Most freelancers took advantage of remote collaboration before COVID, but now (at least for the time being), establishing remote relationships with clients is a virtual certainty. While the client dynamic may have changed for some, the goal of collaborative projects—building a strong client relationship and delivering meaningful work to earn repeat business and win referrals—remains unchanged.

Remote collaboration is an art form every freelance designer needs to master. In this article we’ll explain how freelancers can collaborate successfully with clients in a remote setting—and turn a one-off assignment into ongoing work.

illustration of designer working with client
Collaboration is an art form every freelance designer needs to master. Illustration by felipe_charria

Tips for successful remote collaboration with clients

1. Collaboration begins before the creative

The era of COVID-communication has thrust remote workflows upon everyone, and those who thrive during this time do so because they know how to build a healthy client relationship regardless of how many miles and screens separate you.

Communication can be thought of as two key points: what’s being discussed, and how you’re discussing it. Establishing the “How” starts by providing clarity from day one on how scope, thoughts, feedback, and progress will be communicated and leads to the remainder of your engagement (and future engagements) falling into place naturally. Vocal communication, be it a video call or a phone call, always bears a personal touch as it allows for quicker, more genuine conversation, which will help you learn more about your client and needs.

To make remote communication easier, be sure to let your client know how and when they can reach you and how long it usually takes for you to respond. That way they know what to expect and feel reassured if you don’t respond within five minutes.

2. Set clear expectations

During your first conversations, it’s important to be completely honest and transparent with your clients. Ask them directly about what working process they would like, and agree on how you will proceed together. Keep in mind that some clients do not have experience with creative processes. So, this might be the first time they are doing it—and will need your help setting the field. It’s also important to come from the discussion with clear confines of the project.

illustration of people with checklists
Always set clear expectations and put everything into writing. Illustration by felipe_charria

Of course, while this is also a good time to discuss scope or feedback, anything pertaining to your arrangement should always be presented (even if as a follow up) in writing too. This way, you will establish expectations between your client and yourself, which is the foundation of delivery and lets you focus on the key aspect of the relationship—the “What.”

As you’ve probably realized, your client probably doesn’t know exactly what they want (that’s why you’re here), but they probably know what they need. It’s your job, through expert communication, to help them congeal their thoughts on how whatever you deliver will speak to their brand and resonate with their target demographic.

3. Do your homework and understand your client’s needs

Usually, you will want to anticipate what your clients will want—but it’s important not to assume anything. So, before meeting with your client, do your homework. Explore the market and look at the burning problems in your client’s niche. Then, try to work on the solutions for them—however short they might be. This way, when your clients presents you with a problem, you will already be ready. Conversely, you can take the initiative and guide the conversation—thus showing you are thinking about problems that will come along the way as well!

Furthermore, asking them for examples from other brands will help you get a sense of your client’s taste, point of view as well as the audience to which they’re looking to appeal. Done effectively, this will minimize rework and iterations as you’re closer to the target on your first shot.

4. Use feedback to your advantage

That said, revisions and scope changes are all part of the process, which is why having a process to handle them will keep expectations aligned and the relationship healthy. First, you need to learn how to listen actively. This means not only to hear your client, but to work on understanding what they are saying. When you get feedback from them, think about what it means—what do they want? Work through it and ensure that you understand them by checking in with them.

It is also imperative to distance yourself emotionally from the feedback as well. Especially during creative projects, freelancers can become connected to their work. This can cloud your judgement and lead to perceiving any feedback as offensive—which is important you don’t do! Keep a clear head and understand that this is business. Instead of being insulted, try to understand why your client was not satisfied with the work. If you need to, ask them more questions to find a solution you can both agree on. Try to put yourself in their shoes and look for the underlying issue.

5. Put everything in writing

You should also clearly outline what needs to be done, what exactly you agreed upon, how that expands the previous scope, and solicit the client’s approval (all in writing) to keep your workflow neat and avoid misunderstandings.

Don’t be afraid to over-communicate. In a remote setting it’s better to communicate more rather than less. That way you will both be on the same page at all times—and your relationship can keep growing and develop into an ongoing one.

Turning a successful engagement into ongoing (and additional) work

Illustration of person working on computer with items floating around
By getting creative, understanding their needs and developing a great relationship with your client, you’ll turn an assignment into ongoing work. Illustration by mspasova.

Every freelancer’s best case scenario is to build a relationship with their clients that extends beyond the initial design or development scope into an engagement where they continue to do ongoing work as the product or clients’ needs develop over time.

For example, before I was a part of Nifty, I was a freelancer designing websites for local businesses in my community, my goal was to show value I could provide to potential clients since the very first meeting. One of the clients was a small audiology practice in New York that needed a very basic website, nothing much more than a landing page.

However, I showed my interest in the client’s business. I tried to understand what they were going through and why they needed a landing page. More importantly, I tried to figure out if they needed a landing page—or additional content as well. Then, I talked with the client about their goals, going through the steps described previously. This way, I was able to build a strong rapport with my client.

By developing an excellent relationship, I was able to extend my value to the client by maintaining the website, which led to launching a new ecommerce channel to sell hearing aid batteries spearheaded by a weekly content strategy. So, in essence, my creativity and anticipation of my client’s needs lead to additional working opportunities to work on developing another part of her business.

Efficient collaboration and understanding the clients’ business and future needs is what caused this engagement to be so successful, because I not only solved the initial problem I was tasked to do but extended my value into other areas of her business. This client’s happiness showed even greater dividends by her referring me to three other small businesses to help with similar digital transformation and design efforts.

Final thoughts

Transparency, creativity and efficiency are some of the most important skills of successful freelancers. However, very often it is the simple things that tend to get overlooked such as the basic scope of the project and understanding the needs of your client. Look to leverage your entire skill set through proactive and consistent communication to expand scopes in your favor and win referrals down the road.

About the author

Samuel Goldstein is a member of the marketing team at Nifty PM and is passionate about all things product and growth. In his spare time, he loves playing sports and doing anything outdoors.