Whether it's because you're working for a client on the other side of the country or it's simply the nature of the work you do, you may conduct most or all of your work away from the client's site.
Unfortunately, even in today's wired world, some managers still have a punch-clock mentality that makes them suspicious of any work that isn't accomplished in a cubicle down the hall. And when you're billing by the hour, some clients get downright nervous when they can't see you working.
Fortunately, there are ways that you can help your clients feel more comfortable with a long-distance or off-site working arrangement.
In this article, I'll share with you some tricks of the trade I've learned in several years of running a documentation consulting business, in which most of the work is usually done in my own office. All of these tips center on direct and clear communication with your clients. Once you use them for working off-site, you may even find them useful for on-site projects.
Stay in touch
The most important thing you can do to reassure clients that you are indeed cranking away on their project is to keep in touch with them. At the outset of a project, I always let a client know how often they can expect to hear from me. I commit to regular, scheduled updates, even if there's little to report.
However, there's almost always something to pass on. My updates usually include:
- A brief review-usually a paragraph detailing the phase of the project I'm currently working on-covering what I've accomplished since the last update. I also note challenges or work that's gone more quickly than expected. Synchronizing this review with the project scope detailed in your contract or letter of agreement helps prevent misunderstandings.
- An assessment of what remains to be done, either in that phase of the project, if it's long, or for the project as a whole, for shorter projects.
- Any other relevant details. For example, I let clients know when and how I've been working with their employees (e.g., "On July 14, I had a one-hour phone interview with Bob Smith about the encryption used on yourcompany.com.")
Project type and length will also determine the frequency of your updates. I always start with weekly updates and then scale it back if necessary, sending an e-mail to the client about the new update schedule. As the deadline gets closer, I may send updates twice a week or more.
Despite the informal nature of e-mail, make sure that your updates are focused, well written, and spell-checked. Number your points, if you have a list, or use dividers such as **** or ----- to separate sections.
Don't forget the phone
Don't limit your communication with your client to e-mail. Although convenient, e-mail is impersonal and does little to cultivate a relationship. Pick up the phone and call your client regularly.
And don't wait until there's a crisis. Call to ask for your client's point of view on how the project is progressing and whether you can answer any questions or address any concerns. You'll be surprised how much more your client may share over the phone than by e-mail.
Establish office hours
Consider establishing office hours for any project that either requires quick answers from you or that comes equipped with suspicious managers. Make sure that the client and everyone you need to work with knows your office hours; you don't want a client employee reporting that you never answer the phone and take hours to reply to e-mail.
Make it clear that your office hours are not the only times that you are available or will be working but rather that these are times when you can always be reached within minutes. You may want to ask the people who will need to contact you when they are most likely to need access to you.
Deliver the goods on time
Although meeting deadlines is always top priority for any contractor, it's especially important when you're working off-site. No matter what reason you give, many clients will wonder whether it's legitimate or if you've been making too many weekday trips to the beach.
Your regular updates will help back you up. If you've been pointing out significant problems for some time, a client won't be so surprised when you fail to meet a deadline. (Of course, you always need to be working to solve such problems, not just shifting the blame.)
But as soon as you know you might miss a deadline, notify the client separately from your updates. Briefly state the reason for the delay, address the steps necessary to remedy the problem, and provide a date when the client can expect the work.
If you choose to send this information by e-mail, always follow up with a phone call within 24 hours. Otherwise, you may look like a coward unwilling to own up to the problem. Never leave a message on voicemail about missing a deadline.
Meet in person
If your client is in town, there's no reason not to have at least one face-to-face meeting even if it seems unnecessary. But when you have a long-distance client, arrange to meet them if possible. If the client is footing the bill, be as careful with their money as you would your own. However, if the client doesn't offer to fly you to their work site, there's no better way to impress them than by traveling to meet them on your own dime.
Of course, this isn't essential for short projects. But for clients with long, detailed projects or who will likely need your help on future projects, a visit is one of the best ways you can demonstrate your commitment to the project and to the client company itself.
You may want to schedule your visit during the startup phase of the project as a get-acquainted meeting. Or, if you already foresee a time when being on-site could help resolve a problem-technical or otherwise-plan on doing it later. Using Internet research and advance planning, you can go to most major cities in the country and rent a car for a day for less than $500. Remember that your expenses are tax-deductible.
You'll not only meet the client, you'll also get some face time with the employees you'll be working with, making everyone feel more comfortable. You're likely to learn more about the company and the people you work with in that day than you ever could over the phone. Maybe you'll do billable work, maybe not, but your visit will pay off in the long run.
Additional IT Consultant resources
- Four issues to consider before becoming a remote IT consultant
- Communicating effectively with remote IT consulting clients
- Balancing client communication with the flow of productivity
- Billing IT consulting clients for travel time