my client is calling me 7 times a day

A reader writes:

I work as a consultant for a few small nonprofits (that is, I’m not an employee and I work remotely). For a variety of reasons, I prefer to conduct most business via email. In the first place, for the work I do, I like having a written record of discussions, decisions, etc. Beyond that, I find the phone jarring, intrusive, and distracting and it’s difficult to actually get work done when your phone is ringing off of the hook. I even have my voicemail message set suggesting people email me instead of calling for a faster reply, as I pretty much respond instantly to emails (and if I can’t reply right away I put up an auto reply letting people know I will write back later). I also proofread my emails for thoroughness and clarity before sending them out. So, in short, I’m really good with the email.

Recently, the manager of one of the organizations I work for retired. She and I worked together for several years and our communications styles matched in that we both generally preferred using email over the phone for most things (except for calls we’d plan in advance or in extreme emergencies).

The organization’s new manager has taken to calling me multiple times a day to “check in” on things that I’ve already emailed him updates about, or on things we agreed to follow up on later, pending additional info I’m still waiting for, etc. Other times, he will randomly call to have some big group discussion about something, without prior planning. Several times, that has happened when I was away from my desk and then it becomes an issue of where am I and when will I be able to call back, which means I need to get to my desk as soon as I can.

What’s more, he will leave these totally useless voicemails when I don’t answer, saying things like “Hi, it’s (name). Call me back.” I mean… if you’re going to leave a voice mail, at least SAY SOMETHING in the voice mail beyond that you just called, which I can already see based on the three missed calls I’ve had from you in the past 20 minutes.

In addition to being annoying and distracting, this dynamic of constant phone calls is really stressing me out. I’m a consultant, not an employee, which means that I’m not accountable to the org for my whereabouts and activities during the day so long as my work gets done (which it does) and this constant barrage of calls is making me feel chained to my desk and phone at all times. And believe me, they don’t pay me “chained to my desk” money. Beyond that, his numerous “check-ins” on items I am actively working on are making me feel hounded, nagged, and micromanaged.

My friend advised me to try to “train” the new manager in how to communicate with me by telling him “I’m not available by phone, but I will be available by email” and by responding immediately to all emails, but not answering my phone (or calling back immediately). I’ve tried this, but so far it hasn’t been working. If I don’t pick up, I can usually expect several more missed calls until I finally bite the bullet and call back. And the issues he’s calling about are never “emergencies.” I’ve also tried preempting calls at random times by offering times when I COULD be free and available to talk – i.e. “I am free to discuss this at 4pm” but that doesn’t seem to work either, as it will often prompt a phone call to confirm the 4pm phone call.

Anyway, this is making me crazy and the longer I let it continue, the harder it will be to make it stop. It’s to the point where he and I chat on the phone six, seven times in a single day. Are there more direct – but still professionally acceptable – way to tell him that he simply cannot call me so often?

Well, first, I wouldn’t take your friend’s advice. Telling a client that you’re only reachable by email will come across as really rigid and not realistic for the way many clients work. And frankly, depending on what type of consulting you do, it might not be reasonable to avoid the phone as much as it sounds like you might like to. (Of course, if you’re highly in-demand, you can make all sorts of rules — but otherwise, you do need to be fairly flexible.)

But you can and should set some boundaries here. You’re absolutely right that, as a consultant with multiple clients, you’re not expected to be available at all hours and whenever the mood strikes this particular client.

And while some people will pick up on the sorts of cues you’ve been sending (not answering each call, directing him toward email, suggesting a specific time to talk), this guy clearly isn’t. That means that you need to have a more direct conversation with him about this.

I’d say something like this: “I want to talk about the best way for you to reach me when you need me. Because I have multiple clients, I’m not typically available for ad hoc phone calls throughout the day — but I’m glad to make time for them when we can schedule them in advance. But as a contractor, I’m splitting my time between several projects and can’t offer full-time availability to Citizens for Better Teapots. My rates would be a lot higher otherwise! But what I can do is schedule a weekly or twice-a-week standing phone call with you, and we could hash through all of these things on those calls. Would that work?”

If he pushes back, you could explain something like: “You know, the advantage of hiring a consultant like me to do this work is that you get expertise in ___ without paying the full-time salary and benefits that you’d pay to have someone on staff who does it. But the flip side of that is that I’m not available all the time the way a full-time employee might be; I have other clients and other commitments on my schedule. In the last month, I’ve started receiving calls from CBT several times a day or being expected to join group calls at the last minute. As a contractor, that’s not something I can do. But I’d be glad to schedule a weekly or twice-a-week standing phone call for us. Would that work?”

If he agrees to that, then from there it’s reasonable to expect he’ll stop calling so much outside your scheduled phone calls. But if he continues, it’s reasonable to let most of those calls go to voicemail, and then you can shoot him a quick email later that day saying, “Got your voicemail, won’t be free most of today — can it wait for our call on Friday?” (That said, it’s smart to be willing to answer some of these last-minute calls — meaning one or two a week, not two a day. Consultants who are at least somewhat flexible are generally more valuable.)

Another option, if it continues, is to tell him that with the amount of availability he’s requesting, you need to raise your rates to cover it (if it’s something you’re willing to do at a higher price — but you might not be willing to do this at any price, and that’s reasonable).

However, throughout all of this, keep in mind that you need to know how much you’re willing to push this. Are you willing to lose the client over this? It’s possible that he’ll decide that he’d rather work with someone who is available all the time. If that’s an outcome you’re not willing to tolerate, you’d want to modify your approach accordingly.

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