Building Virtual Customer Relationships
As Account Management professionals, we deliver value to our customers through the relationships we build that help us understand their business, personal, and organizational goals. These relationships are built through regular engagement with our primary contacts and other contacts across organizations. Travel and in-person meetings were a part of our lives, as it was generally accepted that the best relationships are built, and the most value is delivered, when we are “in front” of our customers. It goes without saying that the last year and a half has changed that significantly. It hasn’t been easy to maintain our existing relationships, or to build new ones, but we have developed some best practices that have helped us build strong relationships without being in the same room with our customers. Below are some of the techniques we have used to replace our face-to-face meetings.
#1. Allow yourself opportunities to get to know the individuals
One of the benefits to meeting with our customers in person was that it provided the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations, whether that was walking down the hall to the conference room, waiting for the elevator, or going to lunch. These organic types of conversations are much more difficult to achieve when you are on a crowded video conference.
Before any group meeting it’s important that you set a brief one-on-one meeting with your main contact to share both of your goals for the meeting, as well as to allow you time to have a more natural, unscripted conversation. This meeting should be positioned as brief (15-20 minutes), with the goal of confirming the objectives of the group meeting.
#2. Schedule follow-up from the group meeting
As we all know, larger group meetings on Zoom or other video conference tools can be rather awkward as everyone slowly enters. At first, one or two people are in the “room”, pleasantries are exchanged, and some small talk may take place. As more and more join you are caught between acknowledging the new participants and continuing any conversation you were having as others join that conversation mid-stream.
These virtual group meetings should be very well structured with a clear agenda and clear leader or moderator of the meeting. As the meeting concludes, you will have compiled a list of follow-up items. This is your opportunity to get to know the various meeting participants on an individual level. Review with the group each of the follow-up items and who it was that raised that item. Offer to connect with each of those individuals separately as you address their specific action items, and then to send a summary back to the group. This follow-up will give you an opportunity to build more individual relationships across your customer’s organization and to better understand their challenges and goals. Of course, this will not always be possible, as your contact may want to coordinate all of the responses, but we have found that many action item owners appreciate the opportunity to receive one-on-one attention.
#3. Set a regular meeting cadence with your customer
It is critical to stay on top of changes in your customer’s business. What they identified as their top priority on yesterday’s call may be replaced by something completely different in next month’s call. This is why it’s critical to have a regular cadence with all of the key business owners in your customer’s organization.
Ideally this will be a monthly call to check in and catch up on anything that has been happening across their organization or yours. This call can be set as a 30-minute block, so as not to take up too much time on their calendar. Sometimes this call may last five minutes, and other times it may run over the 30 minutes, but the objective is to ensure that you are up to date on what is important to them, and that too much time does not pass between when their needs shift and when you are able to provide help. These monthly check-ins can be set up simply as a call, and do not need to be on camera. It seems that with the loss of opportunity to be face to face with our customers, we feel the need to always meet on camera. Sometimes the ability to stand up, step away from the computer screen or camera and just talk allows us to have more productive, more welcome conversations.
#4. Acknowledge the challenge of a virtual environment
If you feel it’s difficult to build a relationship in a virtual environment, it’s likely your customer is feeling the same way. After all, they need to build relationships with their own customers, colleagues, and new hires. They may be new to their company and trying to navigate across the organization without the ability to meet their new colleagues face to face.
Acknowledge the challenge with them and discuss ways in which you have addressed it. It’s possible that you will have solutions that could help them, or that they may have techniques that you could use. In any case, this type of conversation will help build trust and strengthen your relationship.
Eventually we will return to a world where we can visit our customers again, take them to lunch or grab coffee or drinks after a meeting. Until that time, we will continue to navigate this new way of engaging with our customers and building relationships from a distance. We can continue to build mutually beneficial relationships by practicing some of the techniques mentioned above and others that you may have developed. Keep in mind that enablement teams can support you and other AMs with sales training and regular reinforcement of best practices like these.
The important thing to remember is that regardless of whether you are in the same room as your customer, or virtual, the key to a successful customer relationship is understanding their business challenges, knowing when those challenges change, and offering solutions that will help them and their organizations be successful.