How to develop client relationships in a remote business consulting

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How to make the client see us as an expert and human while we all are at home office

Przemysław Macczak
Business Transformation Manager in FPIA Consulting Team

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Working as business consultants in the FPIA Consulting Team means meeting every day with clients from various industries in offices all around the world. We are experts in the business transformation area and we advise our clients how to use technology to boost up their businesses. We spend a lot of time talking to our clients, having important discussions while we work out the best solutions and plans for several months or even years.  Our business consultant’s tasks involve a lot of environmental change and traveling. Sometimes there are so many trips that it is hard to remember every single one. On the other hand, it is always memorable when someday something goes wrong, and 2020 turned out to be a year of global surprises for business travelers. At the same time, it has significantly changed the nature of business consultants’ work. 

I remember well when I packed my suitcase and headed to the airport in early March last year. A quick flight, less than two hours and I was in Frankfurt, waiting for my luggage to come. Instinctively, I pulled out my smartphone. There was an unusual message waiting in the inbox – „due to the expanding threat of a coronavirus pandemic, all business travel that is not essential to the operation of the company is suspended.” „All right, so be it” – I thought – however, I was already there in Frankfurt, and the workshop had to take place soon. So I focused on a client with whom I spent the next few days chatting in a conference room, and in between sessions where we discussed financial and accounting processes, we wondered whether our project will entitle us to business traveling in the future. Like most people at that point, we were pushing out the idea that all travel could be inhibited for an extended period.

The remote age – working with clients in a new reality

The news from the world kept coming, and by the end of the week, it was clear that we would no longer be meeting in Frankfurt on Monday. At the time, I didn’t yet know that this would be the last time I would be able to meet someone in person for a normal conversation. The era of Zoom and Teams soon followed. But surprisingly – work followed a similar course as before, only with small exceptions. Instead of meetings in conference rooms, my calendar had more and more links to the conference calls. Soon we finished the first remote workshop – all points were discussed, we had a plan of action for the next weeks. And from the client came an email saying that for the first time in years he had encountered consultants who knew their job. If you’ve worked with colleagues in Germany, you know that’s high praise.

We already knew that it was possible to work this way. However, another workshop appeared on the horizon. It seemed to be a similar situation, but the difference was that I had never met these clients from Spain in person before. So we didn’t have any relationship, we didn’t even exchange an e-mail, because someone else was responsible for planning. We only had the Zoom to start building our relations.

Daily, we underestimate how important it is in interpersonal relationships to observe the other person. Anyone who has ever sent a message without a smiley emoticon and was misunderstood knows it is true. So, point one –  in the first place turn on your camera. Take the time to say hello, it’s best to log in a few minutes early to chat a bit. Sometimes it is even worth to continuing small talk a few minutes longer – even though the agenda is tight, while you are waiting for someone to join; use such moments for an ordinary conversation. You need to be flexible. We are not going to go for coffee together anymore, and such conversations satisfy people’s need for company. Besides, we live in such extraordinary times that we all globally share a common experience. So now, in addition to the standard comparison of the weather, we can ask – how about you with the restrictions? How do you cope with everyday tasks? And it turns out that despite bad times, people remain optimistic and focus on even the smallest symptoms of improvement.

Going back to the thread of working with a previously unknown client from Spain, I was lucky enough to have worked in Madrid for several years beforehand. So I could refer to similar experiences, after all, I had spoken to accountants from Spain, and I used to be one myself, so I was aware of the problems they faced. I think our reputation as experts in the industry is built the best by our understanding of professional problems that our clients have. „I have also encountered this problem. We can solve it the way your colleagues in another country already did.” That always helps, and the customer gains confidence that they are well taken care of. It is a moment they realize that big transformation ahead stops being such a challenge and becomes a normal job that can be handled.

Communication and organizational challenges of remote meetings

However, it is important to remember that remote collaboration in business consulting with a client is not something simple that could be done almost automatically. There are still a lot of details to be attended to, and a small mistake can cause a critical meeting to fail and a project plan to be delayed. Workshops need to be planned down to the minute and broken up into individual sessions. We are no longer in an office where you can call someone to join you for a moment and answer a question. These days, everyone has their calendar filled to the edge. This also means you have to invite the right people in advance. And only the right people. If we’re planning to discuss confidential issues, the last thing we want is our invitation to be circulated freely through the company emails. Fortunately, Outlook allows you to block anyone but the meeting organizer from inviting more people. A small thing, and it can save you from a disaster of crucial news spreading before the scheduled communication.

People experienced in teleconferencing know that it is better to be „on mute” 100 times and not know it than to think you are on mute once and yet not be aware of it. The pandemic has made everyone try to keep an eye on it, but everyone has heard crying children, barking dogs, or the sounds of dinner being prepared in an important meeting. When running remote workshops, you have to be understanding. People work from home. Sometimes you have to take a break because someone has to feed the baby or pick up a package as the courier just arrived. It’s difficult sometimes, we can’t jump over it. And there is no chance that the coffee break will last less than 15 minutes.

It has already been a year since we all have been in this state of suspension, which was supposed to be only temporary. In the FPIA Consulting Team, we have already developed strict methods of working in the new situation. Now we carry out practically all large projects from the comfort of our homes. And the additional benefits of such work? A colleague told me some time ago that thanks to this new situation clients are more likely to „see us as people instead of consultants in suits who only appear in their office once in a while”.

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