Breakthroughs in Building Business Relationships in a Virtual World

breakthroughs in building business relationships in a virtual world

In the virtual business world that has been forced on all of us because of the pandemic, how do we re-create those “high-touch” moments?

I work in a “high-touch” business where face-to-face meetings often mean the difference between bringing on a new client or losing out on a prime opportunity. In the business world, the ability to interact directly with people builds trust and confidence. I knew I had to find ways to replicate those high-touch moments in a socially distanced context. I’m not saying it’s been easy, but there have been breakthroughs.

Like our CHRO dinners.

Prior to the pandemic, I organized a series of extremely successful dinners where senior HR leaders gathered with notable thought leaders to discuss the pressing human capital issues of the day. This was not a transactional event; everyone involved was “off the clock” and what was said was off the record. It was my way of giving something back to these important business contacts, an opportunity to enjoy a glass of wine, a great meal and some candid talk.

These dinners were not just great networking events, although there was a lot of that going on. I think that everyone who attended felt energized and even reassured by the fact that they were not alone in facing certain challenges.

Prior to the pandemic, I hosted 18 dinners in New York and another five across the United States and United Kingdom. In all, we had 200 unique attendees from more than 140 companies. The dinners featured keynote addresses by notable thought leaders such as executive coaching guru Marshall Goldsmith, global thought leader Keith Ferrazzi, and Sally Helgesen, a renowned author and women’s leadership coach.

And then came COVID-19, and the opportunities to gather over great food, wine and conversation evaporated. Even though we couldn’t bring people together in a physical sense, I wanted to continue building on the momentum we’d created in a virtual setting.

The first step was getting my long-time friend Keith Ferrazzi, who has always been a great draw, to headline a virtual dinner to talk about his new project, Go Forward to Work. We also offered attendees some “high-touch” fringe benefits: all registrants would get to pick from one of six elegant wines. I then sat back to wait for a reaction.

The response was off the charts. All available spots for the virtual CHRO dinner were snapped up in short order. Even more gratifying, we had a nearly 100% show rate for the event.

I needed to make sure that the Ferrazzi dinner wasn’t a lightning strike. So, I got Marshall Goldsmith for a return engagement. In addition to a wonderful bottle of wine, we also sent every registrant a copy of one of his latest books. Again, the response was overwhelming.

Since that first event, I’ve hosted six more virtual CHRO sessions with the same approach: virtual meeting, high-touch benefits. The reaction has taught me that no matter how challenging the world has become, we need to focus less on all the things that we’ve lost and start looking for ways to adapt and thrive in the new normal.

The need to create high-touch strategies is not just important for our relationships with customers. Within an organization, leaders need to find ways of creating high-touch moments with the people they lead who may still be working away from the head office.

Now, not all leaders are going to be comfortable sending free wine and books to their teams, just to create a high-touch moment. Although some might appreciate a gesture like that, the people you’re leading want some very basic things: clarity in communication and genuine empathy.

Good leaders need to be able to communicate clearly and effectively with the people they lead, but it’s hard when you cannot look directly into people’s eyes and see how they are responding to your message. In a virtual world, we need to be more explicit and thoughtful about our messages.

And you must be able to show that you really understand what your people are going through and are sensitive to their emotional state.

Recently, I was promoted and, in the announcement, my immediate superior Kristen Leverone went above and beyond to let people know what she thought I had contributed to the company. She told other people in my part of the company how she met me, how we got to know each other, and the various successes we had enjoyed working in concert with each other.

It was a really touching, truly inspirational message to hear from my boss. She had taken the time to get to know me and wasn’t afraid to share that with other people. It’s an excellent example of how leaders need to reach a little deeper and put some emotion and vulnerability into their communication.

To keep everyone moving forward in this challenging environment, we must focus on the so-called soft skills of leadership: compassion, empathy, self-awareness. And because you won’t be able to show off these skills in person, you have to be better at written communication and management of live online interactions.

As we continue to work in a mostly virtual business world, high-touch opportunities will be very few and far between. Leaders must be creative in finding ways to connect. And once we’ve connected, we need to be willing to demonstrate how much we care.

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