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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…