By now, most of us are well accustomed to the obstacles and challenges brought about by the Covid-19 crisis. For agency and brand side marketers, the last nine months have seen face-to-face meetings, business breakfasts and client workshops replaced by endless email chains, calendar invites and Zoom meeting links.
As the UK applies the brakes and veers into another lockdown, the next 28 days are a particularly apt time to revisit the way we nurture client relationships in our new virtual world.
While the ease, natural connection and overall experience that comes from meeting in person can’t be entirely replaced by online, there are certain steps we can take to maintain and develop client relationships and improve our skills in this narrower band of communication.
To better understand how we can humanise the digital tools at our disposal, I spoke with Rachel Boothroyd, founder and director at Rachel Boothroyd Coaching & Training. As a lawyer turned business coach and trainer, Rachel offers scientifically proven methods to help teams and individuals build relationships in the coronavirus era.
As Boothroyd notes: “Usually what we are doing as business professionals is not a new issue – we’re doing the same tasks as before. But the removal of opportunity to meet in person exposes any weaknesses in our client service approach and in the way we listen.”
For agency and brand side marketers, the daily actions and processes of nurturing relationships haven’t changed – but the methods and barriers of communication have. Over the next four weeks of lockdown, we each have a unique opportunity to maximise this time, progress existing conversations and build new relationships.
Whether you’re working client-side or agency-side, these practical tips, strategies and solutions can help you humanise your communications strategy and build stronger, more effective client relationships in lockdown and beyond.
To unpack these ideas, let’s explore how you can strengthen client relationships virtually through the lens of commonly asked questions. In doing so, we can hopefully provide you with answers that will be valuable and relevant in real-world situations.
How can we keep email threads moving?
When it comes to nurturing client relationships online, one of the most important skills to learn is how to keep email threads moving. Given that almost all of our communications have shifted towards digital platforms, the sheer volume of emails sent and received has now increased markedly.
One of the most common issues is that our prospects and clients do not come back to us in a timely manner. Many of us follow up with breezy, cheery messages that attempt to draw out a response, but in reality these messages tend to have the opposite effect.
As Boothroyd notes: “This is a highly watered-down version of the pushy salesperson effect, the recipient experiences the same ‘push’ feeling. Instead, work with a ‘pull’ energy by pulling away by going slightly negative. For example, ‘Has something changed?’. ‘Have you decided not to proceed?’.”
By flipping the focus and content of your message, you can stir an emotional response and increase the likelihood of receiving a return message. Sometimes people are afraid to put this tactic to use for fear of losing or damaging the relationship, but by drawing back you actually make yourself more attractive and appealing. The key is knowing when to use this technique, so save it for specific moments in the client or prospect journey when the email conversation has gone stagnant and you’re waiting for a response.
The other key area to consider is the role of email communication in the relationship, with so many more popping into our in-boxes we have to be focussed on clarity and brevity as this will help the recipient be more efficient with their time, save the long winded pleasantries for a phone call, your message may come across as more direct but it will also be to the point and thus appreciated. With this in mind remember to achieve the personal balance and pick up the phone too.
What are the dos and don’ts for video calls?
From Zoom to Teams to Google Meet, by this point, you’d be hard-pressed to find a marketing professional that can’t claim to have a masters degree in online video conferencing technology. While this may be the “next best alternative” to physical, face-to-face meetings, video calls obviously come with their own strengths, benefits and limitations.
During a video call, it’s important to make sure everyone is ‘fully present’ in the room. This means limiting distractions and practicing active listening in order to optimise the chemistry amongst your team. Simple strategies like making eye contact with the camera while reading your notes is a real skill that can have a tangible impact on the success and outcome of your call. Remember your video call window may be placed anywhere on your screen, and therefore not directly in line with the camera, thus giving the impression that you are looking at something else!
Sometimes, particularly when prospects are being pitched to, the client may default to turning their camera and microphone off while you do all the talking. If this happens, it’s ok to ask the client to turn them back on. You can position this as wanting to keep them involved in the conversation as much as possible.
When it comes to presenting, there’s often a tendency for us to speak more, it’s natural as silence on video calls can feel awkward and uncomfortable. Despite this, we need to be mindful of over-speaking and do our best to remain active listeners. Allow the client or prospect to speak up and don’t feel like you need to fill every second with conversation. Pauses are natural and allow each participant on the call to share their thoughts, which avoids the dreaded cross-sharing.
Finally, don’t forget that the little things can go a long way. Make sure your background is neat and tidy and that your team looks smart and professional. Yes, we’re all more understanding that work and life are now intrinsically entwined, but by keeping your video calls as professional as possible you ensure that you always put your best foot forward.
What advice do you have for working in a team and with clients?
While there is a greater tendency for artificial harmony to be a cultural norm when we are working remotely, we must not forget the importance and value of positive conflict. As Boothroyd rightly notes: “We must ensure we are still having the difficult conversations and productive conflict needed to bring the team together.” This helps bring about positive buy-in and allows teams to make the best collective decisions. Conflict is always best delivered and engaged within face to face situations and should be avoided on email communication as tone can be easily misinterpreted with today’s all too common anxiety rich mindsets.
If you feel that your team is struggling with a lack of positive conflict, you can bring about healthy disagreement as a common concern by giving people permission to engage, to find a shared model for productive conflict and to practice this openly without fear of being reproached. If you can achieve positive buy-in, this will inevitably lead to a natural chemistry, which is vitally important during pitch scenarios.
This idea of managing and building chemistry even extends to the allocation of roles and responsibilities during the presentation. For example, if you need to play a large file video during the call, speak with your team beforehand and determine who has the fastest broadband connection. Accounting for these minor details and ironing out the creases in advance will have a profound impact on the way your presentation is received.
How can I stay mindful of my client’s commercial pressures while still delivering results?
When it comes to proposing or progressing a project, it’s no surprise that many of us are now afraid to talk financials given the turbulent economic situation we find ourselves in. While this instinct is understandable, it’s our duty as client partners to have the tough conversations when we need to.
One way to release this apprehension and feeling of anxiety is to name the fear. Once again, this uses the ‘pull’ technique rather than the ‘push’ energy.
Boothroyd suggests saying something like: “I’m nervous to raise this as I’m conscious things are uncertain for you right now, but our clients have started to plan activity for 2021. Is it worth us spending some time looking at your needs for next year?”
Sometimes, by asking the more direct questions, we can rid ourselves of the reluctance to let an opportunity go – something Boothroyd describes as a psychological mirage of a comfort zone. After all, it’s much better to find out someone isn’t interested by asking direct questions that establishes the feasibility, rather than wait around for an opportunity that doesn’t actually exist.
What has Initials done to keep its clients happy and engaged?
At Initials, we recognise that this year has been a trying time for everyone. To nurture existing relationships and keep our clients happy and engaged, we’ve tried to bring about new initiatives that bring a smile to people’s faces. Our client campaign, ‘Colouring Through The Chaos‘, is one such example of this, albeit a deliberately lighthearted one.
Created to be purely altruistic in nature, we designed an Initials colouring book that would help keep kids engaged with something other than TV screens and iPads. What’s more, it would hopefully enable some fun family time during a period of great anxiety and stress.
The colouring book was shared with our clients, sent out in bespoke emails and posted on social media. We received some lovely positive thanks in response and was subsequently updated weekly with new designs. It was a great way for us to do something positive and connect with our clients, despite the distance and physical limitations.
How can I prepare and plan for a new window of opportunity in 2021?
With the positive outlook of vaccines and medical treatments on the horizon, we can be cautiously optimistic that 2021 is set to be a markedly different year to 2020. As we spend the next 28 days in lockdown, perhaps this is the perfect opportunity to take stock of where we’re at and plan for a better tomorrow.
Committing to take action is key. Boothroyd says she works with many people at the moment who have a subconscious ‘handbrake’ on as we wait for the normal world to return. How often have we heard ourselves rationalise things by saying “these are challenging times” or “life isn’t the same anymore”. These thoughts seep into our subconscious and weigh on our ability to perform. We need to identify and overcome these limiting beliefs so that we can move into 2021 with a renewed vigor and hope for the future.
As client partners, we should be actively telling our customers that now is a good time to plan for the new year. These next 28 days could be an ideal opportunity to keep the momentum of project commitment alive and well. If both parties commit to lasting action, you could then create a landmark date in the future where both sides will come together face-to-face to celebrate the planning work that has been put in place.
Don’t forget that now is still the best time to be building new relationships and nurturing existing ones. By applying these techniques, you can ensure that your time in lockdown is spent as effectively as possible. In doing so, we may even find that we come out the other side stronger than ever before.
Jamie Matthews, founder and chief executive officer at Initials.