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Virtual work with colleagues is hard. Remote relationships with clients are harder

Two software executives explain why it is harder to ‘read the room’ on teleconferencing platforms like Zoom.

Virtual work with colleagues is hard. Remote relationships with clients are harder
[Photo: Cytonn Photography/Pexels]
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Before the spread of the coronavirus shut down offices worldwide, this is what business as usual looked like for software vendors like us: We worked closely with our customers, meeting with them in-person for regular check-ins. Maybe we’d see them at a holiday party or arrange to visit during an industry event.

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Over time, though, with proper care and nourishment, these transactions would grow into deep relationships that allowed us to better respond to clients’ needs and often turned into important personal friendships.

Alas, travel restrictions and safety concerns have irrevocably altered our ability to bond with clients and customers. And while much has been written about how to collaborate remotely with coworkers—who typically enjoy the benefit of a common culture—companies still are trying to figure out the best way to connect with clients over teleconferencing platforms.

There are certain personality archetypes in every business partnership, and seasoned salespeople and customer-relationship managers have learned how to read the signals in person. Here’s a quick look at three key types, and how “reading the room” has become harder on Zoom:

  • The Decision Makers: In any business relationship, all eyes are on the decision makers. In person, around a table, these individuals were easy to identify. But on Zoom or other platforms, it can be difficult to know who has real authority. This is particularly true when it comes to new relationships. It is challenging to not only identify the decision makers, but also what they need in order to make those decisions.
  • The Skeptics: Gone is the opportunity to directly engage the skeptics, those meeting attendees who demonstrate their disinterest or even disgust with occasional eye rolls, whispers, or questions. We used to engage these people one on one, sometimes during a meeting, but often afterwards to make sure their concerns were heard. Virtually, it’s much harder to identify and share ideas with these potential dissenters.
  • The Trailblazers: We often left in-person meetings with a mental scorecard, tallying points for those who embrace our ideas while making plans to engage those who may have been on the fence. Trailblazers not only get what you’re doing, but may be potential champions down the road, not only endorsing a strategy but finding ways to innovate and fund them. Often the trailblazer wasn’t the most important person in the room, we used to connect with these emerging leaders at informal gatherings like coffee breaks or via sidebar conversations, which have all but disappeared in the remote world.

Often, these various personalities are at odds with each other, even if they are on the same team. Bringing people together, connecting their ideas, acting as an arbiter between their points of view, can bring real value to a partnership. It’s vastly more difficult to dig into these sentiments remotely.

Our current lack of in-person interactions translates into missed opportunity, regardless of personality type. We’re missing the ability to discover new and transformational ideas and products together, ones that will elevate our business and the relationship. For the most part, these eureka moments rarely occur in regular meetings. Instead they occur at side conversations in the kitchen, or a white-boarding session over lunch. These are the meetings that lead to innovation and breakthrough, and, more importantly, partnership and trust.

Because remote work is likely to persist in some form, all business leaders, but especially those charged with nurturing customer relationships must find a new way to build and grow transformational partnerships.

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Here are three ways to build trust and develop our most important relationships, without relying solely on in-person engagement:

  • Rediscover the art of business relationships: COVID-19 has forced structure on all of us, and has removed spontaneity. Because we can’t bump into someone in the hallway or the kitchen, it’s critical we understand, appreciate, and embrace business relationships as art. We need to make time to socialize. Begin a video call with music for a few minutes and allow people to settle in, compare notes about their day or the latest movie. Additionally, starting the call 10 minutes early for anyone who wants to catch up can help fill the gaps normally provided by in-person gatherings.
  • Get creative: Because you’re saving money by not flying or entertaining, perhaps there are other creative ways to impress your partners while still building your relationships. At Cognizant Softvision, we host FlytoStudio, where we take partners on a virtual studio tour. We prepare pre- and post-flight experiences (e.g., boarding passes, cultural tips, and small appreciation gifts after the visit). Clients appreciate learning how to say “please” and “thank you” in Romanian and Argentinian Spanish, and to learn that Count Dracula lived close to one of our studios in Transylvania.
  • Demonstrate empathy: It’s important to remember you’re not the only one who has had to adjust because of COVID-19. It’s hard to gauge how the world has changed for our decision makers, skeptics, and trailblazers. Find time to ask them about their internal relationships. Empathy is an easy way to demonstrate a human touch and to replace some of the intimacy that we’re missing.

All three methods have the ability to engage and encourage the decision maker, give even the most ardent skeptic a reason to feel optimistic, and excite and motivate that quiet but influential trailblazer to trust you with their big idea and vision for the future.


Snjezana Cvoro-Begovic is executive vice president of partnership strategy, and James Hartling is chief architect at Cognizant Softvision, a software product engineering company.