Balancing Client Needs on Travel

Just because you’re on travel to support one client doesn’t mean you can put other clients on hold. I had this challenge recently, but the good news is that it’s resolvable with a little diplomacy and time management.

The Wearing of Many Hats

If you’re a freelancer balancing multiple clients, it’s not unusual to be on travel to support one client when another one requires your services at the same time. What do you do then?

Set expectations

Usually, if you’re sent on travel to a customer site, it’s because they want you there for full eight-hour days. And since they’re paying for your office hours plus travel, lodging, and miscellaneous expenses, the customer you’re traveling for during that period should get first call on your time.

That doesn’t mean you can’t do other work; it just means you won’t be helping other clients during the time you’re on site with the client paying for your travel. It does mean that you need to explain your conflict with another customer and that you will not be available during typical business hours.

Managing your time and energy

If you’re on travel for a project, odds are, it’s a major/important one, one that will consume a lot of time and mental energy. You might be wiped out after a full day of intensive writing and customer interaction. Travel, too, can take a lot out of you, as you are spending time in lower-oxygen airliner cabins, adjusting to a new city/climate, and not sleeping in your own bed. Bottom line on this: know your limits. 

Working an all-day project (for me, it’s often a proposal) doesn’t always leave a lot of energy to jump into something else once you get back to your hotel. This means you need to do things like stay hydrated, eat relatively healthy meals, and get enough rest so that you can keep working. Therefore, if you get a request for another task in the midst of business travel, you need to be doubly certain that you make the time to treat yourself well on the road.

The magic formulation of “Yes, if…”

I try not to say no to clients. Partly that’s because I’m a helpful guy, partly it’s because I could always use the money, and partly I’m concerned that if I say “no” to a customer, they might take their business elsewhere.

Therefore, when I get overlapping requests, whether at home or on travel, I try to make it clear where my priorities need to be at that time. And if I am on travel, the people paying for my travel get first call on my time. If possible, I will ask if the non-travel task can wait until I get back. If I get into a situation where the customers have overlapping deadlines, as happened recently, the travel-paying customer still gets first call on my time, and I spend my evenings working for Customer B.

The formulation for handling conflicting requests is something I picked up from a former NASA manager: “Don’t tell a customer ‘No,’ say, ‘Yes, if…’ and then explain your conditions after the if.” In this case, the non-travel customer support had to wait until I was back at my hotel. This is not much different from how I handle work from home; I’ve just got the additional challenges of travel to worry about: how much time it takes to get back to the hotel, eat dinner, and get set up for my second round of effort.

It’s nice to have the “problem” of multiple customers calling on your time, but you still need to take care of yourself, your time, and your other commitments (family, chores, etc.). If you’re traveling for business, take care of yourself. Someone has to!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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