as I’ve got guests coming into town or I’m helping my husband rebuild our deck? I don’t want to offend them or hurt their feelings and I want to preserve my relationship with them. (Almost all my clients are also clients of my full-time job — and yes, this is common accepted practice in my field and my full-time employer is fully aware. But if they get offended, I will have to see them occasionally at the office.) Sometimes my plans are simply to sleep in and scrub the bathroom and I don’t want to lie, but I also don’t want to get up at 8 a.m. on my day off to attend a drop in gymnastics class. Thoughts?

You don’t owe anyone any explanation; all you need to say is “I’m sorry, but I’m not available then.”

In fact, it would be sort of odd to start explaining why you’re not available — it’s irrelevant to them (they really just care if you can do it or not), and getting into the reasons why you can’t implies that this is more of a social invitation than a business one.

“I’m not available then” is all you need.

However, if you think it would be helpful, you could also say, “In general, I need X amount of notice in order to schedule anything outside of my regular hours.”  Or, if you know you just don’t want to take on additional work outside of the regular hours you work for them, no matter how much notice you get, it could be helpful to say that too: “I’m normally not available outside of the regular hours we have scheduled.”

Because these requests sound like they come up a lot, it would be nice if you’re able to refer them to someone else who might be able to help them. But either way, “I’m not available then” is all the explanation you need.

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