by Gill Pavey
Sitting in your home at a computer week after week, month after month and especially if isolation is your normal state, you may sometimes wonder who you are actually dealing with online. It can feel like you have dived into some elaborate fantasy game, especially after a fifteen-hour working day. Are you talking to a bot? Does Willem from Wageningen actually exist? Or Boris from Balashikha? How does this affect your working relationship, and what can be done to improve it?
Can you create the right relationship online?
Working in cyberspace can have its advantages, especially if you are not the sociable type. You needn’t worry about dress, hair and make-up/whether you’ve shaved that morning, and you can send a positive email even when you’re reacting badly to something that’s happened. Most clients can be researched online so you can get an impression of who you’re dealing with even if, like dating sites, these can sometimes be unrealistic. You may speak on the phone; you might even get connected through an app such as Skype, but if your broadband doesn’t support this, or your phone signal is poor, it’s not an option. In any case, such communications are also quite easy to stage-manage.
As freelancers we didn’t go through any kind of conventional job interview to get the gig so the client only knows whatever you have disclosed, plus whatever is out there in cyberspace, which makes for a limited relationship. But if a picture adds value to the written word, then meeting someone face-to-face should be worth even more.
We are also running a business
We are experts at what we are offering, but we are also running a business. In order to have work coming in developing the best possible relationship with long-term clients has to be close to the top of the list if you want to a keep them and b increase the level of work from them. Despite being an exclusively online activity for some of us, it’s still a ‘people’ business – and work can come in from personal recommendations. It’s also highly competitive – if you work for an intermediary, you may be one of several thousand freelancers, so you need to stand out above and beyond your quality of work.
So are these people real?
Eventually curiosity got the better of me and in October 2017 I decided to step away from the computer and catch a plane to meet some clients in real life.
My first venture overseas was to Amsterdam, to a commercial company. Over the two years of regular work the project managers were on chatty terms and I felt like one of the team – so the time was right to pay them a visit. Armed with plenty of Irish whiskey and Lily O’Brien’s chocolates, I met up with them late afternoon on a Friday, when everything is winding down for the weekend. The moment I stepped into the main office time seemed to stand still as I faced most of the staff and we weighed each other up. No amount of researching online had prepared me for the reality, which was very different to the picture I had built up in my mind. Not negative – just different. I presented the gifts – the ice was broken, the whiskey was poured, the chocolates were opened. I had been wary of one person who had come across in emails as a little scary, but when we met we hit it off immediately. It was a great experience.
The second trip
By May 2019 I had accumulated a number of clients in Italy. I have a key client headquartered in Milan – Istituto per la ricerca sociale – and my suggestion of a visit was received with enthusiasm. Two authors I had worked with recently, who are also based in Milan, heard about my proposed visit and invited me to dinner.
As with Amsterdam, the reality was a little different to what I imagined. The office accommodation of the institute, for example, was in a stunning old building so typical of central Milan and not the modern glass-and-concrete structure I had imagined. It was a great experience to meet staff who had only been names on emails until that point. Again, I was made very welcome and only slightly terrified when ushered into our meeting.
A trip on the high-speed Frecciarossa train brought me to Bologna and IRS board member Flavia Pesce, based in this branch office of the institute. In many ways this was the most important of my Italian contacts: the person who rang me out of the blue from Rome one Sunday five years ago asking if I would like to work for the institute. As far as ‘is this real or a fantasy?’ goes, this is the most outstanding example.
As for the authors – it was wonderful to meet them and to be treated so well. Dr Tesler picked me up on my first night and we went to his beautiful city centre apartment, where he introduced his charming wife Cristina before showing me his home office and asking me lots of questions about the publishing of his forthcoming book**.
They took me to a restaurant later and treated me to the best dinner I’ve ever had. (The second author ended up taking me to the same restaurant two nights later – the look on the restaurant owner’s face was priceless!)
The key to success in meeting clients, especially overseas clients, is research. Most of us would expect to find that doing business in Japan or Kuwait carries a lot of different protocols and by not respecting these you could end up with an embarrassing situation at best, or the client dumping you. But European countries are not all the same; Google ‘doing business in [country]’ and see what comes up. The Dutch conduct business in a different way to the Italians for example, and both differ slightly from Irish/UK protocols. There are various unwritten rules and cultural differences in common courtesies, attitudes and dress codes; even going out to dinner can be a minefield. Find out what these differences are. I made a couple of bad fashion choices, but I’ll know better next time. Remember, you are being assessed by the client as well and you are not a tourist.
If you only speak English, you’ll have no problems in Amsterdam wherever you go, but be prepared to ‘make it simple’ if you come across someone who seems to be less confident – and speak more slowly. Italians are less likely to speak English, especially in the local shops and markets, but I found that six hastily-learned words of Italian, some gesturing and a lot of smiling got me through even when I came across ‘non parlo inglese’.
So was it worth visiting overseas clients?
For me, both trips paid dividends in client relations as well as personal development and experience. I have become more confident about ‘leaving my cave’ and taking a trip on my own to see people – some very senior people in their fields – whom I had never met and who were taking time out of their working day to see me. This was an honour, and I treated it as such.
Sound preparation of all aspects of the visits paid off although there were still a few (good) surprises, and I was glad that I chose to take Irish gifts to present to them. These went down very well, so I will be remembered for that at least!
Will I do it again? Yes. I have been invited to visit clients in Rotterdam and Maastricht when travel restrictions are lifted to meet more of my regular clients, and I am looking forward to it.
** Tesler, U.F. (2020) A History of Cardiac Surgery: An Adventurous Voyage from Antiquity to the Artificial Heart. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Gill Pavey is a full member of AFEPI Ireland and started Wordhouse Writing Services in 2011. In 2013 she won the Theo Paphitis Small Business Sunday Award. Now specialising in work by non-native English speakers, Wordhouse is divided into commercial, NGO and academic clients from across the globe.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of AFEPI Ireland.