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Dick Carlson
e-Learning Designer
Columbia, South Carolina
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Clients Will Pay You Not To Come To Their Offices

Clients pay me money to NOT come in to their offices, and it doesn’t involve a restraining order.  Working virtually is becoming more and more common for a variety of businesses.

Written Apr 10, 2008, read 1787 times since then.
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Clients pay me money to NOT come in to their offices, and it doesn’t involve a restraining order.  Working virtually is becoming more and more common for a variety of businesses.  It requires a whole new way of looking at your business, and an entirely new set of skills to manage time and people.  Here are seven secrets that you need to know if you’re going to succeed working in the cloud.

#1:  Make An Initial Physical Contact

Many clients are uneasy about the idea of dealing with you on a completely virtual basis.  Make a point of meeting for a planning meeting, or a kickoff of the project in person – even if it means some travel or other expense.  It demonstrates your commitment to the project and lets you connect to the people that you’ll be working with.  I usually include the cost of a physical visit every now and then on my proposals, unless I’ve worked for a group several times before.

While you’re there, take some quick cell phone pictures of the team so you can connect faces with names and email addresses.  Make sure you understand the role of each person, the org chart, and exactly who you’re responsible to.  Working virtually means that you’ll have more issues with several people sending you instructions and requests for work, so you’ll want to make sure you know who’s really your “boss” on the project.

#2:  Respond Quickly and Professionally

There’s nothing worse than sending email or leaving a phone message for a virtual vendor and not hearing back.  (Well, OK – there is something worse.  Hearing back with a screaming toddler or the sounds of a crowded bar in the background.)  Remember that the person calling you is probably in a stuffy cube and is already a little miffed that you’re off having fun – no matter what you’re actually doing.)  Make sure that you are in an appropriate location if you’re on the phone, and if your response is via email that it’s not a quick LOL text message on your BlackBerry. 

Sure, if I have a very solid relationship with a client I might break that rule.  But it’s a rare occasion – and many times I’ve come to regret it.  The fact that you’re off-site is a major source of friction at many levels, and your message may be forwarded or referenced to people you never meant to see it.  I take my laptop just about everywhere, I pay for a broadband wireless connection that means nearly 100% connectivity, and my smartphone means that email arrives almost instantly.  Too connected for you?  Then virtual may not be your cup of tea.  My customers pay for availability.

#3:  Set Limits On Your Availability

Wait a minute – isn’t that completely at odds with what I just said?  Not at all.  My agreements clearly set out <st1:place>SLA</st1:place> (Service Level Agreement) expectations for clients.  It might be a response within 2 hours during 9-5, it might be next day, it might be 24/7.  If I’m going to be in the air for more than a couple of hours, I usually let high-touch clients know.  But you have to explain (and agree) to these limits in advance, or you’ll find that you are expected to be available at all hours.

I’m willing to be available 24/7, and have had clients that have needed that.  You wouldn’t have believed how much I charged. <g>  I’ve had clients on the East Coast that wanted me to be available to present web conferences at 4AM Pacific Time.  No problem, if they’ve got a big checkbook.  But make sure you agree to this in advance, and charge accordingly.  (Since it wasn’t video, I did the presentation in a bathrobe and bunny slippers – and then went back to bed.)</g>

But since you’re not arriving at 9 and leaving at 5, there will be a perception that you’re pretty much available all the time.  Resist the urge to respond to email or voicemail during off hours.  You’re just digging yourself a hole.  Ask yourself if you were a “regular” employee if they would have called you at home over this issue, and then respond accordingly.

#4:  Be Clear On Expectations

I’m a contractor – and just like a landscaper or plumber, I work for multiple clients.  Sometimes in the high-tech or white-collar world, there is confusion around that.  If a client wants to book 40 hours of my time each week, that’s great – but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they get those hours every day from 9-5, unless we agree to that in advance.  And if that’s what they want, they’re going to pay a premium – because it will mean none of my other clients can have access to those most-desired hours.

I won’t book a gig like this at all unless it’s a minimum of three months, and generally not less than six months.  I find that it just makes finding future contracts just too difficult, because it takes me off the radar of key clients.  (It also makes me fat and lazy about prospecting for work, which is a whole ‘nother article.)

I did have a very ugly experience once where I signed a contract for one year, guaranteeing forty hours per week at a very high rate, during the 9-5 window.  In the first month, they kept delaying their kickoff meeting and other key milestones, and there wasn’t much for me to do.  I submitted (and they paid) two invoices – and then I was called on the carpet for billing for work I didn’t do.  It turned out that they assumed I’d only bill for hours worked, when they had something for me to do.  We didn’t part as friends.

#5:  Keep Your Key Stakeholder In the <st1:place>Loop</st1:place>

Since you’re not on site, you don’t have the same sort of “drive-by” conversations with the person who is approving your invoices and reviewing your work.  There’s no water cooler or snack bar conversation where you get a feel for how things are going.  So it’s good to schedule a weekly short phone call with them, with a few short agenda items (even if there’s really nothing critical) so that you have a chance to take the temperature of the engagement.

That’s a great time to mention that someone on the team has asked you to take on a new responsibility, or provide something outside the scope of your agreement, or thrown some kind of curveball.  If they do want you to do it, you’ve got a natural opening to discuss a change order.  (Preventing “scope creep” is just as critical working off site as when you’re on site.)

I also send a short weekly status email to the key person, with just a few bullets – accomplishments of the week past, challenges or blocking issues, and goals for the coming week, and other issues that may be coming up.  This creates a great reference as you go along if there are any questions about what happened when, and nips a lot of issues in the bud.  (It’s also very helpful when your key contact moves on to a new job or is downsized.)

#6:  Get A Really, Really Expensive Speaker Phone

If you can’t spend $300 on a speaker phone, don’t think you can work virtually.  If you’re in a phone conference with six people, there’s nothing more critical to your success than being able to hear the low-talkers and mute down the Foghorns.  You’ll also want a high quality headset with a very good microphone, to make absolutely sure that you have the best chance of being easily heard.  (I’m a Plantronics fan, but just be very very sure you’ve got good equipment.)

To begin with, you can rent time by the hour in a Kinko’s or other conference center – but even then the quality may suffer.  If you’re a vice-president of the company, you can call in on your crummy cell phone from the back of the limo and we’ll all struggle to hear your dulcet tones.  If you’re a vendor who didn’t even have to come in to the office like I did, my resentment is going to get in the way.  Trust me.

You should also look into setting up a conference call service for yourself – they’re everywhere, and many only charge for time used.  No, you don’t need it often, but it just makes you look more professional and prepared than always asking your clients to set up the calls for you.  And it should be a toll-free incoming number, too.

Skype is great for talking to other techies – I use it a lot.  Regular people still aren’t impressed.  People who are paying you large sums of money aren’t impressed at all.

#7: Charge "Virtual" Prices

When I'm asked to provide a bid on a project, one of my first questions is whether some or all of it can be done off-site. Almost always, the answer (from the clueless recruiter) is "I don't know - you'd have to ask the client." But that opens the door to the discussion. When I'm talking to the client, I work in the fact that I'm assuming that the recruiter mentioned that my price is dependent on whether I'm on or off-site, and that I'll need to know that to write a bid. A great conversation usually ensues.

To be honest, if they want me on site 100% of the time I usually bid very high, and rarely get the job. I'm ok with that, in fact when they do take me up on it I usually kick myself and wish it had been higher. I'm usually not very happy now, sitting in a cube looking at that cat poster on the wall all day. I wish the little sucker would just fall off the rope and hit the ground.

Learn more about the author, Dick Carlson.

Comment on this article

  • Energetic Speaking Coach for Entrepreneurs & NPOs 
Bellevue, Washington 
Pamela Ziemann
    Posted by Pamela Ziemann, Bellevue, Washington | Apr 11, 2008

    great tips Dick, love your writing style. about the speaker phone, have you heard comments on the iphone speaker quality? i'm no techie, but call anytime on skype, i'm diggin it. pamelaziemann

  • MN SEO, Marketing, Tech support, Small business owner 
Plymouth, Minnesota 
Shea Wilkinson
    Posted by Shea Wilkinson, Plymouth, Minnesota | Apr 11, 2008

    That's a great article! I agree, you have a very fun writing style. Keep writing!

  • Virtual Assistant 
Everton Park, Queensland Australia 
Marie Chandler
    Posted by Marie Chandler, Everton Park, Queensland Australia | Apr 11, 2008

    I am now stuck with a vision of you in a bathrobe and bunny slippers! ;-) Thanks for the tips - I recently commenced my virtual assistant business and this gives me some useful info and clarifies some of my own thoughts as to how to deal with the client for availability etc. Cheers!

  • QuickBooks Virtual Accounting Solutions Provider 
Vashon, Washington 
Kristin Callan
    Posted by Kristin Callan, Vashon, Washington | Apr 11, 2008

    Great article! Any good suggestions for a headset? I've been working virtually for a few months now and have realized I need a great headset.

  • Graphics Awesomizer 
Sandy, Oregon 
David Billings
    Posted by David Billings, Sandy, Oregon | Apr 12, 2008

    You had me from the first line. My time is limited in my virtual day and this was well spent.

    ALL of my clients right now are in other states and that's kinda cool for me, I love working in the virtual world.

    Like you, I make myself available 24/7 if necessary, so I'm glad you talked about setting limits. I think that's an important conversation to have in the early stages. I don't advertise that availability, I dole it out judiciously like the grand high wizard I am. :)

    Have you (or anyone here!) had to do a flip-flop and take back your availability offer because a client abused the privilege?

  • Cinematographer, Film, Digital, 3D 
Seattle, Washington 
Steven Bradford
    Posted by Steven Bradford, Seattle, Washington | Apr 12, 2008

    This is the holy grail then? Reducing personal contact.

    I guess it works for some jobs. Seems hellish to me. And yes, I've done the home office thing off and on since 1990. All in all? It's a net loss.

  • e-Learning Designer 
Columbia, South Carolina 
Dick Carlson
    Posted by Dick Carlson, Columbia, South Carolina | Apr 12, 2008

    Pamela: Since I’m an escapee from Microsoft, most of my experience is with smartphones, and I’ve never owned an i-Phone. What I’ve heard is that the internal speaker is nothing to write home about. I’m not sure how well the built in microphone presents your voice to listeners, but I’d bet money it’s not the same quality as a good headset mic with a landline.

    Shea: Thanks for the kind words. I’m thinking of trying to blend this stuff into a “romance” format so I can make real money.

    Marie: I have an Aussie staying here all month, so I’m always glad to hear from the land of OZ. Maybe we can talk about some virtual assisting – since you already know what’s happening tomorrow, that would be a great help.

    Kristin – My system is a Plantronics H171N DuoPro® Noise-Canceling Headset plugged into a Plantronics MX10 Amplifier. (The amplifier allows pretty precise control of the audio, the headset is noise-canceling for when the dogs bark and the doorbell rings. It also allow me to record phone conversations directly to my computer for podcasts. But that’s the high end – YMMV. And there are plenty of other good manufacturers out there.

    David – Yes, I’ve had to end up taking back some access, so that’s made me a little more cautious at the start. It’s very difficult to do – usually results in ruffled feathers, at the least – and a loss of engagement, at the worst. Others who are very hungry are willing to offer that kind of 24/7 more easily.

    Steven – Heavens, no. Being “virtual” allows me personal contact with people all over the world, rather than just the ones within walking distance. My life is far richer and more varied, my opportunities for engagement nearly unlimited, and my exposure to different cultures and experiences is multiplied over and over. If I want more “meat” experiences I can do those as well – Starbucks, in-person engagements, speaking gigs, time with my wife and family, church, working in my community. But everyone gets to make choices and trade-offs to get the professional life that works for them.

  • Computer Repair Technician 
Kent, Washington 
Andrey Rozmaity
    Posted by Andrey Rozmaity, Kent, Washington | Apr 16, 2008

    Great article!

    I love HTC phones!


    -Andrey

  • Personal Trainer for Hair 
Seattle, Washington 
Dawn Renee Mallory
    Posted by Dawn Renee Mallory, Seattle, Washington | Apr 17, 2008

    Ah yes... the eternal talk about boundaries... I can't get enough on THAT issue. Very good information..Thanx... dawn

  • graphic and web design 
Farmington, Washington 
Christine Montfort
    Posted by Christine Montfort, Farmington, Washington | Apr 17, 2008

    Thanks for the article. I can see you smiling as you write :)

    I love working at home and will never, ever sit in a mauve cubicle again.

    I do have a question though: how do you convince people you can work remotely? I am delving into the world of sub and prime contracting for govt and am having a tough time convincing people I can do excellent work from anywhere I am sitting with my laptop.

  • Universal and Accessible Home Design 
Seattle, Washington 
Dana Henrickson
    Posted by Dana Henrickson, Seattle, Washington | Apr 17, 2008

    I enjoy your writing style and how you frame your subject matter.

    It is very helpful and inspirational.

  • e-Learning Designer 
Columbia, South Carolina 
Dick Carlson
    Posted by Dick Carlson, Columbia, South Carolina | Apr 17, 2008

    Andrey: Yes, HTC phones are neat -- very elegant, and usually at the front of current design.

    Dawn: Funny how boundaries are essential in marriages, child rearing and business. Maybe there's a workshop in there somewhere.

    Christine: It is difficult to convince clients and employers. The need to "watch" employees is deeply ingrained and hard to break. Here are a couple of ideas:

    Have an emergency Come up with a sick child, a parent or sib in another city, or some reason you really can't come in to work. Heroically offer to continue to do the job from afar. Perform above and beyond, and then when you return suggest you try every Friday this way.

    Offer a rate reduction One of my most effective techniques is to make it more expensive for clients to see me in person. As I say, I lose some business -- but my goal of being "virtual" makes that ok, for me. YMMV.

    Collect testimonials Have several testimonials from people you have worked for on a remote basis, that you can share. They should mention your willingness to come in when needed, your availability on phone and email, and the high quality of your work.

    Dana: Thanks for the kind words. I try to write in an authentic voice, even when it (sometimes) gets me in a little trouble. The benefit is that if a client or partner is offended or put off, they'd probably not be very happy with me in person, either!

  • graphic and web design 
Farmington, Washington 
Christine Montfort
    Posted by Christine Montfort, Farmington, Washington | Apr 17, 2008

    Thank you for the feedback!

  • Interactive Multimedia Producer & Consultant 
Plano, Texas 
Rajesh Nidwannaya
    Posted by Rajesh Nidwannaya, Plano, Texas | Apr 17, 2008

    Very helpful article. I liked your suggestion of having a different rate for working on-site. I have had experience where it was a total waste of time working on-site for a client.

    I could have done the same amount of work in half the time working from home on my own computer (Mac) rather then work at the client's office in an 8x8 cubicle, under harsh fluorescent lighting, on an ill-equipped PC.

    Some employers don't trust you enough to manage your own time and would rather see you sitting idle in their office just to have you available when they need you.

  • e-Learning Designer 
Columbia, South Carolina 
Dick Carlson
    Posted by Dick Carlson, Columbia, South Carolina | Apr 17, 2008

    Rajesh: I've had exactly the same experience. It's very rare that a client has hardware/software that is as up-to-date or powerful as what I have at home. (Not surprising -- I make my living with it, just like a mechanic with SnapOn tools.)

    And as someone who has a big bag O' experience, I can often complete tasks much faster than the "book" rate -- and if I'm in front of the client they'll want me to cut my billing. I charge for the results, not how long it takes me.

    Much like that plumber that charges for solving the leak, not the 5 cent washer he installs.

  • Massage - Medical Intuitive - Author  (Ballard) 
Seattle, Washington 
Jacob Caldwell, LMP
    Posted by Jacob Caldwell, LMP, Seattle, Washington | Apr 18, 2008

    I love my iPhone but speaker...suckssssss

  • Program Manager 
Bangalore, Karnataka India 
Kumar Iyer
    Posted by Kumar Iyer, Bangalore, Karnataka India | Aug 10, 2008

    Dick,

    Very good article. Since I have come across many of the SLA based projects, I know the pain if the expectations are not clear. Even some English mistake in not typing ("with assumption" that customer will not ask) will take us for a ride. This also leads to poor satisfaction in maintainnig work-life balance.

    Thanks

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