How to Build Better Business Relationships OnlineElance_Keith | Mar 18, 2011
One of the key elements in creating and receiving high-quality work is building successful relationships with your Clients, Contractors and colleagues. In fact, managing business relationships is often crucial to the success of projects. But as more people connect through Elance, it’s sometimes easy to forget that on the other side of your computer screen, those Clients and Contractors are actual human beings. So before you accidentally start interacting with them like they are machines, consider these points:
- It costs significantly more time and money to acquire new clients than to maintain good relationships with existing ones.
- Most dissatisfied customers won’t complain to a company, but nearly all of them will not do business with the company again. What’s more, the average dissatisfied customer tells 9-10 others about his poor experience.
- Setting expectations too high or too low is one of the most common causes of conflict between Clients and Contractors.
What’s great is that even though the way in which we do work has changed through the web, many timeless tips that once worked offline still apply today. Before you start your next job online, make sure you read through these tips on building and managing successful relationships:
Operate in a Businesslike Manner: Even if your “working capital” consists of only a laptop and a cell phone, it’s important to behave in a business-like fashion. Set regular office hours, and be sure you’re usually available during those times. If you plan to be out of the office for a day or two, let those you work with know in advance. Like brick and mortar businesses, online Contractors and their Clients need to set standard office hours. You don’t have to be working in the same time zone or even on the same continent so long as you both know when you can reach one another. If you do a significant amount of online collaboration and work, it’s also a great idea to issue documents detailing your standard business policies and work processes, as well as job requirements and deliverables, so each party knows what to expect at every stage of the project.
Communicate Often: Create a policy for returning messages when you’re unavailable to take someone’s email, Workroom message or phone call. For example, one management consultant guarantees that all messages will be returned within four hours – a promise he’s never broken. Not only is his guarantee mentioned on his website and in all marketing materials, but he tells every new Contractor and Client about the policy.
Also, let people know your preferred method of communication from the start – whether it’s Workroom messages, chat, Skype, webcam, email or phone.
Finally, keep each other in the loop at all times by scheduling regular communications or meetings. On Elance, you can use the weekly Status Report or Timesheet tools to keep each other conveniently synchronized as well (see screenshot above) . You can (and should) send notes regularly to the Workroom to advise each other of progress on the project. The success of any job depends on the relationship between the parties, and healthy relationships are based on open and regular communication.
Set Realistic Expectations: Some Contractors manage Client expectations by “under-promising and over-delivering.” This sets Client expectations so low that they are often wowed when the work is delivered ahead of schedule and exceeds quality expectations. This tactic has two drawbacks: (1) Contractors may not land projects if they promise too little; and (2) nobody likes to be manipulated. Employers want realistic estimates – not padded estimates designed to make the Contractor look like a miracle worker.
As an Elance Contractor, it’s your job to clearly specify what you will and will not do (and when) – in your proposals and written agreements. Be sure your Clients understand all terms and conditions of agreements before they sign on the dotted lines. It’s always a good idea to include flexibility in your deadlines, in case you get sick or another client requests a rush job.
As an Elance Client, learn enough about your Contractor’s industry and fee scales to make informed hiring decisions.
Before posting a job, it may be worthwhile to check the websites of the professional associations governing a contractor’s field. If nothing else, you’ll be able to set a realistic budget range and learn what kinds of questions to ask.
Trust but Verify: Give Contractors the trust and freedom they need to complete their jobs. The people you choose are experts in their fields – or should be – with the credentials and track records to prove it. It’s the reason you hired them. Remember, micromanagement is oftentimes counterproductive.
Always work with written agreements – electronic or paper. Whenever possible, you should use documents such as Non-Disclosure Agreements, Change Order Agreements and other Contracts. These documents will help to avoid misunderstandings, and will protect both parties in the event of a dispute. For sample versions of these documents (and more), visit our help section here. (Note: All jobs on Elance are protected by a standard NDA. You can view the NDA in our Terms of Service.)
Set Project Milestones: Setting milestones is the best way to agree on, and track, the progress of a project. It provides real-time markers for both parties. For example, a writer might use the start date as the first milestone, while the second marks delivery of an outline. The third milestone marks delivery of the first draft, and the fourth occurs at completion. Each milestone is accompanied by a payment, so there is real incentive for making each checkpoint on time.
Use Escrow: The Elance Escrow system protects both Clients and Contractors. Use it. If you’re a Client, fund Escrow for the project as soon as you and the Contractor agree to terms. You won’t need to release it immediately, and it won’t be released without your permission. If you’re a Contractor, do not start work until Escrow has been funded. In the event of a dispute, Elance cannot recover your money if you worked without a funded escrow account, so make sure you are protected by waiting for Escrow to be funded.
Use Project Management Tools: Take the time to familiarize yourself with online project-management tools. On Elance, these include our Workroom, which features a 500MB-per Workroom file server with version control, integrated real-time chat, and a message board that continuously logs all chats and messages. Learn more about the key benefits of our Workroom features here.
If you use other online tools – or want to – including video chat, online collaboration suites, instant messaging or even standard email, spend some time researching the ones that will boost your productivity when you’re working online, and discuss with those you work with to ensure you’re all on the same platform.
Learn to Say No: The customer is not always right, and neither is the Contractor. Not every request is reasonable or even rational. If your Contractor states midway through a project that he’ll be unavailable for a month because “Aunt Rose” wants him to attend 16 weddings and a funeral, be polite but firm if you need the project finished by the original deadline. And if you and your Client agreed that she would receive three sets of mockups by Monday – not a dozen sets in 30 minutes – politely but firmly refer the Client to the agreed terms. A job is more likely to end successfully when both parties specify the terms of the job and stick to them.
Do you have other ideas for building good working relationships? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below or head over and post on our Facebook wall.