10 Tips for Working With Clients Remotely: Part 1

Collaborating with clients you never meet face-to-face has become normal for most web workers. Ours is an industry where working remotely poses very few real obstacles — nearly every part of the web design process can be done from the comfort of a home office or coffee shop.

We’re lucky to have this flexibility, especially in tough economic times when a swanky office doesn’t fit in the business budget. Even if you do have an office, chances are you will land a few clients who aren’t located around the block. But you quickly discover that working remotely has its downsides.

Without face-to-face interaction it’s easy for major communication issues to develop… often without you knowing until it’s too late. Avoid a major meltdown with these simple tips.

 

1. Build Trust From The Start

A client’s trust will make or break a project. Without it you’ll spend endless hours explaining and defending your ideas. It’s easy to build trust when you’re meeting once a week to present your work and report your progress, but how do you do it with someone 10,000 miles away?

First, introduce yourself – and I don’t mean send them a link to your portfolio. I see designers skip this step all the time, but it’s essential. Before you dive in to any work, schedule a quick kickoff meeting. A video conference is ideal – I recommend Skype – but if they can’t manage it, a phone call will work almost as well. If you’re in different time zones, wake up nice and early (or go to bed very late) to accommodate them.

Going the video route? Make sure you’re dressed appropriately and your environment looks professional. When you get on the call, take a few minutes to introduce yourself and highlight your accomplishments the way you would if everyone was gathered around a conference table and you were standing at the front of the room. Even if they know you and your work, it’s a good reminder that you are a professional who does this for a living… someone who should be valued and trusted.

Another way to establish trust early in the process is to make the client feel involved. Ask probing questions and brainstorm with them before you propose any solutions. If you’re short on meeting time, send out questionnaires for them to fill out. When it comes time to present work, make sure your solutions reflect at least a few of their ideas and explain to them how the idea was incorporated. This shows that you’re listening. Like any human relationship, that is half the battle.

 

2. Write A Bulletproof Contract

I know way too many freelancers accepting work without a contract because there is nothing fun about crafting up that type of documentation. It’s stupid no matter what, but when you’re working remotely this is extremely dangerous. You might get away with it for years, but sooner or later you’ll run into a disaster that could have been avoided had you bothered to get sign-off on a few key points.

As a general rule of thumb, if I estimate spending more than 10 hours on a project I will craft a contract and get a client signature before I start working. It doesn’t have to be complex, but it should always include:

  • A detailed scope of work. What exactly are you planning to provide the client? What isn’t included? Spend some time and make sure that it’s clear what they are paying for. When the client asks you where the forum is (you know, that one they forgot to mention they needed) you can simply show them that it was never part of the original scope they signed off on. Then you can add it on and charge accordingly.
  • A list of deliverables. Will you be creating IA documents, wireframes, style guides, and user manuals for that slick new CMS? Will they get ownership of layered PSDs and all your original artwork or just the HTML, graphics and source files? Make a list to avoid miscommunications.
  • A limit on revisions. When I first started freelancing, I failed to set a limit on revisions. 12 updates later it was clear what a big oversight this was. Clearly state how many revisions are included in your proposal and what your definition of “revision” is. (If, God forbid, they hate everything about the design and want you to start over, will you call it a revision?) Include an hourly rate for extra revision hours so that clients understand it doesn’t mean you won’t do them, it just means they’ll pay more.
  • A plan for client delays. It’s not uncommon to finish a site completely on your end, then wait 4 months for the client to provide the content. If you’re contract says “final payment upon completion” you’re stuck in limbo until they get their act together. To avoid this, set deadlines on content and any other milestone that requires client approval or sign-off. State in the contract that if content (approval, etc.) hasn’t arrived by the deadline, the site will still be considered finished and payment is due.
  • Payment terms. This one is a no-brainer! Half up front and half upon completion is common. If it’s a bigger project, tie payments to milestones so you’re not waiting months and months to collect a paycheck.

Not sure where to start? AIGA provides a Standard Form of Agreement for Design Services that you can customize for your needs.

 

3. Set Deadlines (And Enforce Them)

This is important for both sides. You already know you need deadlines to keep yourself on track, but you need to set them for the client as well. Asking for timely feedback keeps the project moving forward. Every time you produce something that requires feedback or sign-off, set a short-term deadline and make sure it’s documented in writing somewhere. If the client lets the deadlines slip repeatedly, they can’t complain when the project is delivered.

Having deadlines motivates clients to focus on your work, which may be one of a zillion projects sitting on their desk needing attention. It is also a subtle way of asking for (and getting) respect.

 

4. Communicate Clearly And Often

Since you’re not meeting face-to-face (and probably aren’t calling too much either) the limited interactions you do have are incredibly important. Make sure you craft your emails and messages carefully; realize that every word you write is amplified and your dry sense of humor isn’t going to come across very well. Best to just be straightforward.

Don’t inundate your clients with needless emails, but make sure you communicate enough to keep them feeling comfortable with your progress. Quick, regular check-ins help set everyone at ease. If you think the client is confused, pick up the phone and have a real conversation. You’ll be amazed how much can be cleared up in 2 minutes when you’re not trying to explain it over email.

Keep a copy of all your correspondence for future reference – you never know when you might need it.

 

5. Use Web Apps To Facilitate Communication

There are tons of great tools out there for online client collaboration. Pick the ones that work best for your process and use them religiously. Insist that your client uses them too.

I’ve run into quite a few clients who don’t want to be bothered logging in to a new tool – they would rather flood your inbox with email after email after email. Trouble is, email does little to keep everyone on the same page. Unless you have a dedicated project manager, get yourself a web-based project management tool. Make to-do lists, set milestones, and keep discussions in a public space where you can easily point back to them.

Basecamp is one of the most widely used web-based project management tools out there, and for good reason. It’s cheap, it’s easy to set up, it doesn’t have a bunch of extra whistles you don’t need, and clients find it intuitive which means they’ll actually be inclined to use it. It has to-do lists, milestones, a message center and a file repository and even time-tracking. Chances are it will cover most of your needs. There are plenty of other online project management tools out there if Basecamp isn’t your thing. Try huddle.net or wrike.com.

Additional online collaboration tools that you may find useful include:

  • ConceptShare – Get feedback on your designs and live web pages. You can add notes to the concept pieces and so can your client.
  • Adobe ConnectNow – A free, easy way to hold a virtual meeting. Screen share to present a PowerPoint, share concepts with your client or walk them through a live website. Use the video, audio or chat features to communicate while you’re presenting.
  • BlinkSale – Send out bills and reminders in a more formal way. Takes some of the awkwardness out of hounding clients for money.

Follow these steps and you’re well on your way to avoiding major conflicts and keeping your project on track. Stay tuned for the second half of this article and 5 more ways to successfully work with clients remotely.

Written exclusively for WDD by Mindy Wagner.

What are some of the challenges you experience when working with a client remotely? Please share your comments below…

0 shares
  • http://blog.insicdesigns.com/ insic

    Helpful tips. thanks for this.

  • http://www.ukbiz.wordpress.com nadina

    I use Deskaway for a PM tool, pretty good!

  • Sam

    Nice article.
    @nadina – Even I am using DeskAway(http://www.deskaway.com) for project management and collaboration & very happy with the service. Its a very nice tool.

  • http://sarsini.it Martin

    Very helpful information! I would like to suggest also clockingit.com which is another project management – time tracking and collaboration tool

  • http://www.copesflavio.com Flavio Copes

    I just found out ProjectPier http://www.projectpier.org/, a basecamp clone, free, open source, written in PHP that you can install on your server.. it’s simply an amazing project management tool!

  • http://www.findmyart.com elena

    Thank you for this article, I only work from home so everything happens by email, I agree everything you said. I have learned my lesson the hard way, especially concerning the deadlines.

  • http://www.intel.com Peter Cotton

    Writing your own “bulletproof” contract is not that good of an idea
    You should get a lawyer with experience with design/development contracts. Non-lawyers do not have legal skills to cover all issues in a way that will be legally binding – even though some like the author think they know just as much as a lawyer
    No lawyer means chances of problems=high

    • http://www.probloggerworld.de/ Rene Kriest ProBloggerWorld

      I highly second that and it is true to the bone. While designers advocate their professionel skills in comparison with online logo generators the reverse conclusion suggests that you should always rely on pros not on amateurs when it comes to serious business. Law was made by law pros for law pros.

      BTW: I think that I am the only designer that studied law before he changed his career. ;)

  • http://www.probloggerworld.de/ Rene Kriest ProBloggerWorld

    Great article. I agree with almost every aspect covered by you.

    I recommend to track any (more precisely: any and every) work done on the project. This includes anything from an inquiry to an email or phone-call as well as brainstorming ideas regarding the project.

    Print out any email and collect anything regarding the project. A double binder will do the job. Keep it over a year at least.

    Why?

    Clients tend to rely solemnly on you. This is why it is critical to be always in place. And only this way can you really estimate your customer’s needs. Call it service. ;)

  • http://canvasgrafix.com Kids Wall Art

    Our web development company follows all of these guidelines, and they are a must if you want to stay in business without pulling your hair out. If you don’t set a limit on revisions, clients will make as many as they want, and if they are busy, sometimes they will put their new website (and you) on the backburner. You’re losing time and money either way!

    Another good tool for estimates and invoicing that we use, and is fully compatiable with basecamp is http://www.getcashboard.com

  • http://www.ezonesecretary.com Janet Janowiak

    Thanks so much for this helpful list. It is always good to review your own policies and habits to be sure your practices are top-notch.

  • http://modxdeveloper.com shane sponagle

    Currently 90% of my clients are remote. I can add that:
    1) be aware of time zones, when working with a remote client it is important to know what time of the day it is at their location.

    2) be aware of cultural differences and holidays. Most cases it will be a holiday for you but not for the client. Make sure to let them know your schedule and try to know theirs. Nothing worse than thinking that the client is not answering only to discover they were on a 4 day weekend. (US service providers, rarely will your holidays coincide with others).

    And I have to say that #4 is very important (Communicate Clearly And Often).

    • J.C.Yoon

      Good and useful comments.
      When i work for the multination corporation the other day, i did my very best to understand my counterparts’ cultures and times

  • Mario

    Good tips! having been a freelancer for about 5 years, your points are very true.

  • JDog

    I like your article, but I would like to see you expound on item #2C “A limit on revisions”. This is a lot easier said that done, as you point out by your question “what is a revision?”. Do you care to share that portion of your contract?

    • JDog

      still no reply. :(

    • http://www.claudiomerino.com claudio merino

      +1 here. this is the worst part i think of the web projects. the “comission revision” is an awfull practice couse they never read the background!

  • http://www.pushingbuttons.net Timothy

    Good post. A lot of useful information

  • Pingback: Daily Links | AndySowards.com :: Professional Web Design, Development, Programming, Hacks, Downloads, Math and being a Web 2.0 Hipster?()

  • Pingback: 10 Tips for Working With Clients Remotely: Part 1 « TFT Services Insider Blog()

  • http://twitter.com/saurabhshah saurabh shah

    very helpful… thnx for sharing

  • http://luckweaver.net Pothi

    I must say that the best tips in this part 1 is the first one “Build Trust From The Start”. When we don’t, I bet the working relationship with the client wouldn’t last long.

  • Pingback: The Dabbler » Archive » Weekly Round Up Thursday()

  • p Cohen

    Contracts are a big waste for small projects.

  • http://www.sampowers.net SammyK

    Oh man I wish I would have read this several years ago. Oh the crap I would have avoided…

  • http://www.webdesigntipsonline.com Steve

    Great post.

    I am just looking at starting to work remotely with clients.

    I think the communication issue is critical when you are working with different time zones and different cultural beliefs.

    Thanks

  • http://www.projectcollaborationcenter.com Dave

    These are great tips! We’ve found that clients have a range of preferences for their preferred tool for collaboration. Some prefer to communicate via email only while some really take to hosted collaboration tools. There are a plethora of tools out there for project collaboration and we’ve attempted to catalog and compare them at Project Collaboration Center: http://www.projectcollaborationcenter.com. The hardest part, it seems, is convincing the clients to use the tools long enough for them to realize the benefits.

  • http://www.myintervals.com John

    The tip about establishing contracts is especially important. It is very common to just say “nah, let’s skip it” because it’s your best buddy or a great referral. But do that and you will get burned. And make sure your contracts are solid. In fact, our web design & development agency, Pelago, is giving away our contract for free. You can download it from here:

    http://www.myintervals.com/blog/2009/02/10/steal-this-web-design-and-development-time-and-materials-maintenance-contract-template/

  • http://Brilliant! Pablo

    Now I know where I’ve gone wrong. Thanks a million everyone. This stuff is gold!

  • ignacio

    good tips thank you

  • Pingback: 10 Tips for Working With Clients Remotely: Part 2 | Webdesigner Depot()

  • http://newmediaartanddesign.com John Browning

    Thanks for the great tips and important ideas. Recently a manager left a company I was working with which made me realize I need to start creating written agreements to avoid any confusion oral agreements may cause.

  • http://blog.intercall.com Abby

    We are big fans of Huddle.net as well – one of our newest partners!

    I think all of us some times forget to use the phone. With IM and email it’s easy to send a quick message. But, conference calls can also be very productive since you can have all of your decision makers or interested parties available at once.

    Thanks for the tips!

  • Pingback: Best of the Links #2()

  • http://marketingdonutblog.co.uk/ Mick Dickinson

    very good advice, well written. Basecamp all the way for web project management.

  • http://www.hadoitz.net Hadoitz

    Thanks, it’s a very good article :)

  • http://www.theglobalshopper.com Glshopper

    Thanks, very useful tips!

  • http://www.colaab.com Bob Thomson

    With regards to use of web apps, we’ve recently developed a collaboration app that let’s you and others work on designs in real time:

    http://www.colaab.com

    It’s main strength is the ability to load and display very large images quickly; ideal for sharing detailed drafts with colleagues and clients.

    Thanks,

    Bob


    Bob Thomson
    storm idea
    http://blog.stormideas.com
    http://colaab.com
    twitter: movingforwards

  • http://www.houston-media.com Alysia

    Quite possibly the most helpful post on this site, and that’s saying a lot because I LOVE this site.

  • http://www.mattbohea.co.uk Gurt Frobe

    Do you have any tips regarding good ways to get a contract signed remotely? Posting it to one another seems obvious and slow..

  • http://www.acrylicstudios.com AcrylicStudios

    Very nice! Very useful sites, will save me a lot of time… :)

  • http://www.ljdesignstudio.com LJ Design Studio

    Great tips. The contract portion is essential. I have and use a contract, but recognize that I do have a few things I can add to it. A definition for revisions is a biggie, as well as client delays and timelines! I had one client try and return to a project after a 7 month absence and think he could just pick up right we left off for the original quote price. Another tool I find useful to use when working remotely is Redmark. I have reviewed the product on my blog here: http://ljdesignstudio.com/197-redmark-review-client-feedback-markup-tool

  • http://www.hyperoffice.com Project Pankaj

    Some great tips indeed. As a remote worker, I already use some of those tips. But I certainly need to implement others!

  • http://www.ayushkumar.com SEO Specialist

    Very great and nice tips, I specially like about the Contract and Goals, thanks for sharing this. I will book mark your website to not to loss any such good article.

  • http://mohanarun.com Mohan Arun L

    As for your first point, though I agree, trust only comes over a period of time. It is difficult to trust somebody right off the bat. Trust is induced in the feelings of the hirer when the remote worker completes things on time, keeps ahead of communication, etc. In short, a good working relationship maintained over a period of time induces trust slowly. Trust comes slowly, and cannot be induced ‘fast and first’ (unless you know the other person beforehand). Just my idea.

  • http://www.138le.com/ 招聘销售

    cannot be induced ‘fast and first’ (unless you know the other person beforehand). Just my idea.

  • http://www.accessoiresfr.com/ accessoires iphone

    Very great and nice tips, I specially like about the Contract and Goals, thanks for sharing this. I will book mark your website to not to loss any such good article.

  • abraham

    Nice, nice.It’s really nice and good information to grow fast and to make progressions so rapidly.

  • David DiGiovanni

    Great info here.

    If you are a web designer and want to easily share your designs with clients, try my new web app – http://hostedpreviews.com

    The app allows you to easily see your designs in a browser like a real website. Each preview you create has it’s own URL you can share with clients.