This article was first published on Flying Solo.

By Keith Dugdale.

You’re working from home. It’s likely you won’t see clients or prospects face-to-face for quite some time. What can you do to maintain and build your client relationships during this time?

Not only has the world rapidly changed in the last couple of weeks, but the world of business development has rapidly changed too.

No longer can business owners, consultants and salespeople rely on offering a coffee to get a meeting. No longer can they rely on the opportunity of a face-to-face meeting to build rapport and pitch their services. So what can they do instead?

Same but different

The simple answer is the same principles apply. It’s just the application that’s different.

To build a relationship with a new client whether in person or not, you need to:

  • offer something of value (and no, your brochure or capability statement definitely doesn’t count).
  • show genuine interest in, and concern for, them and their business.  
  • build trust and rapport.

These things all remain the same. However now you can only do them over the phone or email. This does become a little trickier because of the limited ability to read body language and eye contact.  However, I believe this presents a golden opportunity to those who are able to do this well. It’s an opportunity to completely shift a client’s perception of you and to begin new relationships in a far more humanistic way that you might have previously.

Engage your clients on their most critical issues

The vast majority of people and organisations are currently facing a level of uncertainty, confusion and fear. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s incredibly unlikely that your clients and prospects are primarily concerned with issues that link directly to your core product or service offering. 

For many, that can lead to the temptation to ignore them for now as there is nothing in it for you, or to feel that you ‘don’t want to bother them’ or appear too ‘salesy’. Others will continue to try to persuade people to buy something that isn’t going to address their most critical immediate concerns.  And yet others will try discounting in the hope that their interest will be piqued by a bargain because ‘times are tough’.

If you are truly in the business of building client relationships, none of these options are right, especially remotely. Instead, before you pick up the phone or send an email that doesn’t hit the mark, think about how you can use this opportunity to build trust, and set yourself apart from every other person who is currently trying to build relationships remotely, too.  

Focus on building trust, one phone call or email at a time

When it comes to understanding trust in business, I believe no one has ever explained this better than David Maister et al in their book The Trusted Advisor when they introduced The Trust Equation. Hopefully many of you will already be familiar with the concept, but if not, here’s a quick overview.  

According to the trust equation, one builds trust by maxisiming your credibility (do you know what you are talking about), reliability (do you do what you say you are going to do), plus intimacy (do you show that you genuinely care about the client/other person). And one undermines trust by demonstrating a high level of self-orientation. That is, do you come across as only interested in your own needs. 

If you’re only thinking about making calls to your clients because there’s potentially some work in it for you, not because you genuinely care how they are doing or genuinely want to help them any way you can – think again about making that phone call as your self-orientation is off the Richter scale.

So, before you pick up the phone or send that email, don’t focus on the sale, focus on nothing more than building trust. Reach out to your clients and prospects when there is nothing in it for you.  In the current environment, show your client that you want to understand what is most important to them, and then help them with that – whether it’s something you sell or not.

How to improve intimacy and reduce self-orientation

Here are some tips for improving your intimacy (even remotely) and reducing your self-orientation, to help you build and maintain trusted relationships:

  1. Identify which clients and prospects you really do want to improve or build a relationship with – not just those you think you should. 
  2. Research what specific issues they are likely to be facing – at a personal level, in their role, at an organisational level and at an industry level.  Then narrow this list down to what you think might be the top three.
  3. Find third party papers, articles or research related to these issues, or identify others who are experts in these areas who would be prepared to be connected to your clients and prospects if appropriate. Your own thought leadership papers can also be used here, but just be mindful that this can still be perceived as self-oriented.
  4. Send the third-party content to clients and prospects where you genuinely believe there are extremely useful insights that will help these clients and prospects. Often I would suggest that you offer to meet with the client to discuss the insights in more detail – but at the moment I would recommend that you either offer to have a chat over the phone/zoom/email, or actually make no offer to meet at all – if the content you have sent is of high value, you might be surprised to see the request to chat is initiated by the client themselves.
  5. If you don’t know anything about their specific situation right now and cannot find anything out – line up phone conversations just to ask how they are and if there’s anything you can help with that they haven’t already arranged. Be careful how you word this offer for help though – the focus here is on being genuinely helpful, not being on the hunt for paid work. 
  6. Where you can, connect people who have similar issues, or connect people with others who you think can help them with their issues. 

Whatever you do right now, do not try and sell ‘your thing’ – focus on increasing your intimacy and showing you genuinely care for the other person, and that you’re not just getting in touch because there’s something in it for you. A good rule for sales at any time, not just in tough times.

People will remember for a very long time how you made them feel in these very difficult times. 

If you’d like to learn more about how to build relationships, check out our online learning options available through The Academy of Trust.