Not that long ago, many of us who provided project-style services to our clients (in my case film and video production) dreamt of the day when we could conduct our business without the inconvenience of travel.
Travel to meetings, travel to collect our tools of trade, travel to collect payments, etc, were all a normal part of doing business and all had to be factored into schedules and budgets.
Not that we wanted to avoid meeting with clients. Quite the opposite – the face to face bit was often the better part of often isolated work. It was more a case of wanting to squeeze the most out of our days and ultimately a better financial position.
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The impossible digital dream
My colleagues and I often talked about the distant digital dream, where everything would be in a digital format that could be transmitted rather than delivered in person or by hand. Even then, the notion of conducting entire projects without needing to set foot from your desk was a pipe dream.
But around five years ago, I finally delivered my first project, in this case a website, without even pressing the flesh of my distant client.
The client was a small business operator based in Perth. He had become a follower of blogs like this and phoned me to ask if I could look after his requirements from across the Nullarbor in Melbourne.
Meeting without coffee
Now like most project-oriented service providers, the very first thing you seek to do is meet with a client, get to know them and their business before taking a briefing on their requirements.
But on this occasion, the budget wouldn’t allow for me to get there or him to here.
So for the first time, I had to consider the notion of the entire project being conducted without face to face contact.
Of course the ability to do this had been around since email and the world wide web were introduced. But actually doing it was not seen as ‘good business practice’.
The sales process at the very least required both parties to meet in the flesh as a fundamental consolidation of the relationship. It kind of proved that you both existed, were articulate and that you were presentable enough to trust the exchange of occasionally significant sums of money.
One of the other obstacles was the cost of remote collaboration or conferences. Prior to VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephony, significant bills could be racked up communicating via old STD calls.
As it turned out, the client saw enough to provide him with the confidence to do business with me and vice versa – particularly when the deposit was made not by cheque but electronic funds transfer.
Apart from the sales process, the rest of the website development process had already been performed without further in-person communication.
End to end digital delivery
Designs and their iterations were emailed to and fro as was written content. Instructions were delivered by email or phone. Meetings could be held via cheap web-conferencing and website iterations delivered via ordinary web browsers. Finally, system orientation, training and support could also be very effectively delivered by web-conference.
So the remainder of the project proceeded and was delivered entirely ‘virtually’.
We had successfully completed the entire project without needing an in-person meeting at any point of the process.
Now there are even more tools to streamline the development. You can click on ads or blogs that lead you to a provider’s website, where a briefing can be provided. Work timesheets are stored in ‘the cloud’ where both client and our team can access them. Project updates can be delivered by text. Drafts can even be assessed and discussed by would-be audiences using social networking.
And on it goes.
Remote projects on the rise
As a result, more and more projects are coming our way without ever having laid eyes or even a handshake on our clients; a bizarre concept even a few short years ago, but one that increasingly works for all time-and-budget-poor parties.
It’s not our preferred position. We always like to do as much business with our clients in person as possible. But it simply may not be practical or sometimes necessary.
Of course the danger of so much virtual communication is that it’s easy to go days and even weeks without getting together with clients and other team members. And that can lead to serious isolation issues – particularly if you work solo.
Who hasn’t met an IT professional who clearly hasn’t had to leave their desks (and the presentation standards that come with that) for some time?
How much of your work can be done without any in-person contact with your client or team? Perhaps it’s worth pushing the boundaries to find out.
Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team, which services the website and web marketing needs of SMEs.