Long distance communication with a client when working remotely has many benefits: it allows you to save time, have everything in a written form for further reference, and make contact when you have time, just to name a few. However, there are also several difficulties that you, as a remote freelancer, entrepreneur or digital nomad need to face. In this article, let’s talk about some of the most useful ways to effectively communicate with a client remotely.
1. Find a communication channel that works the best for your remote work
We can divide basic online communication channels into three groups:
- Email: your own domain, Gmail, Yahoo, etc.
- Chat: Slack, Skype Chat, Google Chat, etc.
- Video Chat: Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom, etc.
Most likely, you are familiar with these three channels, and you even use them daily. Emails are great to send files and detailed messages regarding important projects. Use them for project updates and action-oriented information. Make sure that every email you send is straight to the point and as clear as possible. There’s no time for long, difficult explanations. If your client doesn’t understand what you mean, he or she will probably ask you for clarification, but it will take you at least a few other emails to answer. If you want to explain something quickly, expect prompt answers or exchange ideas or information, use chat. Web chat applications, such as Skype Chat or Google Chat, make it easy to send a well-timed instant message and receive an immediate reply. Using chat, you can be sure that you don’t disturb someone — she or he will answer you when possible. Your chat window, however, might get cluttered with all those more or less important messages, and you won’t be able to refer to what has been written before. Video chats, such as Skype, Google Hangouts or Zoom, are the most personal channel of remote communication. You can share not only your ideas or opinions but also emotions, gestures and tone of voice. The other person sees who she or he is talking to. Therefore, communication usually works smoother.
2. Build trust from the first moment
Online communication in remote work makes it much more difficult to get close contact with your client. You can exchange emails or even talk via the phone, but even the most personal online channel of communication won’t replace human interaction in the real world. This is why everything you do online must be thought-out and focused on gaining trust (remember that it’s also very easy to lose it). Make sure that your clients know who they’re going to work with. Introduce yourself briefly. Talk a bit about your accomplishments, things you are most proud of in your professional life, and things that you still want to achieve. You can also say something about your hobbies and interests to add a personal touch to your first conversation. Let your clients introduce themselves to you, too. It’s good to know who you’re going to work with, right? Listen to them carefully and try to remember every detail they share with you about themselves, so you can refer to it later when applicable. You can even create an Excel spreadsheet or a table in your notebook with your clients’ details, so you always have them around.
3. Be as clear as possible and use bullet points
While during face to face communication with your clients you can instantly ask questions or clarify your ideas, long distance communication, especially written, makes it much more difficult to express yourself. You can end up exchanging countless emails or chat messages if you don’t communicate clearly. Always try to be as straight forward as possible, so your client doesn’t need to send you another message to ask you for clarification. Instead of writing, “I’ll start working on it soon,” write the exact time when you’re going to focus on your work: “I’ll start working on it on Monday this week.” Being clear is also essential when making up a contract with your clients. You don’t always need to sign a special agreement, but it’s good to have the most important points in written form. From my experience, I’ve noticed that bullet points work perfectly. Before starting a new project, I prepare a short list of 8 bullet points with project details: start date, due date, project scope, delivery format, number of corrections included, amount already paid, amount to be paid, and payment method. This way, both my client and I can always refer to all the essential details to avoid any misunderstandings and be confident about what to expect.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions
The more questions you ask, the lower the chances that you are going to end up with time-wasting corrections. If you have any doubts, make sure that you clear them up before starting your work. The worst you can do is to invest your time and energy in something that you haven’t been asked for. Clients won’t find you unprofessional or unskilled if you ask them specific questions regarding your project. Quite the opposite, they will notice your involvement and dedication and rest assured that you’re going to deliver them quality work, in accordance with your guidelines. Before you ask any question, make sure that it’s clear and straight to the point. As I have already written above, you don’t want to annoy your client and yourself with constant messages or calls interrupting your work just to clarify your questions. Also, don’t ask negative questions. If you ask your client “Don’t you use Skype?” and receive “Yes” as an answer, will you know what it means? To avoid such a misunderstanding, it’s much better to ask, “Do you use Skype?” or, even better, an open question: “What apps do you use to communicate?”
5. Listen actively
Your client, like any other person, wants to be listened to. Ignorance is one of the worst feelings that can occur between you and your client, so it’s better to avoid it. Make yourself available and let your clients speak. Show them that their opinions or ideas matter as much as yours even though you already might have a clear vision of the project. In fact, your clients can come up with opinions or ideas that you will be thankful for. Active listening will also help you avoid any misunderstandings. The more you know, the better for you and for your clients — you will finish the project more quickly, and your clients will be fully satisfied with the results. No matter if you communicate by voice apps, phone, or in writing (for example through emails or chat apps), let your clients express themselves as much as they need to. Especially during the first phase of discussing your contract details. You will make them feel that they are important to you and that you really care what they think.
6. Follow up promptly
You’ll find many people telling you to not check your emails immediately after you get them or, even more extremely, check them just 2 or 3 times a week. While this solution limits distractions and possibly brings your productivity to a new level, it also weakens your relationships with clients, partners, coworkers and other people you stay in communication with. Prompt answers are the key to effective distance communication. First of all, you’ll discuss everything quicker, so you can finish your work without being worried about meeting your deadline. Exchanging emails or chat messages after several hours of turn around can make you and your client lose focus. You will need to come back to previous messages to check what you’ve already discussed and agreed to. Nobody likes to waste time. When you don’t delay your responses, you’re more likely to establish a long-lasting partnership with your clients. They will treat you as a trustworthy partner who they can always count on.
7. Keep your remote client updated
Although distance communication usually allows you to quickly send a notification to another person, there are some situations when those notifications end up in the middle of nowhere. For instance, emails aren’t always delivered, they are overlooked, or they appear in a Spam folder that nobody looks in. Whenever you receive a chat text, an email, a voice message or any other type of notification, always let your client know you have received it. A simple “I confirm I received your message and… agree to it/will work on it/will check it out,” will be enough. Also, always inform your clients about everything related to the project. They would like to know how you are going to approach your project, when you are going to complete it, and what tools you are going to use for instance. They would also appreciate it if you informed them about any issues and unexpected situations that are going to make your work more complicated. It often takes less than a minute and can save hours of frustration.
8. Use positive instead of negative statements
Positive language can help you create long, valuable and trusting relationships with your clients much easier. Nobody likes to hear “no,” “can’t” or “don’t” as those types of negative statements are often associated with stress. Here are several examples how you can replace your negative statement with a positive one: “I don’t know” replace with “Let me find out.” “I can’t help you” replace with “I will learn how to help you.” “This product isn’t available now” replace with “This product will be available soon” (or even better: “in X number of days”). Another thing: imagine you are discussing an important project with your client. You talk via Skype or mobile phone. The connection isn’t the best, but at least you hear each other. Instead of hearing you say, “I CAN do it,” your client hears “I CAN’T do it.” It’s just a difference of one letter, but imagine how big an influence it can have on your communication. You could even miss out on this attractive project because of one silly misunderstanding. So how should you express yourself? Instead of “I can do it,” say “Yes, I can do it,” “Yes, I know how to do it,” or “Yes, I will do it with pleasure.” Even a simple “Yes” at the beginning of your answer can make the intention of your answer clear.
9. When possible, voice your opinion
Your clients can think they know what’s best for them, but the truth might be quite the opposite. In fact, clients often have a vision of what they want to achieve, and they assume they know the way to do it, but if they did… would they really contact you and ask you for help? If you don’t agree with something, tell your clients your opinion. Explain to them how you see things, what you would change and what solution you would choose to offer them the best results. If you express yourself in a clear and confident way, they will really appreciate it. While sharing your opinion, be respectful. Never say that your client’s opinions, ideas or points of view are incorrect. That won’t bring positive results. Instead, be diplomatic. No matter how much you disagree with what they say, listen carefully and then tell them how you see things — in a calm and respectful manner.
10. Establish a human connection
Remote communication makes it much more difficult to establish a human connection between people, in this case — between you and your clients. It’s most difficult when it comes to written communication. You never know what mood your clients were in when they received or answered your email. You don’t hear their tone of voice, see their facial expression or get clues from their body language. Simply speaking, you can try to connect using only words in written format. The easiest and most effective way to establish a human connection in a distance relationship with your client is to use video calls. Of course, a video call usually takes more time than writing an email, and it can require you to be available at odd hours (for example at 2 AM due to time zone differences), but at the same time it’s much more valuable. One video call, if conducted properly, can easily replace dozens of chat texts or emails. Video calls are also a great way to build trust between you and your clients at the beginning of your relationship. This way, you can more easily learn about each other and establish a long-lasting partnership.
11. Be aware of differences in technical knowledge
We live in a wonderful digital age. Mobile apps, advanced software, constantly updated operating systems — it all literally surrounds us, and there is no way to escape from it. However, each of us has a different level of technical knowledge that depends on job experience, personal interests, or ease of adapting to modern technology. If you know Word or Excel, it doesn’t mean that your clients know it too. In fact, they might even not use it. What if they prefer another software, for example, Open Office instead of Microsoft Office? The difference might seem slight at first glance, but it can confuse your or your client if you are not on the same page. While discussing technical issues with your clients, make sure you don’t use any technical vocabulary. Describe everything as easily as possible. Not as if you were describing it to a 4- or 5-year-old child, but to someone who might have only basic knowledge of how things related to modern technology work. If your client expresses advanced technical knowledge, that’s perfect — you’ll probably find common ground. But to find that out takes time. Never assume based on only two or three sentences. Maybe somebody explained it to them briefly before, and they are just repeating what they heard. You never know until you learn more.
12. Keep in mind your client’s time zone
Remote work gives you a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with professionals from all around the world. The Internet eliminates all distance-related obstacles, allowing you to work with people you truly enjoy working with and finding many more clients than you normally would if you were bound to one place. However, there is one big disadvantage and you probably realize it when you have a group of clients in another time zone. If you live in Berlin and your client is in Moscow, the time difference isn’t that significant. But what if you live in Bangkok and your client lives in New York? When you work during the day, your client might be sleeping the whole time. There are 11 hours of difference between you! A big time difference can make communication between you and your client more difficult. Sometimes you will need to wait several hours for a response. If this is something that limits your work, always discuss everything with your client when you both are online. It will require much longer discussions, but this way you won’t be left without further instructions and you will be able to organize your work easier. To check the current time in your client’s location, I suggest you use World Time Buddy or The Time Zone Converter. With the help of those apps, you can compare current time in different places around the world, so you don’t send an important email or, even worse, call your client, at 3 or 4 AM their time.
13. Set reasonable deadlines (and enforce them)
Remote work requires a lot of self-discipline. You are the one responsible for making your clients happy, and one of the ways to do that is to deliver discussed results on time. Never start working without clearly stating when you are going to finish your project or milestone. It will not only keep your client informed, but it will also help you be more productive and disciplined. You will know how much time you have, how you should organize it, and what tasks to prioritize in order to have everything done on time. Treat your deadlines as something really important. Always enforce them. If you set a deadline and then find it difficult to deliver, it can hurt your relationship with your client. There is nothing worse than losing hard earned trust that you have already gained. Also, if you can’t stick to your deadlines, maybe it’s much more effective to rearrange your working strategy. Don’t promise something that you can’t deliver. If you need more time, tell your clients. They will understand. There are not many tasks that are really urgent and usually, 1 or 2 days don’t make a big difference.