Traditional companies all have very similar set-ups (however funky the wall colours or how many pool tables they have put in). Project update meetings in whiteboard-equipped meeting rooms with biscuit-fuelled colleagues — these happen pretty much everywhere. And your customers will almost certainly be talking that traditional business language. So how can you cover those bases as a freelancer without trudging into client offices every week?
Technology can come to the rescue, but I’ve found you always have to judge the level of resistance from customers. Learning a bunch of new apps every time you take on a new freelancer is not what they want to be doing. So here are the most effective low friction tools I’ve found for dealing with customer collaboration.
Your meeting room
I’m a firm believer in face to face communication. Email is great for recording results and requests, but not good for actual conversations and making yourself understood. Phone calls are a weird no-man’s-land of communication, with no visual cues and no way to know if you’re getting your message across. We’ve all heard the tap-tap-tap of a keyboard in the background of calls when people aren’t paying much attention, and that lack of communication can lead to problems down the line (pun only slightly intended).
So enter the video call. While these used to be clunky and awkward, the rise of video calling on mobiles has meant a lot more people find it a natural way to communicate.
Appear.in is my outright favourite here. It has all the essentials for freelancer meetings: a free plan for video calls with up to 4 people, screen sharing and a mobile app. But the real beauty of it is that your customers don’t need to download anything or set up an account to use it. You get a custom URL to send them, they click on it and they’re in the meeting. That lack of friction makes it incredibly easy to get your customers to use.
There are reasonably priced paid plans that let you increase participant numbers to 12 and to record meetings, but you most likely won’t need them.
Some alternatives are Zoom, which offers a more comprehensive set of options and allows clients to telephone in to your meeting if they’re away from their internet connection, and Google Hangouts. You can use the basic features of both for free, but Zoom requires a software download and Hangouts need a Google account — neither are the end of the world, but a bit more cumbersome for that first meeting.
Creating project content together is a fantastic way to build a relationship with your customer. You can always share your screen during a video call, but it’s even better if your customer can be editing the document with you.
Google Docs and Google Sheets are the ones I use most often here. It’s just a couple of clicks to create a document link that lets your customer see and edit without needing to create an account. All changes can be seen in realtime by everyone in the meeting.
Because word processors and spreadsheets are such ubiquitous office software, pretty much everyone will already know how to use them. And when the meeting’s over, you’ve got a record of what was discussed already saved (if you have a shared folder for your customer, a copy will already be waiting for them).
You can do exactly the same thing with Microsoft’s Office 365, which has very similar online features.
An honourable mention must also go to Dropbox Paper, which gives an excellent interactive document with useful extras like adding tasks for members, project timelines and importing a wide variety of content like videos, presentations, image galleries and audio recordings. The only reason it’s not top of my list is that the extra features and non-word-processor feel make it a bit more difficult for clients to use until they’re used to it.
Your project board
I’ve always loved the visual side of a Kanban board. For those that don’t know, it’s as easy as writing all of the tasks of a project on sticky notes and putting them up on the wall in columns that show progress (‘Not started’, ‘In progress’, ‘In review’ etc.) It makes it easy and instant to get an overview of the whole project, while further details are on the stickies if you need more details.
Of course, there are great software versions of the same thing now, and I’ve found they make a huge difference to a collaborative project. Sharing a project board with a customer or colleagues means there are far fewer emails requesting updates, fewer lost details and a level of transparency that customers really value.
Trello is my pick. It’s free, fast, well-connected to your other apps and easy to share. You can make a board public and just share a link — there’s no need to log in. Do be careful that you don’t put any sensitive information on a public board — if you need to, lock the board and set your client up with a free account to log in. Trello also makes it dead easy to do time blocking on your calendar.
Asana is another excellent choice. It’s even more capable than Trello, with project timelines, task tagging, a central task list and reporting, but I’ve found it’s slower to use, and customers always need a (free) account to access the project.
I’ve ambitiously added this in here. I mean, who among us actually had a PA at our last job? But technology is still here to help us out.
Calendly is a great service that offers customers or colleagues the chance to book a call directly in your calendar. You can set daily or weekly times you want to be available for meetings, and Calendly syncs your available time with your calendar, making sure your bookings don’t clash.
HubSpot offers a similar service for free, and it’s especially good if you’re already using HubSpot’s great free CRM & email services. It also saves you time by looking up company information for people who email you / use your web form and it keeps all of your correspondence for that person in one place. If you’re not already using a customer relationship tool, I strongly recommend you give it a look. The free version has HubSpot branding on and some limitations, but overall it’s a tremendous service.
Your chat ’n’ banter
Interacting with the humans you’re working with on a project has hidden benefits. Something that might seem too trivial to write an email about can easily be dropped into conversation, and all these micro-interactions add up to keep the project on track all the way through.
With remote work, that’s harder. Slack is the popular solution. It’s basically a chat room for everyone involved in the project, letting you easily dash off quick questions and requests, share files and update people. It’s more widespread for teams in larger companies, but it can be good for freelance projects when you’re working with other creatives.
Slack integrates with your other tools to make it the point of truth for your project (e.g. Trello card updates, calendar events, HubSpot meetings can all automatically post an update in Slack). The downside is that, if your customer doesn’t already use it, it’s a bit awkward to learn when they’re doing it just to work with you. I tend to use it to collaborate with other freelancers rather than with clients.