As a consultant, it’s hard to manage expectations when the organization that I work for seems to think I’m on call 24/7 and actually joke about me being available 24/7. How can I best communicate to them about setting expectations for more reasonable response times?

Elaine Varelas guides on best practices for consultants to manage response time expectations.

Q: I’m a consultant for a company and there is an expectation that I’m available 24/7. How can I set clear boundaries and communicate expectations with my client regarding my availability in a professional, friendly manner?

A: No one working for any organization is available 24/7, unless they are the owner. Every employee, regardless of status, whether it’s part-time, full-time, hybrid, remote, or consultant needs to have some set of boundaries that are known by their colleagues, their manager, and have been agreed to in advance. One of the challenges of the term “consultant” is how ill-defined that title is. Does that mean that you are a part-time employee? Does it mean that you are a project employee? Does it mean that you are an on-demand employee? Or own your own firm and are paid a significant premium to be on call 24/7.

As a result, people may not recognize that they are making requests that are not within the defined work agreement between you and the organization. There are some highly effective ways I’ve seen this handled by people in a consulting capacity. One is with KPI’s, Key Performance Indicators, by saying something like, I will respond to every request from (name people) within 24 hours or some defined period of time so that everyone knows who can contact you and what to expect. You don’t want to be put in the position to ensure someone is approved to use you as a resource. If you consult to the organization one day a week does that mean that it’s 8 hours in one business day or 8 hours throughout the week that makes you on-demand? If it is one day you need a highly visible calendar that you provide in your email that communicates the days and hours that you are available to that organization. Document all of this in a written agreement so that all parties are clear up front – not when an issue arises. Signatures are valuable.

When someone oversteps agreed to boundaries, your first reaction should be I am a valuable resource to them, they are unclear about my work relationship, and not these requests are too demanding. Work with your manager/client to communicate to individuals at the company to let them know the best way to submit requests and when you will be responding. Let them know you want to do this so you exceed expectations and so you don’t disappoint. They may need to add more hours if they see a greater demand, but they only do that if you approach with great positivity. If your KPI is 24-48 hours, your goal should be to beat the outside of that deadline. And it also trains those people to make their requests in a timely fashion and not with great urgency and unrealistic deadlines.

Technology experts have created the ticket methodology, and this might also be something that you might put in place especially if you can’t limit the number of people forwarding you work. Everyone has to be clear that the initial request that went to someone else 24 hours prior doesn’t fall into your 48 hours of KPI time. You might have a ticket practice that is visible for other people to see in terms of when the request was actually forwarded to you. Everyone needs to recognize when the request made its way to you and the measurement of time that you then get to respond to that request.

When you are consulting, there are always emergencies. Emergencies should be agreed to in advance. Emergencies typically constitute double-pay and half the time. When you create your consulting agreement with this organization it’s not just about the hourly rate. It’s about the expectations of response time, working hours, emergencies and emergency compensation, and recognizing that you aren’t a full-time employee and if you need to reprioritize their requests that your time becomes more valuable to them. The same is true if your refrigerator repairman comes between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm, there is a standard service rate. If your refrigerator repairman comes between 5:00 pm and 5:00 am, there is a higher service rate. Your consulting rates should have that built into that initial consulting agreement. Let them know that your urgent request response will get back to them in half the time at twice the fee and calls or texts are the preferred alert.

It’s never too late to set expectations, even if you have been working for your client for a long time. You can let them know that you want to revisit some things because you want to make sure that you are as responsive to them as you can be. Ensure that they know you can be on call 24/7 but at a new rate, and give examples of what happens when you get a request after 6:00 pm, this is what will happen to it. Make sure that they understand that and are comfortable with that and that every step is documented to ensure there is no “confusion”.