Client Communication Capabilities
Communication is an essential part of any business relationship, and I believe it is even more critical when the relationship is online. You don’t have the benefit of face-to-face meetings and other direct interpersonal reactions—you just mostly have words shared by message board, email, and perhaps telephone. That makes the proper use of words very important. To have a good work experience with a client, both of you must have reasonable verbal communication skills.
In most cases, you cannot really assess how well a client interacts until you are well into bidding, and sometimes not until the project is underway. However, project listings can contain clues about the client’s ability to communicate, if you train yourself to watch for them. You can get even more of a sense of the client’s abilities in this area via the pre-bid process (asking questions).
The two main factors I recommend assessing carefully are the client’s English language capability and responsiveness; these are discussed below. Also important is the degree to which the client has indicated an understanding of his or her work requirements through the project description; I explore this in the section on project assessment.
English is the lingua franca of the business world, and of the Internet, so it is also the language used nearly universally for online freelancing. Many clients and freelancers are not native English speakers, but they use English as a universal go-between to enable communication—this allows, for example, a client based in Germany to hire a freelancer who lives in Brazil. In some rare lucky cases you and a client may share a non-English fluency, but don’t count on it happening often except in special circumstances.
Unfortunately, some clients simply don’t speak English very well, and this comes through in their project listings and when you ask them questions. Whether this is a problem or not depends largely on the nature of the project; if the work is technical, language proficiency isn’t as important, whereas with writing or editing work it can be a major issue. (I know writers often experience frustration when they have their work critiqued by clients whose understanding of language is clearly inferior.)
Regardless of field, this issue boils down to one key question: can you understand what the client is trying to say? When you encounter a project listing written by a non-English-speaker, it will usually be pretty obvious. I would not rule out a project simply on the basis of rough language in a project description. However, if the language is so poor that you can’t make heads or tails of it, that’s a pretty solid clue that this job is not likely to be a pleasant working experience. If you’re not sure, I recommend sending a message asking for further clarification, and seeing how that goes. If the replies aren’t any better than the project listing, you may save yourself a lot of headaches by just skipping to the next potential job on your list.
One of the best things about online freelancing communication is that you can respond at your own pace, when it is convenient for you. One of the worst things about online freelancing communication is that the same applies to the client. :) It can be very irritating to be working on a project for a customer who will not reply promptly to questions or requests.
You can’t assess responsiveness from a project listing, but you can when you are in the pre-bid process. Keep track of how long it takes the client to get back to you when you contact him or her, and then ask yourself if this would be acceptable to you while working on the project, if you win it. Few clients become more responsive after awarding a project than they were before.
Bear in mind that sometimes special circumstances do arise that can delay replies to communication—illnesses, emergencies, technical problems and so forth. Try to be understanding, but watch for signs that slow communication is a pattern.
As always, maintain your professionalism: never berate a client for delays in replying to your messages. And, of course, obey the Golden Rule and reply to the client as promptly as you’d like him or her to reply to you.
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Last Site Update: February 1, 2012
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