Building Successful Client Relationships Virtually

With more and more people working from home, client communication has changed. “Changed” isn’t the right word. It has evolved. Virtual meetings, phone calls, email, and social networking are now normalized. I know, for myself, that meetings with people in person give me energy. It’s one of the ways I’m successful working remotely. Client visits usually give me enough fuel to sustain a few weeks at my computer. However, I haven’t been able to refill my tank since the beginning of the year; so, I had to adapt to doing business differently. I had to learn how to get my energy from elsewhere. It’s important because that drive is what I use to engage with clients so that we can continue to bring in existing projects and generate new client relationships. Not being able to travel and visit with people has been hard for me and I want to share what I have been doing to keep myself motivated. I list out my tips below.

Before we get into my recommendations for building successful client relationships virtually, I want to first mention that, to me, communication and good conversation are the keys to many things. I often reference the following excerpt from “My Students Don’t Know How to Have a Conversation” by Paul Barnwell (The Atlantic, April 2014). Has the art of conversation eluded us? Regardless if it’s virtual or in person, conversation is the solidifying factor between a good experience and a bad experience for a client.

As I watched my class struggle, I came to realize that conversational competence might be the single-most overlooked skill we fail to teach students. Kids spend hours each day engaging with ideas and one another through screens—but rarely do they have an opportunity to truly hone their interpersonal communication skills. Admittedly, teenage awkwardness and nerves play a role in difficult conversations. But students’ reliance on screens for communication is detracting—and distracting—from their engagement in real-time talk. It might sound like a funny question, but we need to ask ourselves: Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain confident, coherent conversation?

Take Care

A photo of a jack russell terrier peering out from beneath a blanket.It is essential that you are taking care of yourself first. Good sleep, hydration, and movement are key factors in one’s performance. It’s very easy to feel more fatigued working from home. I’m not sure why this happens but I believe it has to do with the scenery staying the same and finding that separation between home and work is hard. I have this problem in that I have a home office but have never actually used it. I don’t feel productive in that space. I end up roaming around the house. Someone told me there is no room police and I’m allowed to use any room in the house for work. Not everyone can do that and some require a dedicated space. Bottom line, do what works for you.

Find Time

A photo of man in a button down shirt and white, belted pants looking at his watch.My number-one productivity rule: if a task takes less than two minutes to complete, do it right now. That includes, answering emails even if it is to say, “I’ve received this and will respond shortly.”

As a true extrovert, time is an illusion to me. My most productive hours are 7:00 a.m. through 11:00 a.m. and then again from 9:00 p.m. through 11:00 p.m. I’ve always been like this. Because I know this about myself, I have to structure my day in a way that makes sense. Doing client calls at 3:00 p.m., while sometimes necessary, is not the best for me. I also have to make a list each morning to outline my priorities. Before having conversations with other humans, it is essential that I clear my mind of my “to-dos” so that I’m free to interact and focus on client relationships. Lists are a great way for me to do this. I also use my productive hours to get things done before I start my day, such as watering plants, making breakfast, walking the dogs, making the bed, etc. If I have these tasks completed before I wish my colleagues a good morning, I’m in a much better head space. That is the goal after all, to get to a point where I can freely engage in conversation.

Be Present

A photograph of an open laptop displaying a pretty, forest desktop wallpaper with a small cactus plant and a phone turned upside down sitting next to the laptop.Efficiency when multitasking has been proven to be a fallacy. It hurts your brain and really cuts down on your productivity. It can also be, quite frankly, rude.

When you have a client phone call on your schedule, clear the chatter around you. That means close tabs, shut off Slack, turn your phone on silent. If your desire is to build successful client relationships virtually, then your clients must know you are there for them.

When I’m about to embark on a virtual call with clients, I still use all the techniques I would use if I were meeting them in person. For example, years of vocal training taught me a trick on how to sit/stand up straight. Imagine a string attached to the top of your head and it connects to the ceiling. That visualization helps to position yourself appropriately. It’s also important that your camera and monitor be at the correct height. You want to appear professional, prepared, and present for your client.

I also like to ask my clients if I can record our phone call to refer back to later. This frees me up from having to take notes. I feel less engaged in the conversation when I’m typing or writing notes. I’ve also noticed that if I have on my blue blockers glasses it looks like inception in the lenses. The reflection really shows up on video calls, so I remove them. And while I love the creativeness of the different backgrounds people are using, I do find them distracting so when I’m on a call with clients. I stick with my boring wall and plants in the background.

Choose Words

A photo of a bright blue wall with a white desk sitting in front of it and an open laptop sitting on top of the desk displaying a woman smiling while wearing a headset as though she is conducting a live online meeting.Language is a powerful tool. The words that we choose can be the difference between a good conversation and a great conversation. There were a couple of things I had to learn about word selection for virtual conversations.

First, the pace for the conversation is often different. It’s easy to talk over someone or cut someone off due to technical difficulties or simply because of internet delay. This means you have to be patient and take a breath before jumping in. Everyone wants to be heard, so it’s natural to become excited and simply start talking, but we don’t have the luxury of full bodily cues when meeting virtually.

If you are hosting the phone call, it becomes your responsibility to establish control of the conversation. I don’t mean control in a bad way, but you should start the call with introductions and calling on people, if you have to. Think of yourself as a facilitator. Pro tip: having an agenda for the call really helps to structure the conversation.

Authenticity needs to be as transparent as possible in your facial expression and tonality. It’s okay to not know everything. Saying you don’t know is not only okay, it is essential.

One of my biggest communication challenges is the amount of qualifying words and phrases that I use. It has become a personal mission for me to remove them from my communication style. A perfect example is strategizing an email with, “Sorry to bother you,” or starting a sentence with, “I just wanted to.” Not only does it sound needy, it’s untrue. I do need to bother people sometimes.

Manners go a long way. Robert Cialdini explains in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, the principle of reciprocity as a powerful motivator. It is in our nature to not want to feel indebted to others. When someone gives us something, we are wired to give back in some way. When customers receive something like a handwritten thank-you note, they feel compelled to reciprocate (hopefully with repeat business or additional scope of work).

Stay Motivated

If I’m feeling tired or like I need a break, I find my pups and play or go for a walk. There is a lot to be said for stepping away from your computer for a few minutes. Don’t force conversations. Allow yourself the time and energy you need to have them correctly.

  • Find what works for you.
  • Do it often.
  • Congratulate yourself on staying motivated during unprecedented times.
  • We are growing and adapting together.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
-George Bernard Shaw

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