Working remotely is a big part of the freelancing dream for many freelancers, whether that's being able to travel or simply just pick where you put down roots.
Laura Elizabeth has figured out the formula for working remotely with clients around the world while sitting in her home office in a fairly small town in the UK. Laura has built structures and processes that let her work effectively and efficiently with her clients, independent of geography, while also building amazing client relationships. In this episode, Laura explains why clients hire her instead of someone local, how to deliver on great work, and how being remote has become an advantage rather than something that gets in her way.
Laura shares with us:
Laura started freelancing on Upwork as a way for her to practice working on client projects after university while working full time at an agency. As she got more clients and more referrals outside of Upwork, she raised her rates and found herself making more money freelancing than at the agency, so she became a full-time freelancer. She knew freelancing was for her because on top of doing the design work, she enjoyed talking directly with clients, acting as creative director, and managing a business.
Why a client would pick a remote vendor over a local one:
Laura is a specialist and works with developers, so she is automatically a great choice to that group. Other designers local to the developer may not have the expertise of working with developers and understanding the special needs and problems that developers have. Laura does, so she is the natural pick. As her Twitter profile says, she “makes their websites look as good as the code behind them.”
How Laura built up a client base from Upwork:
Though Laura started on Upwork to get clients, she didn't stay there for long. On Upwork, she worked cheaply, but created great deliverables for her clients, building up her reputation and her portfolio. Soon, she got repeat clients from Upwork, then she had clients outside of Upwork from the referrals that her past clients gave out. Word of mouth is the best advertiser.
Another strategy that has been effective for Laura is build authority, such as through speaking. She recently spoke at Double Your Freelancing Conference in Stockholm and has several other speaking engagements lined up in the States over the next few months. She also guest posts and appears on podcasts to get her name out there as much as possible.
Laura does recommend that if you want to use content marketing to build your client base, you should really figure out where your clients are online, what blogs they read, what podcasts they listen to, and get in front of them. Writing to your peers, such as other graphic designers in Laura's case, is great for building up authority, but won't expose you to your target clients. When you do write or talk to your target audience, talk to them in a language that they understand and understand their problems.
Laura recommends that you are always proactive in getting your name out there. You need to put yourself out there. It is a longterm game, but you need to keep trying and practicing even if you fail to get engagement right away. For example, to speak at conferences, you need to apply to the call for papers that conferences post. You never know what might catch someones eye. That's how Laura ended up speaking at DYFC.
Of course, it's easy to say to put yourself out there, but it's hard to do. There is always the fear that you don't know anything that might help someone else or your not good enough to speak at a big conference. There's a term for that fear, Imposter Syndrome, and everyone gets it. To get over Imposter Syndrome though is for you to go out and talk because you actually do have the expertise in your craft.
Problems working with local clients:
In addition to the online client base, she developed a bit of a local client base as well. Laura lives in a small town in the UK that's 2 hours from the nearest major city, which meant that there were few other graphic designers in her area. When Laura built her website, she included the name of that small town, which soon started ranking higher and higher on google searches for graphic designers in her local area. Local clients started contacting her to work on projects.
But it turned out that working locally wasn't for her.
Laura found that local clients wanted a lot of face-to-face time with her, which meant she had to spend time commuting to a coffee shop or the client's workplace then have an hour long meeting with the client that didn't really accomplish that much and then drive all the way back. It all added up and pretty soon she lost half a day of work and she still had to do the design work that didn't get done because she was busy driving to and from client meetings. Exhausting and inefficient.
Processes to make working remotely smooth and efficient:
On-boarding a client:
Now, the client experience is completely online. When clients wants to work with Laura, they first need to fill out a short form on Laura's website, telling her about themselves and the project. If Laura is interested in the project, she sends the prospect a questionnaire asking them more details about the project and what their budget is. If she doesn't want to work with the prospect, she sends them a short email with a referral to someone else who might be a better match.
Notice how Laura is completely in charge of this process. She decides who to say yes to and who to turn down. Laura gets to control her project-load and only work with clients who she thinks will be a good fit, which tends to lead to successful projects.
The next step is a 30 minute skype call with the client which she schedules through Calendly, a valuable tool especially if you are working with people in different timezones. Its really important for building trust with the client to have a video chat, which Laura disliked at first because she is pretty shy. But the clients need to see that she is a human being and helps to build a personal connection with the client, which is normally the hardest thing to do in remote work.
During this initial meeting, Laura is very careful to set expectations for the client. The client isn't always sure how things are going to work, especially if it is the first time they are working with someone remotely. She explains how and when to contact her and when they can expect a response from her. For instance, she tells them that she will not be answering emails over the weekend, but will get back to them first thing on Monday morning. Establishing expectations for communication is critical when she is working with clients in different timezones because an emergency for them might occur in the middle of the night for her. Is it really an emergency?
Laura also establishes weekly recurring skype calls with clients at the same time that they picked for the initial meeting. These are progress meetings and keeps everyone on the same page and helps Laura makes sure she isn't dropping the ball on anything. Laura explains what she was working on all week and what she will be working on during the coming week. The clients get to ask her questions and she gets to ask them questions. The weekly meetings have dramatically cut down on the number of emails that she gets from clients because they tend to wait for the weekly progress meeting to voice any issues. Not all meetings are weekly, it depends on the client and the project if she schedules more or less frequent meetings.
A challenge that every freelancer faces is getting the client to do some up front work to give you something to start with, the content creation. Laura has come up with a creative and effective method of getting around this challenge. Laura sends the clients a gift card to Starbucks or a local coffee shop and offers them the chance to spend time on themselves and their business. Its that little push to help them create the content that she needs.
Once the project is underway, Laura keeps everything organized on a special client page off her website. The page is client specific and password protected. At the start of the project, Laura sends her clients a link to the page, a username and password. The page contains all of the content that the client has supplied and all the deliverables that Laura has created, even works in progress that they can talk about at the progress meeting.
Yes, work in progress, even though it is sometimes terrifying to show an incomplete product, or she is experimenting on a concept, she still puts it up on the client page so the clients know how far along the project is. This is really helpful for clients who tend to micro-manage.
Laura always asks for feedback throughout the project, but she doesn't just ask “so, what do you think?” She leads the feedback sessions and asks the client specific questions about design elements. If you leave it open-ended, the client might come up with something to say, even if they really care much about it, just so they can say something.
Laura also makes sure that the client knows how to give constructive feedback by educating them through a worksheet. The worksheet emphasizes that if something isn't working for them, they need to tell her now when it is easy to fix, not later. And that they don't need to worry about hurting her feelings because they are all working towards the same goal. Of course, feedback is a back and forth process, so she might not agree with their feedback, but she will speak up and they will work it out.
Check out the resources below for more on how to work remotely with clients.
- Laura's special page for FT listeners
- “How to Collaborate with Clients Remotely” by Laura Elizabeth
Find Laura online: