4 R’s of Building Trust and Customer Relationships in a Virtual Environment

By Rachel Cavallo on Apr 2, 2020

What if today’s unprecedented circumstances could actually help us to build stronger relationships with our customers? What if today, when faced with insurmountable barriers like quarantine and social distancing, we could actually get to know our customers better and be the type of sellers we always say that we want to be – the type of sellers who genuinely care about our customers’ success, who empathize with their challenges, and who bring vital information that is insightful and highly relevant to the situation our customers face today? But how?

The general presumption among sellers has long been that if you really want to develop relationships, you have to get face-to-face. While we find that many sellers interact with their customers over email, text, and phone, they really rely on those face-to-face moments in the office or over lunch to build strong relationships. But maybe today, when we take away the “easy” part, we’re actually left with what really matters… it’s not the lunch or the warm smile and firm handshake (Yikes! Where’s the sanitizer? Will we ever do that again?), it’s the trust and the value that really matter… that’s what builds and sustains a firm foundation.  We can build solid relationships remotely… in fact, we might even be able to do it better – we just have to adjust our approach.

The fundamentals don’t change. We believe there are 4 key components – We call them the 4 R’s: Be Relevant, Be Real, Be Relatable, and Be Reliable.

Before applying the 4 R’s virtually, make sure you have the appropriate remote technology and that you know how to get the most out of it.  There is a good bit of relevant media on this lately, such as this useful article from Slack on managing remote meetings. Once you have the remote technology at hand, shift your focus to the basics for creating a value-based relationship. 

Be Relevant

In today’s environment where the news and pace of business is, at times, evolving minute by minute, it’s critical that conversations are timely and sensitive to each new development. It’s no longer enough to presume that last month’s information is still relevant. Proactively leaning in to keep up with the pace of information and engage in relevant dialogue is critical to meeting the changing needs of customers.

In a remote environment, this not only means keeping up, but it also means “checking in” to ensure what you say resonates and does not presume that conventional wisdom or the latest development is relevant to your particular client. This is especially critical when you can’t read body language. Be sure to ask confirming questions to make certain that you stay relevant and ask exploratory questions to improve your knowledge of your client’s unique situation. The more you learn about each of your clients and how they react to what you share, the stronger your insights will become.  For example, if you can learn more about the types of questions clients are asking and then how they are reacting to the answers they are finding, you can identify trends which you can share back with them and their peer group.  This can provide tremendous value when they may be looking at a problem myopically and you can offer perspective from a broader set of their peers.

Be Real

Authenticity and vulnerability matter now more than ever with the lives of so many people being turned upside down. Empathizing with customer challenges, both professionally and if appropriate, personally, and sharing a few of your own can help to establish a more “real” and authentic foundation for your relationships.

In a remote environment, don’t be afraid to turn on your webcam (even if the client chooses not to). Think about what items are behind you, and if your client turns on their webcam, observe what is behind them. Keep it brief but ask questions about their remote environment and what challenges or opportunities working remotely presents for them. 

Be sure to really listen to each of the challenges they are experiencing and think about where you can help. This is the time to think beyond the product you have to offer. Today we see companies extending financing terms for customers impacted by current financial realities, other companies offering digital services for free, and even others providing opportunities to make donations through them to help others. From an individual perspective, we’ve seen sellers sending clients links to free online classes for their little ones at home and sending Uber Eats orders to keep that “working lunch.” Being remote shouldn’t stand in the way of being real – you just need to be creative and stay focused on what really matters – your client’s success.

Be Relatable

We all have preferences for how we communicate and process information. When stress is high and conversations are critical, it’s important to meet your customers where their preferences are. Know that during particularly stressful times, those customers who prefer a personal touch are likely craving communication and may just want someone to listen as they talk through the challenges that they are experiencing. 

Those who are fairly structured and task-oriented may want to minimize “small talk” so that they can continue with completing their scheduled tasks or accomplishing the daily goals that help them reduce their anxiety. It’s important to check in and make sure that the tone and nature of the conversation align with your customers’ preferences at that particular point in time.

Be sure to also consider your client’s generational set.  Research shows that different generations process change and stress in dramatically different ways.  In addition, they want to receive communication differently and may prefer a method of communication that is different than what you prefer.  Refer to these articles for more on how you can match to your clients’ generational preferences.

Over the phone, it may be harder to read body language and identify preferences, but you can listen for them. If your customer’s tone is more abrupt or rushed, make sure you lead with value and your plan for the call. Ask about their goals for the call and if there is anything else that they’d like to add to the agenda. If your customer starts talking about their personal situation or yours, it’s probably an indicator that they would like to talk this out first – worry less about the agenda, and pivot to listening... you’ll get to the agenda eventually, and the time you spend up front will make achieving your objectives much easier – just manage the time. If your customer pauses or appears frustrated about how to verbalize what they are “seeing,” they may be missing the ease of drawing something out on a whiteboard – ask them to describe it to you or have them send you a picture. 

Be Reliable

Reliability comes in two forms… Being a reliable source of information and being a person on whom your customers can rely. In fairly tumultuous times, the more insight and information you can bring to the table that is grounded in truth and backed up by data, the more your customers will come to depend on you as a reliable source of information. We had one client say it like this about his clients, “When there is a major event in the world and everyone is emailing my client with advice on what they should do, I want to be the email they open first.” Essentially, he wants to have established a level of reliability above that of his competitors. 

Of course, reliability also means following up and following through… doing what you say you are going to do in a timely manner. To take it one step further, it means taking note when a customer needs something and following up proactively even when they haven’t expressed the need. Essentially, when your customers wear many hats, it’s about finding that piece of their job that you can make easier for them.

It’s not too difficult to be reliable in a remote setting. Bring your customers valuable information, listen to their needs, be consistent, and follow up with them more than usual (e.g., recap emails after every call). Be sure to express yourself very clearly and over communicate – send documents ahead of time, if you can’t share your screen. 

In turbulent times, show that you care more about your customer’ssuccessthan sales – engage them in conversation about their objectives and challenges and find ways that you can help them be successful… be the person who helps to make their job that much easier… the person they know they can count on… whether it’s helpful insights, running down a question, or going above and beyond to resolve an issue.

When we can choose whether or not to respond to an email or answer a phone call, and when tumultuous times have us prioritizing every second of every day to achieve our personal and professional goals, trust matters more than ever. This may be the time our customers are looking to us to see who they can really trust to deliver in unprecedented circumstances. It may also be the time where they need connections the most… remotely or not!

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Rachel Cavallo

Written by Rachel Cavallo

If there’s anyone who understands how sales people tick, it’s Rachel Cavallo. Rachel specializes in strategies that drive sales forces to adopt real change… the kind of change that produces results. She has managed many sales force transformations, helping sales leaders realign organizations and define new selling models, as well as designed and delivered sales training, coaching, and change management programs. At Symmetrics Group, Rachel is loved for her creativity and big picture thinking – she has a knack for crystallizing complex concepts into a single picture with high impact messages.

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