10 Tips for Working at a Client's Site
Transitioning to a Temporary Workplace
Terri's company, a marketing agency, has taken on a major new client. The contract requires one of the agency team to work at the client's site for six months, to help it to overhaul its marketing strategy. Terri's manager has asked her to take on the assignment.
She's excited by the opportunity, but she's also nervous. It's a multinational logistics company, and it's more formal and regulated than her agency. Terri is worried about whether she'll fit in. Plus, the customer is based in a different state, and she'd have to relocate.
Going to work at a client's office can feel like a strange mixture of starting a new job and "going undercover." However, it can also be a rewarding experience that gives you insight into a client's operations and ways of working. It can also introduce you to new perspectives, people, and opportunities for growth.
Why You Might Find Yourself "Working Away"
People are often asked to work at a client's premises when they provide services that are integral to the client's operations. You might, for example, offer specialized marketing or IT expertise that a client lacks, and be taken on as a consultant or freelancer.
The client might need you to perform a particular role indefinitely, or to share your expertise so that people are inspired to do the job themselves. Or, your organization might have built a strategic alliance, and you've been sent to the partner's offices to collaborate on several joint projects.
10 Tips for Working at a Client's Site
Use these 10 tips to make the most of your assignment at a client's site:
1. Do Your Homework
One way to prepare for working at a client's site is to treat it as if you are starting a new job, and to plan for it accordingly.
Ask as many questions as you can before you start. Find out how the organization works, what you can expect to encounter there, and what others expect you to deliver.
- What is the objective of your placement, and how will success be measured?
- How long will the placement be – a few hours each week, one month, six months? Is the end date fixed?
- Who will be your points of contact?
- Who will you work with, and who'll manage you?
- What confidentiality agreements will be in place, and what information can you share?
- What equipment, documents, personal effects, and so on will you need to bring?
- What patterns of work will you follow?
Ask about the company culture, too, so that you have a clear idea of the kind of environment that you'll be stepping into.
You might encounter cultural differences if you're posted abroad. Our article, Working Abroad, offers advice on transitioning to overseas working.
2. Define Your Role
Make sure that you, your manager and your client agree on what will be expected of you. Discuss what day-to-day work will consist of, agree objectives, and define the parameters of your role in a formal job description.
Establish what will be expected of you in terms of behavior, too. Discuss issues such as how far you should integrate with your "new" colleagues, whether you'll follow your client's dress code, and what to do if you experience difficulties, for example. Consider creating a "code of conduct" for yourself.
3. Assess Your "Preparedness"
Are there any gaps in your skills or expertise that you need to fill before your assignment? Completing a personal SWOT Analysis (to help you to uncover opportunities, understand your weaknesses, and eliminate threats) can help you to assess how ready you are. Being prepared will help you to make a good impression, and get you off to a good start.
4. Get Down to Business
Start strongly on day one: introduce yourself to the people you'll be working with, and explain what your role is. Discuss how you envisage working together, and, if necessary, reassure them that you're there to help. Be tactful and respectful.
Aiming for small, quick "wins" is a good strategy for making the right impression. Pareto Analysis can help you to prioritize your tasks.
5. Build Relationships
You'll be an "outsider" when you arrive, and some people may treat you that way. To fit in, and to make working together a happy experience, be friendly, and start to build relationships with your hosts.
Practice active listening when you talk to your colleagues. People respond to those who truly listen to what they have to say. Focus on listening more than you talk, and you'll quickly become known as someone who can be trusted.
Devote a portion of each working day to building your relationships, even if it's just 20 minutes, perhaps broken up into five-minute segments. For example, you could pop into someone's office during lunch, reply to people's social media posts, or ask a colleague to join you for a quick coffee.
Following office norms, such as sitting with your colleagues at lunch, will also help you to fit in. Also, our article, When Work Involves Socializing, has tips on how to handle social situations with your clients.
"Fitting in" also means adjusting to your client's corporate culture. Looking for shared values or working methods can help, but, where differences exist, explain your preferred approach and work on a compromise.
If transitioning to working at your client's site is a bumpy experience, or if the contrast with your usual workplace leaves you feeling disoriented, identify "stability zones" that will help you to find peace and balance in your new environment.
6. Be Patient
Adjusting to a new workplace takes time. If you're on a placement for just a few days or weeks, you may not have time to integrate fully, so it's best to focus hard on the task at hand.
For longer placements, don't try too hard, too soon, to fit in and become part of the team. Don't try to force relationships to develop. Take some time to observe the culture around you. It's natural to want to be part of the team but you need to get to know how it works first.
Act with integrity and professionalism, and be polite and helpful, and you'll naturally start fitting in over time.
7. Manage Ethical Dilemmas
When you work at a client's site, you could face ethical dilemmas. For example:
- Uncovering information about your client. This may be something that could damage your organization, or even illegal activity.
- Knowing what to reveal about your business. You run the risk of sharing too much about your company's strategy, upcoming projects, or business processes, for example, or of badmouthing your organization and giving away intellectual property.
- Being pressured to share information. Colleagues in either organization might try to leverage your position or knowledge of the other to gain advantage.
You need to be mindful of how, when, and with whom you share information, so ask your managers for clarification on what you can and cannot talk about.
If you're unsure what to do when difficult situations arise (for example, if you face bribery, or pressure from others to reveal information), seek your own HR department's guidance and advice.
If you become aware of behaviors that make you uncomfortable, such as harassment or bullying, it's important that you don't ignore them. Read our article, When to Speak Up, to find out how and when to do this.
8. Keep "a Foot in Both Camps"
You may get so wrapped up in your placement that you lose touch with your own organization. You might even lose sight of the fact that you're representing it, and that you're still employed by it.
Make sure that you still feel part of your "home" team by scheduling regular catch-ups with your manager and visiting your own premises to maintain a sense of connection.
Working at a client's office can sometimes feel similar to remote working. Our article, Working in a Virtual Team, offers tips on working this way.
9. Finish Your Placement and Close the Project
As your placement draws to its end, ensure that you leave on a positive note. First, ask yourself, "Have I achieved my objective?" Check that your work has delivered the required outcomes, and that it has satisfied your stakeholders.
If they're happy, great! If not, find out why, and agree on how you'll address the issue. Your placement might need to be extended, or the customer may decide to go in a different direction.
Then, complete a handover. Establish who will take control of the project, be sure that they know how to move forward, agree your level of future involvement, and answer any questions.
10. Learn From Your Experience
Your experience puts you in a privileged position, which you can use to improve the services that you offer. For example, you may have learned that your customer is looking for a service that your organization is developing, so you're in a great position to arrange a meeting with your product manager.
You may also have identified ways of working or learning opportunities at your client's offices that you could introduce "back home."
Always discuss your intentions with the customer, though, and ask for their consent before you share anything, to avoid betraying confidences and to maintain the positive connection that you've built.
You might find yourself based at a client's site if you offer key services, if you're working as a consultant, or if you're setting up a strategic partnership. This offers great opportunities to get to know your client better, to make new contacts, and to expand your horizons.
To make it a smooth experience, ask questions before you go, clearly define your role, learn about the people and company in advance, and be wary of oversharing information.
When your placement is over, assess whether your objectives were met, conduct a handover, and feed back what you've learned to your own organization.