How to Juggle Clients in Different Countries
Photo by Helico.
The web allows us to offer our services and skills almost anywhere in the world. Many of us are able to speak more than one language and have already worked for clients overseas.
As a freelancing web designer who is currently in the process of moving from Germany, where I was born, to Melbourne in Australia (Good city, that. — Ed.), I’ve been able to establish a client base in both countries. Over the last 6 years I’ve been flying back and forth visiting friends and family while also staying in touch with clients and picking up new gigs.
Dealing with clients in two countries that are 10 hours or about 15,000km apart can create many new challenges. Simple things like the time difference make communication a lot trickier and depending on what nationalities you are dealing with, there can also be differences in business culture you should be aware of.
Dealing with clients in more than one country
Once you’ve picked up some new gigs you now face the challenge of communicating with your clients in different time zones and different languages. Many of my friends keep asking me how I handle inquiries and phone calls from Germany while being in Australia where the time difference can be up to 10 hours or more.
It sounds pretty complicated (and sometimes it is), but there are also advantages to working in different time zones.
For example: if a client in Germany sends over a job via email, I’m able to work on it while he’s asleep. Assuming that I don’t have any further questions, he finds his quote or the finished work in his inbox first thing in the morning. Many of my clients really appreciated that.
Try to focus on email communication rather than phoning clients. Due to time differences this can make your life a lot easier. The benefit is you have everything in writing and you can reply at a time that suits you best. That said, try not to solely focus on email communication. Actually speaking to your client once in a while gives the relationship a social touch and provides you with the chance to establish all those important inter-personal things that a quick email just can’t do.
Unfortunately, when I ask my clients whether they use Skype or Instant Messengers, too often I still get the perplexed “what’s that?” answer. In Australia I’ve got a local number, so local clients can get in touch easily, but I can’t expect my German clients to call an Australian number and spend $1 or more per minute. Here’s one great piece of advice for all of you who regularly need to call or receive calls from clients in a different country: get yourself a VoIP enabled modem and a separate telephone handset.
There are several VoIP providers that offer local landline numbers for pretty much any country in the world. I personally use a VoIP phone in Australia that runs under a local German number. I just plug it into my modem and can call German clients for around 1 cent a minute and, even better, my clients from Germany can get in touch for the cost of a local phone call. In case I’m out of the office or asleep I’ve also recorded a German answering machine message to let clients know that I’ll get back to them as soon as possible. God, I love technology!
In another attempt to make the time difference easier to manage, I’ve hung two clocks on the wall right above my desk: one showing the local time in Australia and the other showing Berlin-time. When working in different time zones you often can’t be available during office hours in both countries. In my case Australian businesses start to close for the day while Germany is just waking up. To compensate, I try to start work in Australia at around 12pm and work late till around 9 or 10 pm. This way business hours in both places overlap and I can communicate with people in each time zone via email, IM, Skype and even the old-school telephone.
Of course, if that doesn’t suit you, try to establish a certain time-pattern with days where you can make yourself more available for each country -– e.g. Monday, Wednesday and Friday you could start work later to suit your second-country client base, while on Tuesday and Thursday you could try to adhere to local business hours. You’ll find that this will need to vary depending on your workload for each country/client though.
It’s also important not to forget to socialize with your clients every now and again. Usually I’m on a plane back to Germany once every 12 to 18 months to visit family and friends. Beforehand I arrange as many meetings with my German clients as possible. Meeting them in person, inviting them for a coffee or shouting them lunch makes sure they don’t forget you. Being a very popular tourism destination for Germans, they love to hear stories about Australia and how life is just more fun down there. It’s a great conversation starter and leaves a lasting impression on them.
Getting paid – financial stuff
So far I’ve been pretty lucky with my clients. Most of them pay relatively quickly after receiving my invoice. Unfortunately, not all of us have the same luck and things can get even more risky when working with clients overseas.
Find an invoicing tool that allows you to issue invoices in the necessary languages and currencies. Be aware of the inclusion or exclusion of the local VAT/GST (usually you don’t need to add that tax if you invoice clients from overseas, which, on the other hand, could make you more appealing to your clients. Confirm with your accountant though!)
If you have an established base in country #2 it’s a good idea to get yourself a local bank account. Stating your local bank account details not only looks more professional on your invoices; it also makes it a lot easier for your clients to pay you and hence, increases your chances of getting paid on time. I manage my German and Australian bank accounts solely over the internet and it works absolutely fine.
PayPal is of course another way of getting paid, but apart from the fees you are paying there are certain risks involved that could leave you empty-handed.
Whatever way you get paid, if it’s a new client — especially in a different country — make sure you ask for an initial deposit of at least a third or even half of the total price estimate.
In addition to all this, remember to think about the value and fluctuations of the different currencies you are dealing with. In my case, as a rule, German jobs bring in more money than Australian ones. This is simply due to the stronger Euro and the maturity of the web industry in Germany.
Two client pools to keep yourself busy
Over time you’ll see if having to deal with clients in a different country is for you or not. It has worked for me so far, although I’m planning on focusing more on the country I permanently live in, which will be Australia soon. However, it’s always good to have a second pool of clients that you can promote yourself to when local business is slowing down. While people are on their summer vacations in Australia, I tend to get more inquiries from Germany so that, overall, I can maintain a pretty steady stream of leads all year round.
If you’ve worked for international clients, I’m sure you have some great stories to tell. So please, leave your experiences and/or more pieces of advice in the comments section below! Danke and cheers…
Kai Brach is a German freelancer with almost 10 years of experience in designing and developing websites for companies of all sizes. Apart from working for some of Germany’s biggest web start-ups, he’s launched several projects himself with globalzoo.de, a popular German travel community, being one of them. His freelancer portfolio can be found at brizk.com