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Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Remote Relationship Building 101

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Although I work remotely, I recently took a full-time two-month contract — and, in my existing clients’ eyes, became even more remote than usual. My standard approach to maintaining relationships with my client contacts wasn’t going to work any more, and I could see the break in contact very quickly undermining the relationships I’d worked so hard to develop.

Although I work “remotely”, I do value meeting with my clients in person — so much, in fact, that I make regular time to see each of my contacts. The frequency of that contact usually depends on how important the client is to me, and how much I want their business, but in all cases, I find the face-to-face time really valuable.

Working full-time would mean that I wouldn’t be able to maintain my regular contact schedule. I wouldn’t have a lot of time to be in touch with them electronically, either. And, as a freelancer, my fear was that once I was out of sight, I’d be out of mind. Two months is a lifetime to some of my clients, and I didn’t want to get to the end of my contract and discover that I’d lost half my clients.

Taking a Relationship Break

Employed teams working in disparate locations have it easier than the freelancer. For one thing, you’re paid for the time you spend building relationships, and your employer requires you to work together. So whether you like it or not, you know you’re likely to have contact with your remote colleagues.

The remote freelancer is faced with a different dilemma. Time is money, so relationship-building and maintenance needs to be efficient as well as effective. If your primary means of client contact is, say, video calling, and you have a client who doesn’t want to do that, it matters — you either have to choose some other method of contact, or risk losing the client.

Finding a solution that meets everyone’s needs is important, and fortunately it’s usually not too difficult. My strategy involves using social networks and making sure I stay on top of ongoing work discussions via email, but my after those methods, my preferred approach was face-to-face meetings. And that method had been successful for my clients and I … until I landed a full-time contract.

Making it Work

How do remote freelancers handle these kinds of relationship breaks? While I didn’t want to lose contact with my clients, I didn’t really want them loading me up with work while I had a full-time gig, either. It’s a tricky balance, but it’s not impossible. As most freelancers know, all too often promised work falls through and deadlines are pushed out — we have no choice but to manage our workloads, and our clients’ expectations, accordingly.

The approaches I took to managing the break between myself and my clients varied, but it did have some basic, common features. First up, I made sure I had all my clients’ phone and email details handy, and knew where each client’s projects were at.

I then discussed the fact that I would be working on a two-month contract with each client in turn. This gave both myself and my clients the opportunity to explain our expectations for that period — which tasks would be completed, what progress we wanted to see, and so on — so that we were on the same page when my contract job began. This proved very handy in the ensuing weeks, as we communicated via email, SMS and the occasional phone call about the progress of various jobs.

The other thing I did was made sure I was in contact with my clients through the social networks they prefer. Some of them don’t bother with social networking at all, but some do, and I wanted to remain top of mind for these guys.

Since I don’t have my own blog or site to which clients can subscribe, social networks are a good way for me to stay in the minds of my clients, and promote my skills to them. By connecting with them all on their preferred networks, and making sure I updated my status on those networks whenever I had information that might be of interest to them, I could help reduce the sense that I was unavailable to them — even though, for most of each day, I basically was.

As the weeks drew on, I kept a reasonably tight-laced task list, which included notes about contacting clients and following up on prior discussions we’d had. So the kinds of contacts I’d usually complete as a matter of course became work tasks — to-do items — in themselves. By treating these contacts a little more systematically than I might otherwise, I was able to keep track of what I was doing and avoid the sorts of brain misfires that can happen when you’re working nights as well as days.

This is how I handled a necessary break in my remote client relationships — and survived to tell the tale! What tools and techniques do you use to keep yourself on clients’ minds, even when you’re out of sight?

Image by stock.xchng user pixelstar.

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