Working with international clients

In the last year or so we've had a lot of international projects going on. Its been interesting how not being in the same country can effect a project both good and bad. I thought I'd just jot down some reflections on our experiences so far.

Working for some one in another country sounds pretty scary at first. But the reality is a client in another town might as well be in another country. We rarely see our clients face to face even when they are in the UK so the way I look at it remote working with an international client is no different day to day. But there are some difference which stick out in my mind.

Look me in the eye....

Face time, after an initial face to face meeting we don't have to meet most of our clients again. I love that initial get together, putting a face to the voice you've heard over the phone or seeing that they don't really look anything like their Skype profile picture. Remote working in another country however makes this next to impossible unless its a mega project and they don't mind flying you out which is something I'd like to avoid. Exciting though it sounds, I've got a family and don't want to be flying here there and everywhere if I can help it.

To capture some of that missing face time I've found a webcam to be a great stand in so I've bough one for the office and try to remember to tidy up behind me before a big client session over Skype. Skype by the way is the defacto method of doing international business, everyone can get it, its free and easy ish to use and most already have it setup. Remember though some people use their account for both work and fun so don't go judging anyone by their profile pic, status update or pinging them messages out of hours.

Also get some decent head phone/mic. What I mean by that is they don't make you look like acyber man and make you sound good, easy to mute, adjust volume etc. Turn off your built in mic on your laptop too or you'll get some interesting feedback. If you do a Skype call to a new client do check everything first, nothing worst that no one hearing you or visa versa, wrong speakers and all that.

The legals

The law around the world is pretty similar it seems. The wording can get a little tricky at times but thats what we paid our lawyer to do. We have one main contract that we use for just about all our projects which has a little tuning per client to fit the needs.

We went to great lengths to ensure our contract was easily readable by nomal mortals and should not require a legal team to vet it (although this is always advised) and it hopefully also comes across as being fair to both parties which is the whole point of a contract, its a setting out of the ground rules. To date we've had no issues with getting contracts signed. Its a important step to do though so allow a week or so to get a contract signed off and don't start work without it to show you value the contract, its not a tick box exercise remember. If the client really does need the work doing asap then they had better be quick signing the contract off rather than asking you to start without it.

For getting documents signed off quickly we've been using DocuSign, its a bit clunky to use but does the job with lots of instructions to the client and can mean you get a verified contract back in a few hours rather than days/week if you waited for snail mail.

Time zone juggling

Time zones can either work in your favour or against you. I like working for the West of GMT (that USA etc.) as they don't get into work until about 2pm our time so we get all morning to work on their project and gather any questions. Then we have the chance to catch up about 3pm via Skype or email if required. This lets them know what we've done (important for them when they are paying someone 1000's of miles away they like to see some traction) and hopefully given us enough to crack on with for the next day. This results in lots of progress and helps focus your mind/task list.

Added benefit is you avoid those "are you uploading something to the site as its down" phone calls, when we sync our staging site at the end of the day we don't touch it all night so they get the benefit of look at in the afternoon and firing any questions/feedback to us while we sleep (or party down, it is are night time after all).

Working East of GMT is harder, in the EU is ok but the further you go the more likely it will involve early mornings (which I'm really no good at) and talking about work you did the day before so there is some context switching there and not much time for prep and get your head back into it. That may sound a little one sided but coding is different to making a business choice I think so easier to do in the morning that talking about coding from the night before.

The further around the world you go the harder remote working gets. I'd say the limit is about 5-6 hours difference, beyond that your working days don't have enough time to cross over and people end up staying later/early or you end up with 24 hour delays in communications which can make you feel like you are on Mars.

If this happens ensure your emails try to contain everything they need for the other person to make a choice so come the morning you should have your answers and something actionable to do. What you don't want it a reply that says "nothing attached?" or "what do you mean?".

Good example of this is arranging a Skype call for the next day, don't say:

"when is good for you?"

Its too open, instead say:

"2pm, 6pm, 9pm GMT (I'll be at home though) please choose one and I'll call you then, talk tomorrow."

another example:

"I'll deploy to live at 5pm GMT unless I hear differently from you"

Small change but it limits the delays. Always include the GMT bit btw (assuming you are in the UK), it limits confusion and be clear about who is calling who and by what method, remove doubt at every chance.

Not all clients get the need for these sort of emails as they can seem a bit curt but its essential to keep things on track while they are at work while you are sleeping and visa versa. We lost 4 days with a essential fix not going live once due to silly unthought out email excahnge that invited lots of replies which themselves demanded more replies. Remember, if you where on Mars with a 20 minute delay you'd have to think hard about what you said.

In some situations we've switched to working the clients "local time" were needed. We don't like doing it and it can cost additional for the client but it can help. Near the closing weeks of the Hillsong site go live (based in Sydney Australia) we worked from 4pm - midnight (and sometimes beyond) to help speed things up with the communication in what was a complicated and fast changing situation with a tight deadline. It hurt but was short term so all ok.

Some odd things to remember if you try this, if you have an rented office space let the land lord know what you are up to, we set the alarms off more than a few times as unknow to us they set automatically after a certain time. A tired landlord roaming the corridor in the early hours with a pickaxe handle in his dressing gown is not a welcome sight for all involved. Is your car safe? Can you get it out of the carpark or are some gates going to lock you in? Buy in milk early, the shops shut at 10pm. Expect to put weight on as its tempting to get take away everynight and eat chocolate bars :)

You say tomato, I say...

I feel very lucky that my first language just happens to be English which thanks to the internet is the defacto language of the world. I can do business with just about anyone around the world as just about everyone who might be looking for our services (we make awesome content managed websites by the way using Umbraco CMS in case you wondered) will speak english. This make doing global business easy but it still has its challenges. Even when you are speaking the same language you can still get into trouble.

Language barriers are a fun problem to deal with. What you think is funny might just not translate to the client so keep it simple, keep it clear and keep it professional. If you get to know the clients humour then you can have some fun with it but for now just keep it nice and polite.

No slang, it does not translate, even the word slang does not always translate in some countries, did you know its just the works short and language put together?

No swearing (I swear far too much but I've found over the years that a little mild cussing can lightens the mood in a conference call on a long project). Don't forget to honor the timely pub rules of no talking about politics or religion. Different strokes and all that. Keep it on message and friendly and everyone will have a good project.

Some people are what we'd consider in england to be overly polite (is that even possible?) with lots of "best regards", "greetings", "very good mornings to you". If you speak to the Japanese for instance their emails always start with "Dear..." and they will always call you Mr Duncanson and only use Pete when invited to do so which I find really quaint in this modern casual world and something I respect. They of course expect the same respect back (for double brownie points you can call them San rather than Mr just make sure it is their surname!) and to invite someone to call you by their first name is an honour. Also don't sign off your emails with "Cheers" but "Kind Regards".Bascially remember all those lessons you had on how to write polite letters in school? It was training for communicating to the Japanese, embrace it, its a touching part of communication I miss in the current, throw away, instant communication world we live in.

Getting paid

We always insist on a deposit before we start any sizible work (for anything more than a day or two) but getting the money to you can slow up projects. All projects seem to be required "yesterday" so a delay here can be costly to the deadline. But at the end of the day we are working with someone who could be on the other side of the world, we need them to have a little skin in the game so we all know where we are at. We've had project before all set to go only to stall. With no deposit we are putting ourselves at risk as we are setting a side time for development that might otherwise be spent on other clients. So ensure you get a deposit and stick to it again to show that it matters and is not just a tick box excercise, clients will (or should) respect that.

Quote in your currency, not theirs. You should be charging your time at your rate in your country and in your currency. You don't pay the rent or buy a pint in dollars. That way your money is worth the same regardless of any ups and downs in other countries interest rates, exchange rates, etc. Its up to the client to convert to your currency at the point in time they are going to pay you. A £ in the UK is still a £ regardless of how many dollars it will buy. You can't control the exchange rates so don't fall into that trap.

Getting the money to you is one of the bigger problems. Most clients might not have done international payments before and it can be a bit of a mine field. Things get really tricky when you remember you don't know how that countries banks might work, its no good saying "well over here I just do X" as they might not have that available to them in their country. Interesting trend we've noticed, most countries banks are fine with sending money abroad except those in the USA where it seems like a odd concept for their customers to request ("you mean there are other currencies? Can't you pay them in dollars?") so allow some more time for USA payments to come over while they have to set things up with the bank unless its a client you've deal with before who should have it sorted out by now.

For small one off payments Paypal is probably the easiest and quickest. The rate is not bad but remember they charge you again for withdrawing it so you get a double hit. You can invoice the client direct from within Paypal so you have an audit chain for the accountants. Quick warning be careful you're account does not become locked though, if you transfer £1500 or there about within a set amount of time they want to know why for legal reasons (basically are you cleaning up money?), this involves sending additional info to Paypal to get your money released, this takes time so plan a head if you need to pay the rent or at least have reserves. The good news is once unlocked you are good to go and the problem should never return.

Bigger payments should be via the clients bank, to do that you'll need to provide them with you IBAN and BIN number (protip google "<_your banks name here_> IBAN number" to find out what they are) as well as your bank address, sort code and all the usual stuff. For ease I include all this on the bottom of all our invoices regardless of where the client is located to limit any delays and so I don't need to keep remembering them.

There are other payment options, it all depends on how much your client it willing to do (as they have to do all the work). Picking the right one though can be the difference of £££ in fees and charges [so shop around for money transfer options]( "Great write up by the Money Saving Expert") a bit if you have the luxury of time and client trust.

Remember that contract we discussed? Yeah you need to make sure you settle up most of the project money before go live, 90% balance is about right so the client owes you 10% still. You should have this made clear either in the contract or your plan for the project. Make sure you get that before you hand over the keys to the kingdom. This is no reflection on the clients trust worthness it is just common human nature, we focus on the task in hand which in their eyes is getting the site live on time. Other things on the todo tend to jump up the list once thats done and settling the bill is easy to forget about for a while. Ensure you limit that and keep cash flow going by getting another payment before go live. You can live with a delay in 10% you can't if they owe you 70%.

Summing up

We've worked with a lot of clients around the globe now and I'm happy to keep doing it. If you get the chance you should too. I'd love for more clients locally simply so I could get out the office and meet for a coffee for a meeting but when the phone keeps ringing from far and wide who are we to say no and you never know who might ring next!

If you are a company looking for a development partner on your next Umbraco CMS project then give us a call, no matter where you are in the world. Its good to talk.