The good news: With today’s global economy and around-the-clock-and-world communication, many of us can work from anywhere, with businesses located everywhere. I’ve written at a cottage in Scotland, taken a conference call (complete with laptop) on South Beach in Miami, answered email from a sailboat anchored in the British Virgin Islands—all to meet obligations to clients in the Americas, Europe and Asia. The world can definitely be our oyster.
The bad news: Shucking that oyster can sometimes be tough. With business spread across the globe, we may rarely see our colleagues—or even meet them. In May, I worked with clients in Portland, Oregon; Santa Clara and Van Nuys, California; Trenton, New Jersey; Englewood, Colorado; and Stuttgart, Germany. I’ve met only half of them and the closest is 550 miles away.
Despite the global reach, business still depends heavily on human interaction. And just like a romance conducted over the miles, you need different tactics to keep a long-distance business relationship going.
So how do you work personably—and profitably—with a faceless name across the country or globe?
1. Start with the small courtesies.
If you worked in the same office, you probably wouldn’t stroll in Monday morning and blurt to your co-worker, “Is the brief for the product launch ready?”
Yet too often, emails start without the niceties that grease the social wheels. If email marketers take the trouble to program your name into the body of the email, you can bet it’s a more effective way to engage the recipient.
So don’t just get down to business: Begin your email with Hello Mike or Good morning Ashley. Then try a warm-up: How was your weekend? Are you still digging out from the snowstorm? Hope you’re not a Knicks fan.
For years, I’ve been sending emails to a client in Spokane, three hours by car west of my office. Often I ask, What kind of weather can I expect tomorrow? Whether it’s sun or showers or sideways snow, I comment on it when it arrives the next day. Is that why she recommends me when a colleague needs a copywriter? No—but she does know I’ll treat them as more than a paycheck.
Likewise use Please, Thank You and a real close instead of a canned signature at the end of your emails. All add a personal touch that prospects will remember the next time they need the services you offer.
2. Pick up the phone.
True confession here: I hate talking on the phone. As a teenager, I bribed my sister to make most of my phone calls—except to my boyfriend. If email and text didn’t exist today, I might not be in business.
But I’m in the minority. Unless you’re a masterful writer—and even then—your personality won’t come across through writing alone.
So pick up the phone when you have a question that would result in a flurry of emails. Arrange a conference call to launch a project. Ask for a debrief at the end of an assignment. Let your colleagues hear your voice.
Yes, you’ll want to keep the conversation mostly business. But ask an occasional question that shows you recognize there are real people on the end of the line.
I recently chatted by phone with a client I’ve worked with for two years. I don’t think we’ve spoken except for one face-to-face meeting. When we were winding down a discussion of upcoming work, he mentioned how happy he was to have me on his team.
Would he have written that in an email? I doubt it. But the ephemeral nature of speech lets us express ourselves much more freely.
3. Connect on LinkedIn.
Most professionals today have a LinkedIn profile. Even if they don’t do much with it, they receive weekly updates.
So if you’re connected, they’ll find out that you just posted to your blog or attended a seminar or visited the Baseball Hall of Fame. And that will keep you front of mind.
You’ll also see who they’re connected to—and possibly pick up a new client through them. As many couples will tell you, meeting through mutual friends is a great start to a relationship.
Better still, write a recommendation if you’re impressed with your client or colleague. When a project manager I worked with at a Web agency asked me to recommend her on LinkedIn, I was happy to do it. Later she returned the favor by referring a business that needed a copywriter to me.
I’m not sure solo professionals ever have enough opportunities to connect or to compliment. LinkedIn gives us a chance to do that in a way that furthers both our professional and personal lives.
4. Connect on Facebook.
You probably won’t “friend” someone until your relationship moves beyond business only. By that, I mean you’ve had a few laughs, mentioned your partner’s or children’s names (or at least whether you have either), shared a few interests and feel reasonably confident they’ll welcome your request.
That still doesn’t make you their new BFF. But maybe you occasionally “like” their status, wish them a Happy Birthday, comment on a post. Doing that recently won me a client I’d been pursuing on and off for more than a year through emails and phone calls.
She posted a pic of her new vintage red Mercedes convertible and mentioned that all she needed now was a cabaña boy. Forget the Mercedes—I’ve wanted a cabaña boy for years. I said as much in my reply to her post.
Her answer didn’t help with the cabaña boy but did say she was ready to dive into some projects. By posting on her wall, I jogged her memory and netted a client who’s kept me busy since.
5. Write a note—with a pen and paper.
As a writer, it’s natural for me to put my thoughts on the page. But given the lack of hold-it-in-your-hand mail these days, people respond more than ever to the handwritten note.
Send one and stand out. I keep a Waterman fountain pen and a stash of cards on hand. I’ve even ordered Eclipse Communications notecards featuring a cool penumbral eclipse.
But I’ll be honest: I write the notes on my PC, then rewrite them in longhand. No matter! Clients who receive the cards usually write me—via email—to say thanks. That’s how rare getting a fer-real card is these days.
For the holidays, I send cards to each of my clients and prospects. I don’t just sign the card—I add a personal note. Especially for clients, I make sure to tell them how much I’ve enjoyed working with them during the past year and look forward to helping them succeed in the new one.
6. Go visit!
Since 2000 I’ve worked with a bright and charming young woman with whom I’ve exchanged many emails but only a few phone calls (because she’s as phone-phobic as I am). I knew when she met the man she’d eventually marry, where she spent her vacations, how much she enjoyed crafting.
I also knew how well-regarded she was and how her support helped me make contacts at the corporation she works for. But though she lives only a few hours away by plane, for seven years we didn’t meet. By the time I finally got on that plane, she graciously invited me to stay at her home.
That visit cured me of any reluctance I had to meet clients. Since then, I’ve made a point to say hello in person, especially if the client has continually sent me business. There’s no better way to understand the value you can provide a client and cement the relationship you’ve developed than by sharing experiences.
Last year, I learned that two of my European clients would be attending meetings in Denver. I asked if I could fly there on my dime to meet them for dinner. They agreed to dinner, then decided I should attend a day of the meetings too. One day eventually led to three plus payment for my flights and hotel, and an agreement to write content for their Web revamp.
This year, I’ll fly to Europe to meet with them. Because there’s nothing like showing up in person to tell your clients just how much they and their business truly mean to you.
PS—So where do I live that I’m so far from any of my clients? Missoula, Montana. Not only are we a long way from anywhere, but you can’t get there from here.