How do I warn my clients I'm not going to be available when I don't know when I'm not going to be available
November 13, 2012 7:40 AM   Subscribe

I am going to be having some medical procedures and I am a freelancer. I have a lot of regular clients who send a lot of work irregularly. I do not know when my medical appointments and procedures are going to be happening (it's fertility treatment related) so it may be that they will not affect particular clients. It's personal, and I don't want to tell my clients the details (if it was like a knee op I'd be fine) and I am at a loss to know how to pre-warn my valued regular clients.

More info: I have backup set up and some of these clients already use my back-up people when I am on holiday or overstretched; the backups are ready and primed to stand by and I will be able to vaguely warn them in advance. But it's not going to be a defined holiday-type period of time and it's going to be more frequent than the odd overstretched day. They are good clients who work with me well and pay well, so I don't want to lose them, but a couple in particular are really demanding. The nature of the work I do with them means they cannot really warn me of working coming in that far in advance.

(All of this is fine normally, I have been working in this way for three years, it's all good, this is specifically about this situation)

Added detail: I really don't know when or how I will be laid up, when I will be able to do light duties and when I will be normal. I usually reply from my phone if a client emails when I'm out, but I don't think I'll be able to use my phone that much and I don't want to be jumping to attention in the middle of having this stuff done!

I also know I need to keep calm and relaxed and not feel hassled, but I do not want to lose these valued regular clients, esp as either once this has worked or failed, I will have a period of time when I can work just fine for them, before making the next set of decisions.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Send a blast email.

Dear Valued Clients,

I will be undergoing a minor medical proceedure in the next month or so. I will still be available to handle all of your work. I have made arrangments with some colleagues to assist me with your assignments while I am recovering.

I will keep you updated regarding your projects as well as my availability for you. I have arranged for everything to be covered and I expect that this will be seamless to you.

Thank you for your understanding.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:46 AM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't normally recommend fibbing to clients, but if it's sensitive, you might tell them you're caring for a sick family member. They don't need to know the family member is you.
posted by mochapickle at 7:47 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Depending on how private you want to be, I would even modify Bunny's script further to

"I will have limited availability in the next month or so due to other commitments, but I will still be available to handle all of your needs, and I have made arrangements with several colleagues to assist me during this time..."

Because they really don't even need to know it's medical.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:53 AM on November 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

This is the kind of circumstance in which I'd say I'm "tending to a personal matter". That professionally conveys that you don't want to provide details yet won't be read as alarming.
posted by cranberry_nut at 7:58 AM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree that it's best not to mention that it's medical. "Other commitments" works great. I've also used "My availability will be limited during the next month or so, but..."
posted by ceiba at 8:01 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
Just to clarify, I have back-up people but I will be relying on my clients diverting messages to my backups if they encounter my out of office reply when I'm at the hospital. I can't bounce all messages to my back-ups as I get a lot of other mail, too. So they will need to know that some of my work will need to be handled by another person (who they will know about as a back-up by then, hopefully)
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:09 AM on November 13, 2012

from your question, it seems that these treatments might stretch over a much longer period of time than a month. If your business model can afford it, I would suggest having a back-up person involved in each project, at least cc'ed. Say you have 2 back-ups, then you can split the projects between them. Then, if you're out for a couple of days, you can just communicate to your back-up to pay attention to their projects as you won't be available.

Then you just let your clients know that a back-up has been assigned to their project to ensure that enough attention is given to each project, and that they should make sure to copy them in all correspondence as sometimes they cover for you when you are not available.
posted by saraindc at 8:11 AM on November 13, 2012

Is there not someone you can trust to check your email when you are unavailable and delegate and bounce messages? If the email has confidential information you don't want to share how about setting up a filter for just the high-demand clients to forward to an email account the trusted person can access and make decisions on (or reply with a set template you give them.) If there is no one you feel you can trust I am sure you can hire someone like a virtual secretary for piecework to do this.
posted by saucysault at 8:28 AM on November 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Your clients don't need to know any details at all. Unless you are really chummy with any of them, the following should suffice:

Dear [valued client],

I will have limited availability between [specify dates]. If you encounter my out of office auto-responder at any time within this timeframe, please direct your requests to [list contacts] to ensure prompt service. These instructions will also be included in my auto-responder message.

Thanks for your understanding,
[sign it]

I would recommend you don't use a BCC mass email for this unless you have scores of clients to update. Instead send basically the same email to each individually, and tweak to provide extra comfort to any really important or nervous clients.

Also, if you can set up any sender-based forwarding to your back-ups that you feel safe doing, any little bit helps.
posted by rocketpup at 8:33 AM on November 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

If the fertility treatments work and you wind up with a child underfoot, the way you are working currently might become unviable. This might be a good time to create a general change in policy so that you don't have a crisis should you get what you want.

Start with one of the excellent suggested letters above but indicate something like "Due to the success of my business and other ongoing concerns... (something vague about workflow/customer service)...Henceforth, my new policy is that if X happens ("if you get my voicemail and I am unable to return your call in Y time") please contact....".

I know, my example language really has big room for improvement. But I think you get the general idea. (I am modeling this suggestion on practices from the Fortune 500 company I used to work for, if you care.)
posted by Michele in California at 8:46 AM on November 13, 2012

Set up an out of office filter that does not reply to everyone, and also forwards all ( or specific) email to your trusted cohorts.
posted by Gungho at 8:52 AM on November 13, 2012

Just reading these samples, it seems to me that you will not be available completely from point A to point B. As a client, I might think that I shouldn't send you any work at all because I don't really want you doing work from your hospital bed while you are recovering from your procedure. It sounds like one big lump issue, when it's not really. Even the words "limited availability" from A to B still sounds like one big event.

I wonder if the word "intermittent" or some more verbiage that talks about "a few days per week during these months" or "during the next few months I will be 95% available but there may be several independent days when I am not available" or something. I'm sure someone else could word it better, but do you see what I'm saying?

Other questions:
I know you can't predict exactly which days, but do you know
- how long is any one incident likely to last and
- how frequent are the incidents likely to be, compared to the rest of your availability and
- how much lead time you will have before each incident?

If the incidents only last a day or two and they only occur a few days out of each month and you have at least a day of advance notice, you might not need to send your clients any advance notice for the overall thing, but just follow your normal vacation process for each incident.

And I like the idea of either setting up your Out of Office rules or having a trusted person (or a hired non-involved person) take charge of your email. If you set it up in advance, you just have to activate the rules or call the person before you go.
posted by CathyG at 8:58 AM on November 13, 2012

My experience is that you might have very short visits to the clinic over an extended period of time (like blood draws every morning for hormone levels, etc.) -- if this is general fertility explorations, rather than an acute issue -- so you probably won't have noticeable unavailability, but less flexibility in scheduling in-person time. If that turns out to be the case, you might not really need (or want) a lot of advance heads-up, but just let your normal back-up work as usual. If something more major gets scheduled, like a surgical procedure, then obviously you'll know its parameters ahead of time and can advise whatever clients might be impacted ("I will be out on Tuesday and have uncertain availability on Friday and Saturday" sounds like it would cover IVF). Again, no point in an email blast.

Fertility treatments can be a few months or as long as a couple of years, depending on what's being tried and how many rounds you try of any particular thing before ramping up to the next, so you might indeed give people the wrong impression about its effect on your worktime if you say too much up front. (Of course, this may or may not apply to where you already are in the process.)
posted by acm at 9:19 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think I'd try to handle it all on my own and not worry about crafting a special "heads up" message. No matter how careful you try to word it and how reassuring you will be, some clients will just assume that you're not available or be annoyed that there's now a special "process" or just be generally worried about you and not sure what they are supposed to do.

Train your backups. If you get a call in, either have your backups already taking email, or forward them requests and have them pick up the thread: "Hi, anon is away today and I'm handling all requests...."

If you get into a serious medical issue then you can deal with your clients on a case-by-case basis then.
posted by amanda at 10:05 AM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

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