Strong client relationships are the backbone of any successful web design or development consulting business.
According to RGD’s CreativeEarners National Salary Survey, 92 per cent of freelancers and agencies state that most of their work (and subsequent business growth) comes from word of mouth and referrals from previous clients. With such potential opportunity on the line, it seems obvious that you should put the time and effort into developing positive relationships with your clients.
But as our world has become increasingly more connected, the physical boundaries that once dictated who we worked with no longer play such an influential role on our businesses. Freelancers and agencies are finding, and working with clients outside of their immediate proximity, many of which reside in entirely different countries.
This shift towards the remote business relationship presents a unique set of challenges for consultants, especially when trying to establish a strong bond with a new client. We reached out to several designers and developers who regularly work with clients from other cities, countries, and time zones to get their insight on how to build a successful long-distance relationship. Here’s what they had to say.
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1. Focus on building trust from the start
There’s something about working with remote consultants that makes clients uneasy. The lack of physical interaction can severely impact the level of trust between you and your client, to the point where some may even be skeptical about the level of effort and dedication you apply to their project.
If you don’t take the steps to overcome this barrier quickly, your client relationship will be rocky at best and the overall success of the project can swiftly derail.
Eric Davis, founder of Little Stream Software, echoes this concern. “The biggest challenge is building enough trust quickly, so that both the client and myself can focus on our own strengths,” Davis said. “The best relationships are when the client can be the expert on their business, and I can be the expert on the software. When there isn't enough trust, time and energy can be wasted which impacts the project's value.”
This lack of trust is something that you can, and should, aim to overcome as soon as your new relationship begins. App development consultant Eric Gowens stresses how even the smallest things can help prove to your client that you're a professional with whom they can trust their business.
“I think the most important thing is to show that you are responsive and responsible right from the beginning,” Gowens said. “ I would have a hard time trusting a remote worker who takes forever to respond to emails, or shows up late to meetings. You have plenty of time to show them your technical competency, but showing them at the outset that you take their project seriously is the most important.”
According to Kelly Vaughn, founder of Kelly Vaughn Creative, another important factor for establishing trust with your client from afar is to ensure you are completely transparent with them regarding your business, your process, and how you intend to approach their project.
“Honesty is incredibly important in establishing trust — both being honest with the client and with yourself.” Vaughn said. “In the beginning phase, being honest and open about what work you can and can’t do will help set the stage for expectations throughout the project.”
2. Leverage technology to break down barriers
This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but the important role technology plays in long-distance relationship management cannot be overlooked. From simple check-ins to sharing design assets, you’ll want to be armed with the right platforms to facilitate the way you interact with your remote clients.
Vaughn is a loyal Basecamp user, as she finds its collaborative features extremely beneficial for sharing design concepts and ideas with her remote clients.
“I use it for project management with all of my clients. It has worked especially well for those in different time zones. All of our communication is in one place, so I don’t have to hunt for emails or refresh my memory on where we last left off in the development process.”
The right tech can also help alleviate scheduling issues when you need to book more formalized meetings with clients who reside in various timezones — especially at the onset of a project.
“I've recently started using some scheduling software called youcanbook.me, which syncs with my Google Calendar and shows my availability in the customer's time zone.” Eric Gowens added. “That's been working really well, and I recommend finding something similar.”
Gowens also states that once a project has been going on for some time, you may need to implement some more casual methods to keep communications open with your client.
“Once the project has started, I keep in touch through Skype, or email with updates as things move along. If a project is large enough, I'll start a Slack channel and a project on Asana where we can keep in touch and updated on progress as well. Slack is awesome for this kind of asynchronous communication!”
Offering your clients a selection of ways to reach you can help break down the barriers that come with remote relationships. A healthy mix of formal and instantaneous communication channels will help ensure you are both up to date on the status of the project, regardless of what timezone you’re in.
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3. Build a communication process that works for both of you
Since you’ll be unable to meet your client in-person often, it’s important to take the necessary steps to de-emphasize the distance between the two of you. One of the easiest ways you can do this is by building a regular communication cycle with your client. This seemingly simple solution can transform your lack of proximity from a perceived negative, to a regular part of your workflow — ultimately helping you foster a stronger relationship with your client.
Web designer Nate Vandervis of Bold Commerce knows this well. “The more I work with remote clients, the more I see that staying on top of the communication is key to establishing trust, especially if they aren't local to you,” Vanderis said. “Having them know that they can reach you, does a great job of letting them know that you're there for them and have their best interests at heart.”
When working with long-distance clients, you are limited to only a few options for communication: namely emails, phone calls, or video chats. Whatever method you choose, be sure to leverage the one that they are most comfortable using, and establish the frequency of your communications early on.
“I love using Slack and I would prefer to interact with all of my clients on there, however everyone has their preferred communication method. Try and figure out early on where the client is most responsive and talk to them there,” Gowens explains. “I've had clients miss out on important messages because they prefer email, but I tried to notify them on a messaging platform.”
As you saw in the previous section, there are tons of tooling options to facilitate your communications. But sometimes it’s less about the what you use to communicate, and more about how you do it. Eric Davis facilitates the consultant-client communication process by proactively scheduling meetings and check-ins with his clients from the get-go. This strategy not only ensures Davis has the conversations he needs to, but also helps his clients feel included in the progress of the project overall.
“I schedule clients by exclusive weeks so there's a regular cadence. Typically there's a kick-off call on Monday, where the client and I plan what's going to be worked on for the week. The goal here is to set priorities and clear expectations in order to minimize the surprises,” Davis said. “Then there's always a wrap-up and review call on Friday, where we discuss what happened. I might also schedule additional calls depending on the project, the client, and anything else that happens.”
4. Establish clear boundaries when needed
Despite how valuable regular communication can be for strengthening your business relationship, it can also be hazardous when overdone. It’s crucial to set clear expectations with your client about your approach to relationship management, communication, and project workflow at the onset of a job. That way, both of you will begin your journey with a firm understanding of how to best work with one another without being overbearing.
Ecommerce consultant Kurt Elster does this as early as possible.
“Developing an onboarding process for clients has been a wonderful way to set expectations upfront, gather requirements rapidly, and save time in the process,” he explained.
At the end of his onboarding form, Elster communicates his availability before his prospects are even clients, to ensure both parties are in agreeance from the get-go.
Even with these stipulations in place, you may find yourself eager to do whatever it takes to satisfy your client in the early days of a relationship. This acquiescence is probably most apparent when your client is in another timezone, which can result in you setting meetings and working around their schedule while letting your own suffer.
“Don't be afraid to set time boundaries with clients. You have a life outside of work. Make sure clients know that if you are done at 5:00PM your time, they can't schedule a meeting for 7:00pm just because it's conveniently right after lunch for them,” Gowens said. “While working remotely, it's easy to accept an unreasonable meeting time because it's a convenient time for them. You'll both be happier if you find a time that works for both of you.”
Ultimately, it’s up to you to establish what kind of boundaries you want for your remote relationships. Some avoid special treatment and swear by strict rules that apply to all their clients, while others treat it on a case-by-case basis. There are even some consultants, like Nathan Vandervis, who prefer to keep boundaries for their remote relationships as informal as possible.
“They usually come in as a last resort. In the case of major time zone differences we try and do what we can via email, just so we can fit it into our work day better, but if we really need to, we make ourselves available,” Vanderis said. “I wouldn't say we set up boundaries by default, and for the most part it's the clients that don't want to be a burden, but sometimes it’s a nice surprise to accommodate them.”
Don’t let distance hinder your relationships
Working with clients from other areas of the country (or world) can be extremely challenging at first, but it doesn’t have to be. With a little bit of effort and the right strategies in place, your long-distance client relationships can grow to be just as successful as your local ones.