In it, the pre-COVID version of myself noted, “Our interactions are founded on conversations, eye contact, handshakes, and real-time connections, in addition to the latest technology. There is no substitute for actual face time.”
Now, five months into a pandemic, everything has changed—or has it? I stand by what I wrote back in December. There really is no substitution for face time. But in an era where extended periods of face time, not to mention handshakes, have become vectors for virus transmission, what does the new establishment and maintenance of client relationships look like? Without a doubt, expectations have changed, and the ability to adapt accordingly is what will define the most successful players of 2020.
Opportunity Masked by Challenges in Client Relationships
As a sales leader, my mantra has always been, “Be there.” Yes, a lot of business happens over the phone and via email, but it’s a lot harder for people to say “no” when you’re standing in front of them. Now, of course, concessions must be made. But that doesn’t mean there’s not opportunity within this time of transition as well.
In an instant, the business world has swapped in-person gatherings and business lunches for Zoom meetings. What does this mean for client relationship building?
I, for one, have always valued happy hours and live music as ways of bonding with clients on a real-life level. Those kinds of meetups provide the moments where people let themselves be themselves and you can establish the kinds of connections that transcend company affiliations over time. Those are precisely the kinds of relationships that you can lean on when times get tough, as they have in recent months. But the need to forge new connections and foster existing ones remains.
Interestingly, while the pandemic has (literally) closed some doors, it has opened new opportunities for connections that didn’t exist before. Within most organizations, team in-person meetings have been replaced by team video chats, which can help people remain more meaningfully connected to their colleagues. As video meetings have become ubiquitous internally, they’ve also become widely accepted as venues for sales calls, a vast improvement over mere phone calls. They’re not quite as personal or impactful as an in-person lunch or happy hour, but given that a lot of early communications with prospects were previously via voice only, there is a net positive to the replacement of phone calls with video chats and the eye contact that comes with them.
The shift of in-person meetings to video chats brings another benefit as well: efficiency. When you’re not losing an hour or two a day to commuting and are able to schedule meetings back-to-back, the sheer number of prospects and customers with whom you can connect in given day skyrockets. Perhaps more importantly, when it comes to important sales meetings, it’s much easier to bring the full power of an organization’s team to the table to answer questions and help customers understand who they’ll be working with. This is a key opportunity on which today’s sales organizations need to be capitalizing. Don’t just translate in-person sales meetings to video chats. Increase the impact of these meetings by using the physical travel time you’re saving to bring more voices and greater expertise to every pitch.
Shifting the Conversation in Building Client Relationships
Of course, the pandemic-era shifts go far deeper than a simple pivot from in-person lunches to video chats. On a societal level, people are coping with a type of uncertainty that we’ve never collectively seen before. Challenging as these times maybe, they also bring us together.
As a New Yorker, I saw this same swing in collective mood around 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy. When these frightening, disruptive events strike, the business world continues to move forward, but everyday conversations and transactions take on a new tonality. In the pandemic, light-weight banter around the weather and sports has turned to candid discussions around job security, financial hardship, health concerns, school uncertainty and mental health. In these shared experiences and fears, we find something even more connective than shared time at a concert or ballgame. As sales professionals, this is something we should embrace rather than try to push past. It’s OK to be vulnerable and blatantly human right now. It’s good for your soul and sanity, as well as the depth of your professional relationships.
Due to stay-at-home orders and erratic homes schedules, meetings with colleagues and clients alike have inevitably become more intimate. Spouses, children and pets pass in the background of video conferences, prompting conversations about the health and wellbeing of each other’s families. We spy the occasional open closet door or unmade bed in the background. It’s a level of intimacy within our professional networks that we’ve never had before, and it builds stronger relationships on an almost subconscious level.
Beyond offering commiseration and taking an interest in a client’s daily life, sales professionals have a greater responsibility toward their clients in this tough economic climate. Now more than ever, when a person’s very job depends on wise resource investment and allocation, a sales professional’s job isn’t just to sell. It’s to help their clients succeed—to be their guide in driving and demonstrating real-world results that bolster business in hard times. For many organizations, helping clients to succeed means ensuring they understand the full range of a company’s offerings in a way that they can be tailored to their precise needs and goals.
No one knows when client lunches and social outings to ball games and concerts might again become a part of doing business, but it’s not likely to be any time soon. And that’s OK. The need to communicate clearly and effectively with prospects and clients, whether in-person or from afar, transcends disruptive world events. Today, we have the power to deepen our relationships with clients by adapting our communications not only from a technology standpoint but also substantially according to people’s new personal and professional realities. Even in an era where the handshake has become taboo, developing deeper client relationships that transcend the transaction has never been more vital to long-term success.