The 80/20 rule for Virtual Relationships (Part I): Beware the Seductive View That “It’s Different Now”

This post was co-authored by Andrea P. Howe and Noelle Mykolenko.

Virtual, virtual, virtual. It’s all the rage now. Virtual meetings. Virtual teams. Virtual selling. There is no shortage of Google results boasting “11 Tips,” “5 Ways,” and “The One Thing You Need to Know.” Sales and relationship training providers are quick to tell you that you must, must, must adapt quickly to your new virtual reality or watch your revenues plummet. Providers of professional services seem especially quick to take the bait.

The problem is, that’s only 20% true.

Here’s our take:

Relationship-building and selling aren’t really different these days, in spite of what people who sell these things are trying to tell you, and in spite of what your own fears are whispering—or maybe shouting—in your ear. It’s anything but “business as usual” these days, that’s for sure. But beware the temptation to spend a lot of time and money on shiny “new” stuff that becomes an easy distraction from what really matters.

As Noelle so aptly said in a recent interview, “Human nature hasn’t changed.” Now is the time for 80% focus on our relationship EQ and 20% focus on improving our virtual IQ. Not the other way around.

Tips and tricks have never saved you before and they won’t save you now. Perfecting your office lighting is seductive, in the same way it’s always been tempting to tinker with a deck that contains far too much content to begin with. It’s easy to default to technical answers for non-technical problems. It’s more challenging—and considerably less soothing—to work on improving our own relationship liabilities and deficits.

True, the medium has changed for many of us; it’s at least become more dominantly virtual. And there are some really helpful and important things we all can and should practice to be more effective as a result. But we can and should do that while we focus most of our time and attention on trust-building mastery.

Our collective virtual work conditions (and selling/relationship circumstances) are a byproduct of our global situation; losing sight of that creates big relationship risks. Front and center for us all are the massive global and local challenges we’re facing—even if we momentarily forget or aren’t always present to the ways we are walking around unsettled and uncertain. Sure, we’re getting used to our “new normal.” Sort of. But let’s get real: we’re still only just beginning to grapple with it all—just ask a parent who’s navigating the new school year right now. And on top of everything, some businesses are in serious trouble.

If you’re wondering why your long-standing client is not replying to the email you sent asking for 30 minutes to brief them on your new offering, take a step back and consider that they just might be dealing with some serious sh** of their own right now–consciously or otherwise. The good intentions and solid logic that suggest they need what you’re selling more than ever don’t change that. Adding a standard, “Hope you and your loved ones are doing OK under the circumstances” at the beginning of your emails isn’t nearly enough. Conducting more engaging Zoom meetings isn’t enough, either.

Anyone whose success depends of the quality of their relationships should be laser focused on being of greater service to clients, starting with relating to them as businesspeople, yes, but also simply as people. There is an unprecedented opportunity to do right and do good (#silverlining) by taking our relationships deeper and broader.

If a trusted advisor is a safe haven for tough issues, consider how many more tough issues there are to be safe havens for right now. Our current environment is a weirdly helpful backdrop for doing that, and faster than ever before. We’ve all been physically and emotionally disconnected for months; people are craving connection. Plus, things that weren’t previously possible or the norm before are becoming commonplace. One example: Thanks to the shared impact of COVID on our loved ones, it suddenly seems more relevant to talk about our families and home situations even in our “business” conversations. Another example: That new possible client who, before COVID, would never turn her camera on in Zoom? Now it’s her default.

And therein lies the extraordinary opportunity to make more meaningful and lasting connections, provided that we lead with our caring, not with our spit-polished “virtual selling” techniques.

The biggest trust de-railer for us all right now is the same as it has always been, only amplified x 10: it’s fear.  There’s the fear of not making our numbers, of losing our jobs, of losing a family member, and more. Uncertainty is the word of the day, and our human brains are fighting ambiguity at every turn. Fear triggers our basest instincts: we default to protecting ourselves, obsessing about stuff, and avoiding relationship risks (or any risks, for that matter). This in turn affects our ability to really tune in to and be of service to others. Plus, we add to the cacophony when we don’t manage our own “stuff.”

Your results will be seriously compromised—in some cases, indelibly—unless and until you (1) recognize your fear and (2) deal with it effectively,

The only thing worse than a hammer looking for a nail is a fear-based hammer looking for a nail.

Your pre-pandemic relationship liabilities haven’t mysteriously disappeared. To quote Warren Buffett, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” When things are going well, it’s easy to ignore mediocre relationship skills because you’re successfully getting the next sale or getting the job done.

Now is the time to do some serious personal work so that you can get seriously focused on how to make a difference for your clients and other people who matter to you.

The bottom line …

True trusted advisorship demands that we find ways to make choices from our higher selves, not from our baser instincts, and not from our bag of virtual tricks. Our current reality is a call to lead with time-tested relationship principles (80%) and shore them up with virtual best practices (20%) to form everlasting client bonds and deep, unshakable loyalty.

In Part II, we’ll show you how to use the trust equation as a framework to do exactly that.