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Design Dilemma: Working for Foreign Clients

When the internet allowed people to live and work remotely, it trumped FedEx’s overnight delivery with instant delivery. Skype and other messenger apps allowed us to speak with people all over the world and opened markets for clients anywhere. Still, the differences in national culture and language can be a problem for some people.

What do non-American clients and creatives think of us? All they hear are complaints about non-payment, demands for free work and scope creep from here to the moon. They must think we’re a nation of cheats and scammers. Are clients in other nations different? How do they handle business and creatives? So, book a flight to knowledge and wonder by joining us as we delve into another Design Dilemma, helping to answer your questions, queries and concerns about the entire world of design.

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The Dilemma

Isabelle writes:

Hi, Speider!

I read your column on Design Shack and some other blogs and see you have some big clients that are in many different countries. I’ve just found a client in a different country but after some back and forth to come to an agreement on fees, due dates, etc. (and that took a lot of emails!), the client is starting to ask for extra stuff. I tried nicely telling him that what he wanted wasn’t part of our agreed scope and he just said, “do it in your spare time.”

“I’m ready to walk away but feel like I’ve wasted weeks of work for no pay. I certainly can’t sue him, if they even allow that in his country.”

Every time he tries increasing what I am supposed to do and I bring up the fee we agreed upon, he quotes a lower price and won’t answer me when I try to correct him. When I start to complain, he says it’s normal in his country to change during a project and adjust the price with a discount and that’s why the fee is now lower.

He also keeps changing his mind on the content I’m supposed to write for the website I’m designing (you’re a writer. Has this ever happened to you?). We agreed on 1,500 words for the entire site and during a Skype conversation (in English), he raised it to 2,500 words and told me he would send a new guideline for the site. As soon as I got off Skype, I received the guidelines and it said 3,500 words! I emailed him and said we agreed on 1,500 words but I was willing to give him 2,500 words (which I could whip out easily enough) but 3,500 words was too much.

He sent me a bunch of article links on long form articles and several he said I could use for “inspiration (he meant cut and paste parts of these articles). I told him that was illegal and his site could be flagged by Google Panda for duplicate copy but he kept saying that I could rewrite it a little. When I sent the copy, he told me he changed his mind and sent me more links to articles like the “10 best of this” and the “15 best of that” and said he wanted a list of 20 things so people would choose his website because it had the most tips. This is a total redo of all the work I’ve done and he won’t answer emails asking for more money.

I’m ready to walk away but feel like I’ve wasted weeks of work for no pay. I certainly can’t sue him, if they even allow that in his country. What would you do?

Lost in Translation

When I read this, I had to take a deep sigh. I’ve worked globally for most of my career either as a freelancer or when I was on staff at large, global corporations, so I had experience in dealing with different cultures, even within the same corporation. It’s always heartwarming to see that as citizens of the world, we’re all very much alike — crazed lunatics!

I asked “Isabelle” if she was a U.S. citizen, which she is and what country this client is from (which I won’t reveal for the sake of not having tons of death threats from this nation of violent psychopaths — just kidding!). I have dealt with clients from the nation she mentioned and never found them to be beyond discussing contractual points but there is a language barrier and that can cause some problems. Being a woman, there may also be some cultural differences that would make “Isabelle’s” experience different from mine.

Hey, “Isabelle!”

Well, I have had experience with clients in that country and will say most of the problem is what they call, “lost in translation.” While everyone in the world speaks English, except Americans, we have a difficult language that has many words that have a double meaning. For example, we can “bomb a city” or a comedian “bombs in front of an audience.” It’s most probably your client doesn’t understand some of the points you’re trying to communicate.

I’ve found, unless you are fluent in that country’s language, you must be understanding and patient. It may take a few attempts to make the client understand what you’re trying to get across when you run into a roadblock such as you’ve described.

“As with the infamous tales of the plethora of American clients who offer “an opportunity” or “lots of money later” to get free work, I have never heard that from any foreign client.”

Another difference in business between America and some other nations are discounts for projects. In some nations, they are expected from start although you won’t be asked. I’ve found, when pitching a project or multiple projects, to state your fee and then offer a discount for certain concessions. I’ll usually offer a 15% discount for the following considerations:

    1. 100% payment up front.
    2. A limit to changes (usually none at all).
    3. Multiple Projects with firm deadlines (so the projects don’t spread out over a year, allowing for more projects and more payments!).

In the end, the client is happy and certainly I am, too! There is the occasional misunderstanding when the client breaks the agreement as with the scope creep you described with your client but, as I mentioned, I remain patient and politely remind them of our original agreement. It may take a little discussion but I’ve found that it always works out, even if I have to make a concession and request either more money by reducing the discount slightly.

Often it takes the freelancer to communicate in simple terms. Use small words, stay away from American colloquialisms (slang and pop culture references that are particular to America) and don’t try to use business-speak to make yourself sound “professional.” Obviously the client chose you for your talent, instead of using someone local, so your professionalism is not in question.

As with the infamous tales of the plethora of American clients who offer “an opportunity” or “lots of money later” to get free work, I have never heard that from any foreign client. Yes, sometimes they offer a fee I have to reject (politely) but it’s based on their local economy and not a disrespect for creatives.

I’d suggest you go back to your client and explain that you had an agreement for a limited amount of words in the website copy. Agree to the fee that’s been “adjusted” and explain what you’re willing to supply for that fee. It may take a little back and forth but you will get there. Keep in mind that American clients aren’t use to negotiation as much as foreign companies (and not all do, depending on the country culture) but in your case, it will take some talking. In the end, you’ll find a few words will give you what you want and you will have a great client on your way to becoming International.

Why Search for Foreign Clients?

I actually prefer foreign markets to the American one of false promises, chasing payments, constant scope creep and the need for ironclad contracts that are usually ignored. Of course, there’s also the ever-present requests for discounts due to a family connection because the client was in the same army as my great uncle.

What do foreigners think of Americans? Certain countries think we are lazy, rude and stupid… and those are the compliments! If you read the news sources from other nations, they believe we are gun-crazy, religious zealots, run by an oligarchy that believes in global domination and the spread of fast food giants for every street corner. Of course, the truth is, we don’t care if other nations have a McDonald’s.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Seriously, Americans have what few nations have. We are a diverse nation made up of bits and pieces of older nations and cultures and while we may have lost our way from what made us such a strong and compassionate nation, our foundation of certain core beliefs, such as fairness, liberty and the love of our diversity is still alive. We can certainly learn to bring all of that back to the forefront of our being and, with our global neighbors evolve again to greatness, along with new clients, limited only by the internet connections at our command.

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

The internet has been an incredible tool for bringing the world together. We are all able to meet and get to know people from all over the globe and that is wondrous for us as the human race. Naturally, the small boundaries of language and customs can be overcome by finding a comfortable middle ground for us to communicate in peace and harmony. All it takes is patience and the willingness to try, so keep reaching out to other people in other lands and rejoice in the opportunities that allows!

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