Sanjeev Kumar Blog on Web Design and Technologies
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— 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.
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 Youtring – 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.
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:
Not sure where to start? AIGA provides a Standard Form of Agreement for Design Services that you can customize for your needs.
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.
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.
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:
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…