Formal Boundaries: SOWs and MSAs

It was the middle of the night and I’d been up with my infant son again.

In spite of my best intentions, I glanced at my email before heading back to bed and there was a request from a client.

It would only take me a couple minutes to respond and have my reply waiting in their inbox when they started work in the morning.

But was that the best choice?

Last week we started talking about boundaries after some great feedback offered by Sean F. after he’d read the my article called The Most Important Thing:

“I felt like you left off something really, crucially important that I have failed to implement in my own personal and business relationships: boundaries.”

He’s right: boundaries are really, crucially important. And last time we talked about why they are so important to our goals, to our sanity and to keeping that freelance anxiety under control.

Sean went on to ask:

“Do you outline stuff like your availability? What days you work, what hours, when you’ll take a call, how often you check email, etc., how responsive are you? If the client is flopping and screwing up their budget, do you step in or say “not my job”? … If the project is going off the rails, how much do you try to help out?

Where’s the line then?”

These are all important questions and if you don’t know the answer, you can very quickly find your boundaries being trampled in the project rush for the finish line.

So for today, we’re going to look at some of the formal boundaries we can put in place: statements of work (SOWs) and contracts.

Why are formal boundaries important? They not only set boundaries for your clients but they set boundaries for you as well.

Statements of Work (SOWs)

A SOW documents the roles to be filled within a project. It includes deliverables, timelines and deadlines, the scope of the project, and the standards that must be met.

In effect, it’s a glorified “to do” list to keep everyone on the same page regarding expectations.

Sometimes the SOW is considered a binding contract so getting it right can set very clear boundaries for everyone involved in the project.

For a more formal binding agreement, there’s also the

Master Services Agreement (MSA)

A MSA is a legally binding agreement between you and your client that covers terms, services, fees, taxes, warranties, etc.

Once you and a client have agreed upon a MSA it will serve as a master contract over multiple SOWs.

I’ve already confessed that I’ve taken on clients without a contract sometimes, but even I don’t like to leave everything to chance.

It is no question that a well-written contract formalizes and helps reinforce boundaries from the beginning.

(There are lots of templates for freelance contracts available. I recommend Pete Keen’s book Handle Your Business. A lot of contract templates cost north of $50 but with Pete’s book you get contract templates plus a book that covers invoices, bookkeeping, insurance, tax planning, and retirement.)

You don’t want to get into a nit-picking situation with any of your clients but having terms outlined and agreed to in a SOW or an MSA has the advantage of having the boundaries listed in writing.

SOWs and MSAs are the two best formal boundary-markers you can put in place for every project. But they aren’t the only tools you have available. Next time, we’ll look at some of the informal boundaries you can put in place that are just as helpful.

Keep those boundaries clear and you’ll cut the stress that comes when you don’t.