Developing relationships is challenging in this virtual world of email, chat, and conference calls. How do you get to know people and convey the personality of your company and team members when you don’t have opportunities for face-to-face contact and, sometimes, not even voice contact?
Developing relationships with team members is an added challenge for those of us running virtual companies. In our case, Beyond the Chaos (BTC) has clients and team members on both coasts. So, even figuring out meeting time zone conversions can be an issue.
All of this affects our ability to build relationships. But not all is hopeless. Developing relationships virtually requires a different skill set than the in-person relationship building of old. Let’s start by looking at communication through the different types of digital communications.
Email has been tried and true since about 2004 with the advent of AOL Mail. (Anyone hear that dial-up sound in your head?) Obviously, upgrades to email have made it accessible in all areas of our lives. Sometimes, it’s too accessible, making email management a necessity. Whether you love or hate it (or both), email is essential for business communications. Email gives you space to create a tone, which helps with developing relationships. A big rule here is to remember not to hide behind it. By letting your personality come through, you’re able to convey who you are and how you interact.
A good rule of thumb is to write how you talk, edit it first to include any nuances, then edit to be more concise. Even with the ability to type all you want, you still need to get to the point to avoid TLDR responses or have people ignore the email completely.
This method might be your only way of communicating with people, especially initially. Even during the sales process, use clear, concise communication. The intention is to start educating potential clients on what it would be like to work with you.
When to use email
It is best to send an email when you need to communicate complex ideas or provide detailed information. Email allows you to provide more information in a well–structured format and enables the recipient to easily refer back to the contents of the message if needed. Email is also a great way to document decisions. Emails are also a lot more permanent than other forms of digital communication like texts that can get read and forgotten. With email, it can be stored. It can also be answered later without as much worry that it will be overlooked.
Video Conference Calls
Video conferencing is now the norm because teams, clients, and vendors are spread out. Plus, we often need to share screens to convey information. BTC has been virtual since 2016, and Susan, the owner, has been working virtually since 2010. For virtual companies, video conferencing on Zoom or Google Meet is how we run all our meetings.
Susan shares that, at first, she hated to be on camera. Seeing herself felt like hating to hear the sound of her own voice on playback. Also, as a work-from-home person, she felt like she had to “primp” every time she was going to be on screen. But Susan knows that video calls give you the ability to see peoples’ expressions and reactions and to have “eye contact,” even when you are only looking at the camera. It still helps facilitate communication.
So, how did she get over her video issues? She just did it. Like everything else, the more you do it, the easier it gets.
If she’s called onto a video call and has just come in from walking the dog in Texas heat, she says that. “Forgive my crazy hair; I just got in from walking the dog, and, man, is it hot!” With that kind of open communication, you are letting people into your real life. You’re sharing who you are and what’s happening in your life. Plus, you find out more about others. “Oh, you have a dog? What kind? I LOVE DOGS. I foster animals from the pound all the time.” That type of relationship-building information is usually not communicated over email.
That being said, people’s perception is still important. If you’re recording a podcast, video, or your first time meeting with someone, absolutely up your game. No attending in fleece pajamas with frizzy hair and no makeup. Athleisure pants and a professional top? No problem!
Susan is a professional. She also walks the dog and wears PJ pants to work most of the time. So, be who you are. And don’t be afraid to let people know the real you.
When to use video conferencing
Video conferencing is best used when a face–to–face conversation is needed, such as when you need to discuss complex topics, when a decision needs to be made, or when there is a need for visual cues. Video conferencing is also better for communicating with a large group of people since it allows multiple people to join the conversation. Also, if you are finding that email and chat are taking you down the wrong path because people have misunderstood your tone, hopping on a video call is a great way to solve that before it becomes a big issue.
When you interact with people via these chat spaces, you can quickly see who has a sense of humor, who is happy most of the time, who likes to brag a bit, who communicates clearly – and, of course, who is the opposite of all of those.
Emojis are a great tool to respond to posts, both to acknowledge the person’s message and to convey an emotional response. Your personality shows with the use of emojis. But, remember that emojis mean different things to different generations! You can truly get to know people through chat tools. Even people you will never meet in person.
Since BTC works in project management, which often requires instant communication with clients, we use almost all those applications regularly. But Slack is by far the best. Susan is currently in 17 Slack workgroups. Within those groups, she can communicate with literally thousands of people. Instantly.
The internal BTC team uses Slack as our main communication tool. Different channels are set up to communicate specific things, and we use them very intentionally to:
- get help from each other
- share challenges and basic information
- sometimes to complain or vent
- share silly stories of what happened to us (like water cooler talk in physical offices)
- intentionally get to know each other through our Question of the Day
Most of the BTC team hasn’t met each other in person. We don’t talk on the phone much. We don’t even have that many conference calls. But we know each other very well because of our chat communications and showing our personalities.
When to use chat
Chat is the quickest method of conversation. Quick Q&A? Or something that requires some back and forth? Chat is the way! It also eliminates the formality of email. You can skip the “I hope all is well, blah, blah…” intro of the email. Starting off with the actual question is usually fine for people you chat with even occasionally. It is also great when communication is informal or when people need to collaborate on a project.
Chat is great for sharing basic information or chatting about a topic. As soon as something becomes an action or decision, it needs to move to a project management tool. Chat tools should not be considered permanent storage areas.
Lessons in Developing Relationships Virtually
What are the lessons here?
Lesson #1. You CAN be yourself over the airwaves. You can demonstrate your sense of humor, confidence, knowledge, and approach. People can know who you are by your writing style and what you choose to share about yourself.
Lesson #2. You can truly get to know each other through these types of tools. One of Susan’s favorite past client relationships was with Proof-Geist. All the team members are dramatically different in personality. She worked with the team for over a year before meeting them in person. She was so excited to meet all these characters she’d come to know through Slack. And they were exactly how she expected them to be.
Lesson #3: Pay attention to perceptions. And know yourself. Self-awareness is one of the main keys to sharing your personality so that people get a true sense of who you are.
Lesson #4: You have to be able to write, despite all the rumors that the English language is dead. Your readers perceive you differently if you aren’t using correct grammar and punctuation. Business writing is one of those skills that is still required. And more so than in the past, you have to do it on the fly, without another proofreader and without lead time to think about it. It is instant. If you cannot do it naturally and integrate your personality and culture into it, you will struggle with developing relationships. Guaranteed.
BTC can help you decide which tools are right for you and your team’s situation and set up a system for internal and client-facing communication. Contact us to find out more. Not ready yet? Go here to read more from the complete guide to successful business operations.