How much is too much?

That's the question a web designer was recently faced with when a client started pushing back on her communication style

Larionne Mariah, who goes by the handle @thebrandhero on Twitter, recently shared part of her conversation in a tweet:

The excerpt begins with an apparent complaint from a client, who says that because of the cost of the project ($5,200), they expect Mariah to answer their messages "ASAP."

"Hello, you paid me to execute and complete a project for you, not to be available for you 24/7," Mariah responds. "I've kept in constant communication with you throughout, wouldn't you agree?"

The client agrees, but says that for the fee they paid, they expect "full attention."

Soon after, the client sends another message:

"What's going on? Why did I get a refund??"

"I'm sorry, but I think you should find another team that will match the type of availability you're expecting," Mariah responds. "I won't be able to make those type of concessions. Best of luck to you!"

The tweet was posted less than 24 hours ago, but it's already received hundreds of thousands of likes, close to 20,000 retweets, and over a thousand comments--many of them taking one side or another (client or vendor).

"This client was actually really easy in the beginning," Mariah told me. "But then they started messaging me on Instagram because they sent me several emails and I wasn't responding fast enough for them."

"This is the first time I had to actually terminate the project and give the money back. It wasn't easy but I've had my personal boundaries violated in the past and I am admittedly sensitive when people speak to me or interact with me in a disrespectful manner because they've paid money. I've personally worked too hard to be spoken to or treated like that."

To be clear, I'm definitely on team Mariah for this one. But the viral tweet and ensuing debate prove there's a vital need to discuss this topic.

First things first: If you're running a business (or leading a team), you need to be responsive to your messages--whether it be clients, partners, or employees.

But, as Mariah's message thread indicated, she was responsive. Even the client was forced to admit it. The problem then comes when there's an obvious disconnect between the expectations of both parties. (This is a problem you'll find not only between client and vendor, but also between employers and employees.)

So, how can you address this problem up front, and help make your partnership a happier one?

Here are three steps that can help:

Know the (unwritten) rules.

Believe it or not, there's a set of unwritten rules many observe when it comes to written communication:

In most cases, people expect an email to be answered within 24 hours (and in some cases much quicker).

If you've agreed to using text messaging, Slack, or another IM service, they're probably looking for a much quicker response, somewhere in the window of a few hours, and definitely the same day.

Of course, not everyone adheres to these rules, and neither should you feel forced to. 

And that's why it's especially important to make sure you ...

Set boundaries.

As an entrepreneur or business owner, it can be difficult to find balance between work and, well, everything else. And the current pandemic has further blurred those boundaries for employer, employee, and client alike.

Here's where Mariah definitely got it right--by recognizing her own limits and prioritizing these. She defined how much was too much, and decided that the best way forward was to give the client a refund and move on.

If you don't set boundaries, it's easy to get roped into doing more than you really want--or are capable of sustaining. This can lead to overwork, interference with personal life, or even burnout. 

In contrast, setting your boundaries can help save your business--and your mental health, as Mariah herself made clear.

"As a single mother, it was very tough to give back that money," Mariah says.

"But I just wasn't going to take it anymore. I've worked too hard to repair my mental health. And now I have several messages from people telling me they appreciated what I did and I gave them the courage to stop allowing their boss or whoever run over them and their feelings."

"I just want to tell anyone who is feeling violated or disrespected personally or professionally, they don't have to."

Of course, no one wants to invest the time required to acquire a client and start a project, only to be forced to let them go before the project is complete.

And that's why it can be extremely helpful to ... 

Communicate expectations.

Everyone, whether you're a large organization or a solopreneur, has their own set of norms and expectations when it comes to written comms.

But, as this experience shows, it pays to both codify these norms and communicate them clearly.

  • What forms of communication will we use? (email, IM, text message, etc.)
  • How long should it take to respond to an email? (one day, two days, or more)
  • How long should it take to respond to a Slack message? (one to three hours, same day, or more)
  • How will we handle weekends and time off?

Whatever you do, don't assume you know what the other party wants, or that they'll happily accept your norms. Instead, spell it out from the get-go.

So, remember, when deciding how and when to communicate with clients, partners, employees, and even employers, be sure to:

1. Know the rules.

2. Set boundaries.

3. Communicate expectations.

Doing so will help you find the right partner fit, avoid misunderstandings, and make for smoother relationships.