If you’ve recently become a freelancer and have started building your own business, you’ve likely become the envy of your 9-to-5 friends and colleagues. After all, the flexibility of working virtually with clients offers a great deal of freedom. However, what you will, no doubt, quickly come to realize is that when you’re communicating with long-distance clients, you can face your own set of challenges and even obstacles. An important question regarding a time-sensitive project cannot be addressed with a simple stroll across the office or by a face-to-face chat. Therefore, you must establish convenient and reliable means of communication with your long-distance clients. Here are some tips for establishing effective communication with your clients whilst working remotely.
Polish up your email skills
There are many clients you’ll never meet face-to-face. There are others with whom you will never even have a phone conversation. Today, some people simply prefer to correspond by email. Therefore, it’s highly important that you polish up your email skills. Create an online file for each one of your clients, and make sure to file all your correspondences (especially if you’re emailing about important subjects, such as contract terms or payment negotiations). Keep your email inbox as clutter-free as possible at all times.
In order to make your emails look professional, create an email signature with your full name, your contact information, and a link to your website and social media channels if you have them. Consider including your business logo as well.
Be as clear and precise as possible in your replies. If you often receive the same questions in your email inbox, create some email templates in order to simply and thoroughly respond to your most common inquiries.
Try to never leave someone hanging over email. If you receive an email and know you don’t have time to address it until later in the week write a quick email back acknowledging that you received the inquiry and will respond in full in a timely fashion. Aim to respond to client emails within 24 hours.
If a client is the one to leave you hanging, a quick check-in is appropriate, especially if you are dealing with time-sensitive material. It’s never inappropriate to say, “I’d like to confirm that you received the file. Please let me know if you need me to resend it.”
Don’t forget about time zones
When working with a client remotely, make sure you always know what time zone he or she is in. If you’re uncertain, it can create a lot of confusion in terms of deadlines. Plus, it would probably reflect unfavorably on you if you inadvertently called a client’s cell at 4:00 a.m. If a client is in a different time zone from you, you should accept the responsibility of contacting them during their regular business hours. For you, this might mean working late into the evening every now and then, or getting up extra early.
Take advantage of online collaborative tools
As a freelance professional, you will oftentimes need to submit several drafts of a project to your client. Rather than sending a document back and forth multiple times which can be confusing as well as inconvenient, take advantage of online collaborative and sharing tools such as Zoho or Google Docs. This will allow you and your client to view and manage one master copy online. You may also consider, depending on what tool you use, developing some form of version control to assist.
Be upfront and avail yourself
Establish regular business hours and stick to them so that your clients know when you may be reached. Ask your clients what the best way to contact them is, and be willing to accommodate each individual’s needs. One of the best ways to forge a positive long-distance relationship is to clearly demonstrate your commitment to the job.
Get some face time
Take advantage of your web cam and offer to hold virtual conferences using Skype or Google Chat. However, if you plan to charge the customer for these services, (do you invoice per hour for your time?) make this clear before scheduling the conference. A quick video chat is a great way to kick off a project because face time can help to effectively build trust between you and the client.
Simplify long-term projects
Long-term jobs and projects can involve lengthy time tables, multiple benchmarks, and several decision-makers. Today there are online resources you can use to make it dramatically easier to manage multiple correspondences during a long-term project. To create and share calendars, try a web-app such as Google Calendar or Remember the Milk. To easily manage short messages and files, try Campfire, a virtual meeting room for you and your client. To track your hours on a project or create to-do lists, check out BaseCamp. To keep track of correspondences without difficulty, try JobStock’s message stream, which automatically files and saves all of your messages between you and your clients.
Cut out the jargon
Remember that you might be a lot more familiar and comfortable with industry-specific jargon than your client is. For example, if you’re a freelance designer, it may seem completely straightforward to refer to organizing your .psd files into groups and layers. Your client, however, might have no idea what you are talking about. So try to keep your email and phone explanations simple and straightforward and try not to inundate your client with information.