How To Successfully Work With People Long Distance

As a freelancer and as a web-worker, one of the biggest challenges that I face nearly every day is that of working with people who I’ve never met face to face. Although a few clients contact me by telephone, most prefer to deal with me through e-mail (which is actually my preference too).

Since experts say that nonverbal communication accounts for well over half of how we interact with people, working through the Internet can sometimes seem a bit like playing a game of golf blindfolded.

I have to admit that when I read an e-mail from a client I sometimes wonder about his or her state of mind when they wrote it. Since I have no visual cues to go on, it can be easy to let my imagination wander as to the client’s state of mind.

Here are some of the things that I wonder about:

  • Do those choppy sentences mean the client is angry, or just in a hurry?
  • Is that client’s compliment to me sincere, or is she being sarcastic?
  • Is this client being totally honest and upfront with me?

Without seeing a client’s face or reading his or her body language, it can be pretty hard to know if you’re getting the full message. A telephone call can reveal the client’s tone of voice, but you still miss out on seeing their body language. (There are webcams and other tools that can help with this, but it’s nearly impossible to find a client who will use them.)

While it can be a challenge to deal with clients over long-distance, it is certainly possible to do successfully. In this article we’ll look at some ways to make it work.

5 Tips For Dealing With Long Distance Clients

Over the years I have learned a number of things that help me successfully communicate long-distance with my clients. Here are a few tips that can help:

  1. Check Your Emotions at the Door. It can be tempting to shoot out an emotional response to an e-mail that seems upsetting to you, but don’t fall into this trap. If an e-mail provokes an emotional response, then allow yourself enough time to recover from that emotion before you respond.
  2. Stay Professional and Businesslike. You’re running a business. Your client is also running a business. Communication between the two of you should reflect that. While it’s okay to be friendly, in general I’ve found that it’s best to stay away from overly personal communications with your client.
  3. It’s Okay To Negotiate. An online negotiator definitely has a more difficult job than one who can negotiate face-to-face. For that reason, I think that many freelancers avoid negotiating terms with clients. However, negotiations are an important part of doing business. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.
  4. Beware the Hidden Tone. When sending an e-mail occasionally an unfriendly tone creeps in. Usually, the tone is not at all a reflection of how I’m feeling at the time, but rather more a result of how rushed I am. If you have this problem get someone else to read your e-mails before you send them.
  5. There Probably Is No Hidden Agenda. Without nonverbal cues, it’s easy to fear clients who contact you through the Internet. This is where your due diligence comes in. Before accepting work, check the client’s reputation and background. In my experience, in most cases there is no hidden agenda.

Share Your Client Communication Strategies

Communicating long-distance can also feel a bit like the children’s game of “telephone,” where each child in a circle repeats a message to the next child in the circle in a whisper.

As a participant in the game, you are never quite sure if the final message received will be the message that you sent – but, it doesn’t have to be this way. With proper strategies and planning, you can communicate effectively even without nonverbal cues.

What are your strategies for communicating with clients long distance? What obstacles have you faced and how have you overcome them?

Comments

  1. says

    This is such excellent advice Laura! Thank you. :) I’ve had to remind myself to be professional and not ‘over reactive’ when a client writes and has a problem with work that was done, etc.

    Usually, clients respond very well to a non-emotive professional response that answers their questions or resolves their issue in a clear and understandable fashion. Clients are all about results — if they have a problem they want to know how it can be fixed. If they have a question then they want a clear straightforward answer.

    “Web speak” really can confuse clients, especially in e-mail, so I try to stay away from technical terms as much as possible, and when I do have to use these terms, I usually append a short definition to aid clarity.

  2. says

    hi! A very relevant post. I must say though that I tend to add a voice to emails. At least once at the beginning. After I hear someone it’s easier to understand the mailing comunication. Cheers!

  3. says

    The biggest challenge I’ve had working remotely has been when the client contact claims to be THE decision maker, and excludes all others. The cause is usually office politics. What happens when I deliver a draft is that gets slammed because the other decision makers drift into the review process and demand their input be added. I fell for this once. Now I insist on people with specific titles being involved in the first conversation. They can each determine if they need to be involved.

    I spend a lot of time on the phone with clients, but it’s still about a 3:1 ratio of email to calls.

  4. says

    Checking your emotions (and ego) at the door is SO important. When we insert ourselves and our feelings into a client’s terse communication we are likely doing both of us a giant disservice.

  5. says

    I think I’ve done a pretty good job at following all the 5 tips so far. ;) Since I’m working exclusively long distance (usually with clients from the other side of the globe), getting the right message across is not only very important, is vital!

    I do most of my pitching and project communication via email (and Skype sometimes), so I always double check and even triple check emails before hitting that Send button. Especially since I tend to write really long emails. And I have a feeling there where a few occasions when being extra cautious really made the difference between win or lose.

  6. says

    Very relevant post, Laura. Thanks for sharing your tips. Since I moved to Denver from Seattle, all of my clients are long distance (at least for now) and there are only a few that’s I’ve actually met. I like the long distance, even though I know I would also enjoy spending face time with a few of my favorite clients. One thing I’ve learned: follow the clients’ communications leads. If my emails are always responded to via phone, then I adapt to delivering drafts and getting feedback during phone calls. If my voicemails are always met with an email, then I stick to emailing the client. It’s pretty easy to figure out a client’s preference – even if he/she claims to be “flexible.”

  7. says

    VERY good points made here. I’ve been trying to keep these kinds of things in mind, as I’ll be leaving the country and traveling the world for a while this September for a new project I started (http://3rdEducation.com). I’ll be doing all my design/development work from my laptop, and from a new country every 3-4 months. I’m a little concerned I’ll lose my firm grasp of English, though keeping my emotions in check will also be good to keep in mind :)

  8. says

    I’ve worked in newspapers where I had to put together papers with the reporters and editors located in different towns. The more organized we were, the smoother things went. That organization also aided communication. Instant messaging was a big help too. But organization was key to making sure everyone understood what the outcome was supposed to look like.

  9. says

    @Laurie Phillips@Sundance Research Thanks for mentioning that,I had three situations like those when sudenlly after the first mockup/draft is accepted by “decision maker”someone else from his team comes up and tells that draft is no good and I have to change everything that was stated good before that..sorry if some english mistakes:)

  10. says

    Great discussion!

    I think organization is a key factor – so that’s a great addition. The false decision maker is another situtation that happens to freelancers more frequently – so sharing strategies for dealing with that was also very helpful.

    Thanks to everyone who added to the discussion!

    Keep the ideas flowing. . .

  11. says

    Thought this was a great post and I’ll be promoting it on the Location Independent community which I’ve just joined (link in the website field).

  12. says

    Good points, Laura, especially about keeping emotions out of things.

    Regarding point 3, I actually find it easier to negotiate by e-mail. I’m an introvert, which means that I need time to gather my thoughts. When I’m on the phone with a client, I tend to feel put on the spot. But the act of writing out my thoughts in an e-mail–which I can put aside for a bit and think more about it before sending it–helps me figure out what I really think about a proposed project and what my options are if the client doesn’t like what I’ve proposed.

    But we’re each different, so we have to do what works for us.

  13. says

    For project review and milestone checks, I recommend a show-the-screen type webinar while you and the client chat on the phone. (In fact, I’m going to recommend this to my financial planner so I don’t have to drive to his office!)

  14. says

    My strategy for larger projects is, after initial email contacts, to phone up and then meet face-to-face at least once in a professional setting. Think of a 5* hotel lobby. For example, I live in Munich, and I sometimes meet with Clients from Brussels somewhere half-way in Frankfurt. We bring our laptops and have a great morning of discussions. This is usually the part where we learn to trust each other. Of course it doesnt hurt to put on a business suit. I sealed a few great deals this way. Meeting up in real life is very trust-building and definitely worth the cost of travel.

  15. says

    Yes, this all rings true with my experience!

    Some of the more challenging client communication scenarios I’ve faced:

    (a) Text-message only. This is the one where you’re talking in email and they’re responding on their thumbs with a Blackberry. That gets hairy when you have a long, technical issue to bring up, like trying to get your script to run on the client’s webserver and their version of Image Magick isn’t updated for the function you’re calling from PHP, and you need to know what to do next, and you get back “1 NO 2 U HTH YCX ?” What does that mean?

    (b) VC Syndrome. This is what I call it when the formerly hungry go-getter start-up you were working with just got six-figures in Venture Capital funding. They’re in a mood to party now and you’re still trying to get the work done. Hello? Anybody there? No, they’re all getting sloshed at Hooters before they take off to Vegas for the next week.

    (c) Differences in English versions between American, Canadian, UK, and Australian. Watch this one, it’ll getcha!

    (d) Unicode salad. The client might be doing something like copy-pasting quoted text from the web (UTF-16) saving in a spreadsheet program using Western-1252, zipping it in something arcane like PKZIP (circa 1993) and attaching it to the email he’s sending from his Apple (which includes folders that start with double underscores and dotfiles). Now I get to try to open and read it on Linux. Whee!

    Deal with them all, I say. I try to look at it like a fun game, sometimes that helps.

  16. says

    Hi Mathijs and Penguin Pete!

    Terrific feedback!

    Mathijs – it sounds like most of your clients are local. That’s great! Meeting with local clients when you can is an excellent suggestion. For me, and many other freelancers, there is often thousands of miles between our locations. A face-to-face meeting sometimes isn’t economically feasible.

    Penguin Pete – I had to laugh at your anecdotes – especially the unicode salad one. You’re examples are perfect illustrations of how communication can get messed up even when both parties have the very best of intentions.

  17. says

    Nice points Laura,

    It happens many times and it can be solved by Questioning also.

    Clearing your doubts about the project you are working on clarifies the misunderstanding between both the clients & freelancers…

  18. says

    This is a great post. I’m glad to see that almost every other freelancer out there is facing the same issues and has such a great place to come for advice.

    One thing that helps me when responding to clients is to ensure that the E-Mail is always relatively short. If an E-Mail ever becomes more than 2 paragraphs or 8 sentences, break it up, rethink your thoughts, or give the client a phonecall. Your gigantic E-Mail WILL NOT BE READ, leading to mismatched expectations between you and the client and lost time.

    Thanks again!

  19. says

    Controlling your Emotions is very important and more over it is also important to understand the cultural difference between the Employer and the freelancer. I totally support to the point of negotiation and the freelancer should respect his own quality of work and should negotiate for the correct price. I’ve seen many customers who tries for a low end price with some outsourced companies. There are also instances where employer tries to possess an upper hand since the effort goes from the freelancer. My advice to freelancers is to value your work properly, get the payments based on milestones and maintain your business ethics.

    Thanks
    Suvin K Varkey

  20. says

    There probably is no hidden agenda and, even if there is, you can always get out of it by showing you are aware of it. This is known as the “I know what you did last summer” technique!

  21. says

    I’ve had enough experiences with clients who misunderstood my mails. And I had to reassure them what I meant. Your first point: check your emotions at the door, is a very valid one for me. I’m a very emotionally immature person. :-)
    I wanted to respond to their mails immediately. That’s where I had to hold on. I need to listen to the hidden tone.
    Thanks for reminding all the things we have to remember while doing business with clients. I’ve to negotiate better about terms and conditions before accepting work.
    Thanks Laura for the good post!

  22. says

    I have had to check my emotions a lot in the last two days, lol. Dealing with a bad buyer yesterday and today had me walking away from my computer often. It definately helps to step away and take a breather for about 5 or 10 minutes before responding. Especially when trying to stay professional when the buyer obviously is not and is purposely being rude. (and rude is an understatement, this guy actually said he would kill me and called me b* too many times to count today)

  23. says

    Meridith!

    I am sorry you are having a bad experience. While most people online are okay, there ARE some really bad apples. It sounds like you got one of those.

    If this guy is threatening, you shouldn’t just take it. That’s serious! Your safety should be of utmost concern. I would recommend you let the appropriate authorities know about the threats and also contact his Internet provider (who will probably yank his account).

    Stay safe!

  24. says

    Only problem with that is that I have no clue on his internet provider, he only used yahoo email to communicate with me. Also, I don’t even know what country he is from, his profile shows UK, but he let it slip in a conversation that he wasn’t there, and also his english proved it.

    I do believe though that I will report him to GAF. I wish I could do more. I think that is the most aggrivating part of the entire deal.

  25. says

    i prefer long distance clients more than my city clients.
    all you should keep in mind while working for long distance people is good and frequent communication, meet time line, and honesty.
    thats all!

  26. says

    Well all my clients are long distance, so i make sure i keep the communication as clear as possible by :

    1) communicating thru skype (written n voice chat)
    2) making a project summary of what we discuss and send a mail to the client
    3) negotiating upfront on the money part and in case of any issues, send the general hourly rates for diff activities like design, flash, develoment, videos etc
    4) being available on my blackberry all the time…
    5) preparing mockups/wireframes/prototypes/comps of the project

    and so on ……

    in case of any issue(s) arising due to mis-communication i always show them the summary mail which i compose after every discussion and 8 out 10 times client accepts that the issue was due his change in requirement during the later stage and not what we have agreed upon in the beginning.

    btw .. nice site and a very good article…..

  27. says

    Great tips from all! And good luck to Meredith with that awful client; please let us know how it works out.

    One thing I have found to be invaluable is the “Save as draft” function of email programs. I find I like to respond to clients’ emails right away and, if it’s a short answer to a simple question, I usually do just that. But, if a client has a more in-depth question or wants to dispute work or a proposal, I immediately write up my thoughts and then save the email as a draft. Usually, I’ll go grab a cup of coffee, play with the dog or read a chapter in a book. Then, I’ll come back to the email draft, reread my initial response and pull out anything that isn’t professional in tone, as well as expound upon any responses that are unclear.

    Since most of my clients are local to the Denver, Colorado area, we are usually able to meet in person. However, some of my contractors live in other states so I find it imperative to actually talk to them on the phone, especially when discussing project requirements.

  28. Liliana Dartu says

    I am an interior designer for a company that provides design and furnishings for up to mid-size hotels. Most clients are remote and I primarily use gotomeeting.com to show, explain and create a start-up for the relationship. I believe in a picture is worth a thousand words but an email to anchor the details discussed/viewed during the online presentation with a follow-up date is invaluable. There are clients who barely read emails and for those, I found the online meeting is the one that clings in their memory. Then, the usual phone follow-up and another online meeting. I think the service is about $45/month paid quarterly, so depending of your business type, this might be a good thing to add to overhead. Again, I am not a freelancer so I might not know all aspects involved in your work formats.

  29. says

    Great Article.
    I feel one of the most underrated skills in the business world is writing effective, terse, and yet promising emails. Email etiquette is never taught in school, and at times it is the toughest thing to figure out. There have been numerous times where I have sat in my chair staring at the computer screen, trying to figure out the right words and style that illustrate the tone and urgency that I want to to give.
    In universities, we are sometimes taught how to write a business proposal, or how to write a grant. However, Email writing, although a simple and universally used tool, is still the most underrated and sometimes most difficulty things to write in getting potential clients or funders’ attention.
    http://freelancecamp.org

  30. says

    This is a great post. I’m glad to see that almost every other freelancer out there is facing the same issues and has such a great place to come for advice thank you

  31. says

    I agree that these are great tips. I will add these that I’ve had to learn through experience:

    1. After you write the email, go back and check: Did you say hi or hello and call the person by name? Did you ask them how they are or wish them a great week/weekend? Did you thank them or tell them you are looking forward to their next email?

    2. Err on the side of too much information. I tend to make assumptions about a client’s knowledge level. It pays to explain things as clearly as possible without being condescending.

    3. Jump at the chance to speak with a client via phone if that’s what they want. I hate the phone and prefer email, but my client’s comfort level comes first.

  32. says

    You can definitely see your skills in the article you write.
    The world hopes for even more passionate writers such
    as you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. Always
    follow your heart.

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