The new challenging dimension in which we find this little globe of ours has well and truly shaken up the business world and brought with it a new dimension in the guise of minimal face-to-face contact. Understandably this has affected businesses large and small, bringing with it a need to change the way in which we maintain client relationships, build business opportunities, get our nose in networks and have crucial conversations.
After an initial downturn in work when the pandemic hit, a couple of weeks later my business started to flourish again and I saw an influx of intriguing opportunities. Never have I made so many new connections (and actually spoke to them, rather than via email) than in this last 3 months.
There were a few reasons as to why I am in one of my busiest phases ever, both of work and personal projects, with a very hopeful pipeline confirmed (apart from not being able to say no to things), my client relationships thriving, and new connections forged.
So here are my top 7 tips for developing or maintaining relationships when you can’t meet in person.
Find opportunities to get involved
Businesses are finding new ways to bring their staff together from their living rooms, home offices and cupboard spaces not just around the UK but around the world, and many are also extending this to the freelancers, contractors and clients in their life.
So whether it is a quiz, virtual coffee meeting, Slack channel, music playlist or one of the many other methods of bringing staff together – introduce yourself and get involved. You will meet more members of the team, find common connections and as a bonus give yourself a great sense of company whilst locked at home.
Some of my clients have created online collaboration spaces, Facebook pages and LinkedIn groups – and when I have been invited to the spaces I have accepted and dove right in. Whether it is a ‘proper’ meeting, a debate about the best biscuit to go with your brew, a Friday 4pm (wine compulsory) progress report, a quiz night at which I am likely to come last or a book club, I have joined in, even if I have had to just participate from afar, listening in the background.
And if they don’t have anything – create one yourself and invite them!
Keep up with regular meetings
Even if your project has come to a necessary standstill, take 10 minutes to still check in with your contacts at your regular times and intervals. Grab a brew and get on Skype/Teams/Zoom/whatever is your platform of choice and have a natter. It doesn’t even have to be work-related chat, we are all stuck at home and it is important to keep in touch with the outside world, check cabin fever has not set in, sympathise with them for having kids climbing the wall in the background, and arrange your next catch up.
It will help to give you a sense of routine and keeping you in their mind.
Ensure you still ‘talk’
Linked to the point above, make sure you are actually talking and getting a sense of face-to-face contact through video calls, or at least a phone call. Don’t just rely on messaging and emails. You lose a certain element of the ‘personal’ touch and engagement when just reading messages, and they are easy to ignore or put off until later. Apparently different neutrons do fire when you can actually hear someone’s voice, and even more so when you see their face (I am desperately trying to remember who informed me of this research recently), so pick up that video phone.
Collaborate on micro projects and new ideas
If there is a marvellous thing to come out of all the chaos it has been that there seems to be a lot more people up for joining forces, collaborating, trying something new and pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. So suggest an idea to a client that could benefit them, such as a new piece of content or marketing to try. Or if there is someone whose work you like or that compliments your own why not suggest a collaboration of some sort? Ask if there is an opportunity to interview them, or propose a fun or creative endeavor.
As the boredom of isolation has well and truly hit, many people are looking for sources of inspiration and change, so provide one. What have you got to lose?
I have a number of little projects in progress/completed/in the pipeline as a result of just randomly excitedly blurting out ‘Oooh, let’s do XXX’ mid-call and having been met with a resounding yes. Though these are not paid pieces of work, they all feed into keeping you visible, building your network and keeping your brain ticking over. It will help to raise the profile of both you and the client/colleague/other. Win win.
Be open to informal calls and networking
At the start of lockdown I had written a post on LinkedIn and said that I was open to a brew and chat if anyone felt like they needed some company, to pick my brain or put the world to rights, and as a result I have made a number of new connections with whom I get on like the metaphorical house on fire and who I now have regular interactions and calls with. Unexpectedly I have got also some work from it which was never my intention, but is a lovely by-product nonetheless, as is managing to help one of the other contacts get some work in from her being inspired into action after a mutually motivational conversation.
The moral of the story – just be open, human and engage. You never know what might come from it. If it is ‘just’ a stronger relationship, there really is nothing lost.
“Can we have the meeting later on when my husband is home to distract the kids?”
“Can we move this morning’s meeting as my toddler is having a meltdown?”
“Sorry I am going to have to ring you back, the dog has been sick and someone’s at the door”
“Sorry, I have someone more important on the line” (said sarcastically, though I suspect in truth)
All words that have been uttered in the last few weeks. But by being flexible and telling the client to call me back when they are ready and have head-space, the conversation can flow much more fluidly and inspiration is more likely to hit. Mutual respect is built and the positive endorphins flow. I do not have dependents and so can be much more flexible than others, therefore I am happy to adapt. If you are on the other end, don’t be afraid to ask for a rain check – it shows you want to give your full attention and also builds respect.
Multiple distractions are rife at the moment; kids, dogs, phones, cats, builders, neighbours, music, husbands banging cutlery whilst unloading the dishwasher. And that’s just been this week alone.
There is a huge learning curve in place, emotions are high and people are getting used to new technologies and ways of working so things can quickly get forgotten. So be proactive in chasing up and checking arrangements, booking activities in, proposing ideas, and offering help. Remind them you are there. You are likely to be thanked for taking the initiative.
All of these points centre around the same principle – staying visible.
I wrote about this in my blog last week as this has been a definite supercharged power for me. Many people feel icky about promoting their business during the pandemic, but you can stay visible without selling. Just keep reinforcing connections, so that clients can come back to you when they are ready and you are at the forefront of their mind.
Think creatively, but keep yourself out there. Find new ways to connect, or embrace the old ways. And most of all have empathy.
Helen Hill is a self-employed Digital Learning, Content & Graphic Designer at Unlikely Genius Ltd. She has been working in content and learning design for five years, combining the skills gained during the previous nine years working as a graphic designer, a Further Education lecturer and developing literacy and e-learning in schools. Unlikely Genius is based on the principles of ensuring the user comes first, communicating in plain language and making content available and accessible to all. You can contact Helen via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter.