A version of this article also appeared on Forbes.com.
Over the past year, we’ve all adapted to new ways of working. We’ve masked, we’ve socially distanced, and we’ve Zoomed beyond measure. Now, with mass vaccinations underway, we’re finally able to anticipate some kind of normalcy on the horizon.
But a complete return to our old ways seems unlikely. Some people will go back to full-time work on-site, but many others will likely continue to work remotely at least part of the time. And business travel may permanently take a backseat to the convenience and cost-effectiveness of videoconferencing — which makes strengthening client relationships an ongoing challenge.
Prior to the pandemic, breaking bread with our clients was simply nonnegotiable, even though it meant I spent a week every month on the road. It was the only way I could quickly move past the transactional nature of client work into the rich terrain of discovering what they really needed from us and how I could give them the biggest wins. I couldn’t imagine doing business any other way — until, of course, I had to.
So throughout the past year, I’ve done a little experimenting. My goal has been to find alternative ways of building strong, authentic and lasting client relationships with techniques we can take forward into the post-pandemic new normal.
What Are The CEOs Of Tomorrow Doing Today?
Here are five strategies I have found to be most effective in deepening connections with our clients without having to meet face to face.
Make Zoom fun again.
We may all be suffering from Zoom (and WebEx and Microsoft Teams) fatigue, but this technology is here to stay, so it’s important to bring some fun and novelty back into online client meetings.
One idea is to send out care packages with all the items clients need when you kick off their project. When they unwrap everything — for us, that’s anything from a deck of our custom-printed cards to guide them through our virtual design discovery, to a bottle of bubbly for a toast to the start of our work together — the delight is palpable. And the trust you earn from the extra effort lends the project a wonderfully human note.
Go beyond Zoom check-ins.
As much as we try to make Zoom fun, you can get to know your clients without racking up more hours on video calls. Follow their social channels and set up Google Alerts so you can monitor media mentions and industry news that matters to them.
We put important dates, like company anniversaries and client birthdays, into our calendar so we can acknowledge them with handwritten cards. Bonus points if your card includes a story about a shared experience on the project, an inside joke or a quote from an author you happen to know they love.
Care about what they care about.
We’ve made concerted efforts to learn more about, and donate, to the philanthropic causes our clients care about. Having a shared passion for making the world better in a specific way raises a purely business relationship into something more layered and human. Sending relevant news or content about these causes also gives us good reasons to stay in touch with our clients outside project-related emails.
Let clients get to know you too.
Relationship-building goes both ways, and your clients are likely keen to reciprocate your efforts to get to know them better. Make it easy for them by sharing insights into your world. Post case studies, anecdotes and behind-the-scenes photos to give both existing and prospective clients an idea of who you are and what you stand for. Give everything you post a unique personality that reflects the warmth of your brand and the real people behind it.
Add storytelling to your communications.
If you’re looking to genuinely deepen your relationships with your clients, storytelling is undoubtedly your most powerful tool. Research has shown that storytelling is an effective way to build empathy and understanding, and even to motivate trust and cooperation.
This can be as simple as sharing a story about your weekend hike, or telling clients about another successful project you worked on and how it unfolded — this doubles as reassurance that in these economically uncertain times, you’re managing fine and will be there long term to meet their needs.
If storytelling doesn’t come naturally to you, here are three ways you and your colleagues can practice at work:
• Dedicate a few minutes in your regular team huddles to sharing stories about how you or a colleague used one of your company’s core values to solve a problem.
• Share photos of your work-from-home life with fun captions that give context to what’s going on for you that day.
• Create a safe space to be vulnerable and a forum where colleagues can share the challenges they may be facing.
In almost any organization, repeat clients and referrals from happy clients are key to your success. The positive outcome you deliver for your client is critical to making them happy, but so is the more human side of the relationship, and that’s where storytelling is so impactful.
We have a quote attributed to Maya Angelou, printed five feet high, on our office wall: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Storytelling is all about feeling. In this new reality of building relationships remotely, use it as your superpower and you will find that your bond with your clients stays strong. You may even come to see long-distance relationship building not as a path that impedes success but as a strategy that helps it flourish.