How to provide a client-facing service as a digital nomad (and save yourself from insanity)

This you won’t be attending, whatever the date… and they need to know upfront

When we first launched our company Mortified Cow, we SUCKED when it came to knowing how to successfully provide a client-facing service while travelling the world. Even though we’d read a heap of stuff from people in the same position, and even though we thought we’d preempted lots of potential problems, in reality we were underprepared and more than a little bit dim.

Launching a new business is hard enough, and while there are so many benefits to being a digital nomad (compared to providing a client-facing service while based permanently in one country), there are some undeniable mini-hurdles to consider.

Here’s what we’ve learnt:

Before you start working with them

Don’t lie or skirt the truth: tell them you’re a digital nomad

You might think it’s none of their business – that in the same way they don’t need to know how many kids you have or what car you drive, they don’t need to know where you choose to live.

But, well, nope. Or at least, that hasn’t worked for us.

Yes, being a digital nomad is a lifestyle choice. But it’s a work-lifestyle choice – that’s the point of it. Most digital nomads are doing work they want to do. They’ve chosen not to get a job based on their degree or the pay, but to create a business out of a passion they have and then combine it with a lifestyle they enjoy. That’s a good thing for your clients to know: it shows you’ve made a choice to do the job you’re doing for them. It also implies you’re not sitting in a cubicle with an M&S sandwich, waiting for it to be 5pm so that you can grab your wallet and escape to the nearest pub.

Also, our clients actually like that we’re digital nomads because they feel we’re interesting people who’ve been creative enough to find ways of working that suit us. If we can be creative and original about our entire work-lifestyles, we can surely come up with ideas for their business needs too.

But the main reason you shouldn’t lie/avoid the truth is because honesty is the best foundation for a great working relationship (which is a bit of a “well, duh” thing to say, but hear me out a sec…). Your clients will want to know about you before they work with you (after all, that’s why about pages are always the third-most read page for most companies). If you neglect to mention the massive fact that you’re working for them from Bangkok – with the seven-hour time difference that entails – they might feel a tiny bit confused and peeved when they do find out… because they will find out.

Big big thing to mention before we move on to the next point: you’re NOT telling them in order to give yourself some future leeway when your plane’s delayed and you can’t get a job done on time. Or because you couldn’t find the wifi password at the place you’re staying. Those travel-related things are your problems, and they should never, ever be brought up as excuses.

Make sure they’re OK with you being a digital nomad

You might think that’s a given in the first point above. But believe me, it isn’t.

Even if they know all about your digital nomadism, and even if they think it’s the coolest thing ever, that doesn’t mean they fully understand what it implies.

It generally implies no face-to-face meetings. And you have no idea how many people have emailed us saying something along the lines of:

“Hi! X referred me to you. I’ve read your blog (LOVE the digital nomad thing, btw!), and I’ve seen your work, and I’d love to work with you. Can we meet up in London at some point next week to discuss? (West London works best for me.) Thanks!”

Another one we often get is:

“Cool – it’d be great to work with you, so just let me know when you’re back from your travels and we can get started.”

A couple of times, we’ve actually spent about four hours writing up a darn proposal before we find out they’re not happy with the no-meetings policy.

So here’s what we do: when we get an email from a prospective client, we send them a document called “Pleased to meet moo” (because our business is called Mortified Cow. We’re not sure if it’s funny, or if people get it, but never mind). The document explains a bit more about our company and who we are – including the fact that we’re digital nomads and that means we don’t do meetings. If they’re still happy to work with us, we’ll have a phone call with them to discuss their requirements, and then we’ll put together a proposal.

If you want to see our “Pleased to meet moo” document, just send us an email or leave us a comment.

Don’t lower your day rate

Just because you’re living in cheap places, that doesn’t mean you should compete on price with people living in more expensive countries.

Firstly, the fact that you’re living in cheaper places has absolutely nothing to do with how much you charge your clients. How much you charge them is based on the value you give them – and nothing more.

Secondly, while it’s true you can probably afford to lower your prices compared to similar services based in expensive cities, you never want to compete on price. It’s a bad move. It’s miserable. If you’ve got nothing to offer apart from a cheap day rate, you’re not giving anyone any value, and you’ll feel rubbish about yourself (and so you should).

If, on the other hand, you can serve the needs of a particular type of client and convince them that you can solve their problems better than anyone else (i.e. have a USP and use it to target a niche), that client will pay whatever you ask for… and you’ll be giving them value in your service.

Thirdly and most importantly, you need to command respect from your clients. If they choose you because they can tell you’re excellent at what you do but so much cheaper than everyone else, they’ll take full advantage. We know from many painful experiences that charging less to win a job means those clients don’t respect your time, they can sometimes be rude, and they expect far more than what was originally proposed to them.

We once had a client who went through text changes with Rob line by line, for TWO HOURS on the phone. Things like, “Hmmm I’d rather have a semi-colon in the middle of that particular sentence.” This client had absolutely no respect for our time (he could have easily typed down his thoughts or – in fact – tracked changes on the document himself like all other clients). And it was our fault, because we weren’t charging him enough compared to the competition.

Once you’ve started working with them

Don’t rub your abroadness in their faces

This is more about consideration for time zones than boasting about your elephant ride or afternoon of sunbathing.

When it comes to time zones, stick with theirs. When scheduling phone calls, don’t email them with “How about Tuesday at 5pm your time – which will be midday my time” (or similar). It’s not relevant. And as happy as they might be to work with a creative, doing-something-different digital nomad, you don’t want to constantly be reminding them of the logistical difficulties of working with someone in another country.

Consideration for time zones could also extend to when you email them. We don’t particularly care what time of day we email our clients, because we know they’ll open and respond within good time. But if yours are exceptionally busy or hard to get responses from, you might want to consider scheduling emails for when they’re likely to respond straight away (and when you might be asleep). You could use scheduling software like Boomerang for this.

For phone calls, we don’t automatically assume 9-to-5, Monday to Friday works best for our clients – that’s because a lot of them are business owners or “solopreneurs” who don’t have regimented hours. One client prefers to speak to us on a Sunday morning because that’s when she’s done with her “day job” and can focus on her new business. That works well for us, but of course it’s also up to you whether you want to work on weekends!

Be aware of what’s going on in their life and country

Small talk needs to be done – it can’t all be work work work. And because you probably won’t be seeing your clients in person, it’s even more important to build rapport by starting each phone call with some friendly conversation.

If they’re the type of person to share information about their personal life (e.g. they’ve mentioned their upcoming knee surgery), be sure to remember and ask follow-up questions when you next speak.

And regardless of how much personal-life chatter they want to get involved in, always make sure you’ve swatted up on the latest news in their country. It’s a great way to get a conversation started, and it shows you’re well-informed and interested in their lives. Also, it proves that while you may be on the other side of the world, that’s no need for them to worry that your head is in a completely different place too.

A few disclaimers:

  • We still have one client who doesn’t know we’re digital nomads. He doesn’t talk much and doesn’t seem all that interested in us, which in this case is a massive relief. If he were the type to say “So how about this awful snow we’re having?”, we’d feel absolutely terrible to be all “We can’t believe we’re still in our snow boots in April” while talking to him from a deckchair.
  • We sometimes do have meetings when we’re back in London (which is where most of our clients are based). It’s normally just with clients who we really like over the phone and want to chat more in person with – and it’s almost never to meet up about work.
  • When the horse meat scandal struck in the UK, we really had no clue it was such a big deal. It was only after a particularly perplexing four-way phone call littered with jokes about hooves and Tesco that we checked out the BBC website and realised just how huge the story had become… and how many opportunities we’d missed to bung our own puns into the conversation.