Freelance work is booming. And opportunities for international collaboration are on the rise.
Yet, most entrepreneurs aren’t ready to take advantage of this potential. They’re comfy with their existing networks and are unprepared to expand their business. For example, Harvard Business Review recently found that freelancers overwhelmingly rely on word of mouth to get new clients. Although powerful, WOM is pretty insulated, passively relying on your existing network—which, for many freelancers, is pretty small—instead of actively growing it.
These tendencies can get you stuck in a rut. Clinging to your old connections might work for you now, but the moment those wells run dry, you’ll have few places to turn. And most freelancers know that a limited network means limited, inconsistent earnings.
Plus, passing up new challenges and learning opportunities from different perspectives and life histories can stunt your skill development. You can’t promise to be a well-rounded service provider if you’ve never had to accommodate new clients’ perspectives or expectations.
Greater visibility on the global market will strengthen your services as a freelancer and boost your career growth.
To achieve that, you need to know how to exercise cultural awareness when working with diverse groups. In other words, you should be able to recognize your own cultural knowledge and norms while also being sensitive to others’ unique practices, perspectives, and values. Here’s why and how to do that.
Freedom to work worldwide: The good and the bad of cross-cultural freelancing
One of the appeals of freelancing is the freedom to work independently. Now, you might assume that “freedom” means more options, right? Not exactly.
See, freelancers are over-reliant on what they already know. And that’s understandable. You don’t want to step too far outside your comfort zone, since that’s where your skillset is. But sometimes, this can work against you.
When you restrict yourself to the familiar, you limit yourself to the mundane.
In some cases, this could mean that you only work with people you know from previous jobs. Other times, you might only operate within genres or service types that you’ve done the most. For instance, a pet blogger might only write about dogs, fearing that they can’t cover cats as well.
(An “always” freelancer is someone who’s actively worked on one or more freelance jobs within the past 12 months and continued throughout the pandemic. Those who “paused” stopped freelancing since the onset of the pandemic.)
Sixty percent of “always” and “new” (started freelancing as of March 2020) found freelance jobs the same way. This method might work well for a while, sure. But staying in your professional bubble is not viable in the long run.
That’s why connecting with new clients—especially those from other countries or social groups—is crucial to your business’s longevity. Still, it’s not always peachy. To reap the benefits, you have to learn to navigate the challenges.
The good: Diversifying your portfolio and network
In Upwork’s latest study, 20% of all freelancers said they needed to learn how to rebuild their client network remotely. This isn’t an easy feat, especially if you only have the folks from the office to lean on. Luckily, finding freelance clients across cultural and geographic barriers is easier than ever before. And it just happens to be one of the best ways you can expand your market presence, too.
By reaching out to clients around the world, you can diversify your portfolio and strengthen your networking at the same time. Think about it: In professional settings, people want to partner with individuals who are extremely well-rounded.
For example, imagine that you could hire a visual artist who has worked with clients in Europe, Asia, and South America. You’d likely choose them over someone who’s only worked in the United States. Why?
A more diverse set of experiences and social understandings shapes the former candidate’s life and work, more so than the latter, who has only lived and worked in a single region and culture. In other words, the former candidate has a higher level of cultural competency than the alternative, and so can appeal to more people. That said, partnering with people across nations and industries is essential to standing out and improving your appeal to future clients.
The better: Get an edge over your competitors
Most freelancers depend on word-of-mouth (WOM) and their existing networks to identify prospective clients. But a recent study showed that 85% of people run in “a small number of social circles.” Using the example of how WOM influences a new movie’s popularity, they found that the remaining 15% with “a large and varied network of connections” generated four times the impact with WOM marketing.
So, you can see why openness to international and cross-cultural partnerships can give you an edge over competitors. Once you leave your professional comfort zone, your career growth options truly open up.
I’ve heard newly independent content writers talk about how they’d have no idea how to get freelance clients if it wasn’t for their existing network. I think that’s a bunch of bologna.
Connecting with new prospects can yield a higher ROI than sticking to old contracts AND it’s incredibly fun. All it takes is a willingess to learn about new perspectives to advance your career and break out of your proverbial box. Otherwise, you’re leaving potential partnerships on the table for your more outgoing competitors to grab.
The not-so-good: Issues you might run into with international clients
Sometimes, working with international clients is just plain confusing—especially with communication. For example, one of my earliest non-U.S. jobs as a content writer was a blog assignment for a French company.
Before our first piece, we had a 30-minute meeting to review expectations. I took notes and saved links, but they couldn’t quite communicate that they only wanted part of the assignment before a check-in. Then, they wanted to continue to a finished piece.
When they asked for a draft submission before the due date, I was confused. To make matters worse, I couldn’t clearly explain to them that they were reviewing a draft, and not finished content.
In a last-ditch effort to get us back on track, I reiterated the expectations shared with me and expressed my confusion with the end of the contract, especially since they’d only cited “information” as the cause of the break.
Ultimately, we closed the contract. It was a mess! In retrospect, I realized that a major reason for this blunder was the language barrier. They simply did not communicate appropriately, and neither did I, probably. Although there could have been several contributing factors, communication impeded by language challenges is a major part of such awkward exchanges.
What cultural differences might you experience?
“Cultural differences” mean lots of different things. That’s why you might encounter unique challenges across cultural barriers like:
Various types of social marginalization vs. privilege (e.g., minority health disparities, sexual orientation, etc.)
All these will come into play when you’re working as a freelancer in this big, diverse world. And even though you might not think these factors will play a part in your future work, believe me, they will.
For instance, a digital marketer needs to touch on pain points across demographics. This means they should be sensitive to cultural diversity as it relates to personal values and challenges. Similarly, a videographer who wants to capture distant locations will need to learn to communicate respectfully with locals and foreign authorities.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to be a social justice warrior. Instead, you can exist on different parts of the “cultural competence continuum.”
International collaboration is critical to solopreneurial life. That’s why learning to circumvent these challenges can transform your job success rate and freelance business longevity for the better.
6 tips for working with international, cross-cultural freelance clients
Working with freelance clients of diverse cultural groups is not always a walk in the park. Here are some of the main challenges you might face while expanding your network beyond your comfort zone.
1. Language and social nuances for creative freelancers
Many phrases and words are not shared between countries and cultures. Be aware of that when producing content or any other types of customer-facing deliverables. People can spot foreigners or non-native language speakers from a mile away with these types of blunders.
For example, Americans might say things that Australians or Canadians wouldn’t say. So, if I’m working with clients from either of these places, I’ll need an editor to filter out my Americanisms. Usually, this is more of a fluency issue than a cultural sensitivity problem. But that’s not always the case.
Imagine that a creative freelancer covering “social impact” content that targets marginalized groups calls for special sensitivities. Although some groups see no issues with terms like “BIPOC” (an acronym for “Black and/or Indigenous people of color”) or “Indian” (in reference to Native Americans), others may see it as problematic.
2. Pay attention to citations
Don’t just rely on your country’s online resources for any client. If you’re working with an Australian client, add an “.au” to your search query, or a “.ca” to your search term if you’re working with a Canadian company. This’ll help localize the piece, not only for the readers who are following your outbound links, but for the web crawlers, too.
Plus, citing the client’s home country as a reference in your work is a strong signal of trust and respect. If I only included American sources in my work as a U.S. citizen, regardless of my client’s nationality or their customers’, that’d be a bit narrow-minded. It could suggest that I only trust my country, and I don’t think that theirs has any information that’s worth its own salt.
Linking to their nation’s authoritative info signals that I respect their knowledge systems and care about their access to locally relevant information.
3. Working with religious clients
I’m not a religious person. But sometimes I work with religious clients. And I show them the same amount of respect I do others. I just have to do it differently.
For example, I was once assigned a roundup piece discussing sound and video equipment for a church. I was able to draw on my past experience in churches to touch on a few relevant pain points and aspirations for the target audience.
I didn’t have to overdo it by using a bunch of church lingo and vague Biblical references. But I also didn’t allow my personal experience or feelings to bleed into the piece.
I’d stepped into a demographic I was not a part of. Yet, I was able to appreciate their perspective and maintain a positive working relationship that wasn’t tainted by my own grievances.
4. Consider payment security
Sometimes, clients just choose not to pay. It’s an uncomfortable reality for freelancers. It’s one thing to protect yourself with contracts. But it’s another thing entirely to enforce payment security methods like collections.
If it comes to that, know that some collections companies won’t go after international clients. Check their policies ahead of time and ask about added fees or exclusions that may get in the way of securing payment from unresponsive international clients.
(Yes, it’s happened to me with a client based in Canada! To make matters worse, I couldn’t get a hold of their superiors, so I had to just write it off and restrict access to the deliverables.)
5. Written communication with international clients
Besides deliverables, you’ll need to consider logistics. This mainly concerns the timing of communication.
Let’s be real: Not all freelancers have the opportunity to meet their clients in-person, or even via video chat. Some don’t even want to. If you’re one of them, keep these things in mind when operating on a message-only basis with international clients:
Check the GMT/global time and try to coordinate communications when they’re most likely to respond to and see your messages. This is typically late morning (10-11 AM) to early evening (4-5 PM) local time, in my experience. Outside this, you’ll likely be playing phone tag, sloooowing down progress for your contract.
Schedule your messages ahead of time. This’ll make it easier on you to coordinate within their appropriate time frame. Try to optimize for their communications over yours, if possible.
Check the work norms over there. Americans tend to be more open to working on their off time than others. Many consider us to be quite obsessive about our work, actually! Don’t expect others to behave the same.
Copywriter Madison Hanna offers excellent examples of what “asynchronous communication” looks like in daily practice for freelancers.
6. Video chatting with international clients
Try to adapt your schedule to theirs. This might mean you’ll have to meet late at night or early in the morning, but either way, your priority is to meet your clients’ convenience (within reason).
In any case, make sure the meeting doesn’t go on too long. You’re already making the scheduling sacrifice to meet late at night, so don’t make it worse by letting it exceed 30 minutes-1 hour!
Follow up with written notes to prevent ANY miscommunications that may have come up. You might also request a written style doc or company guidelines so you’re familiar with their service expectations. Ask for it before the meeting so you can follow along. Even better: Use the chat feature during your session to clarify and verify information in real-time.
Broaden your horizons with international and cross-cultural clients
Securing new freelance clients from different cultures and backgrounds is incredibly rewarding—but it’s not always easy.
Sometimes stepping outside your comfort zone means subjecting yourself to a learning curve. This could mean anything from adjusting terms and slang to understanding cultural norms that may not align with your own.
You might not ace it straight away, but the ups and downs throughout your career will shape your experience as an independent contractor, making you more well-rounded and capable than ever before.