7 tips to building strong relationships with clients in a remote environment

Man in a group meeting on his computer.

A handshake agreement, conference room whiteboarding, grabbing lunch after a final design review — for decades, business owners and their clients have used in-person meet-ups to advance projects and strengthen their connections. But today, even if you share a city with your clients, remote relationships are the new normal.

78 percent of the nearly 700 CEOs surveyed by PWC’s CEO Panel Survey agree that remote work is here to stay for the long-term. While the recent pandemic threatened to strain business-customer relationships, communication and productivity, research on remote work performed by the career search site FlexJobs has shown just the opposite effect.

That said, the rise of remote work has undeniably transformed business. Even those who have developed excellent in-person communication to strengthen client relationships will need to expand and adjust their methods for a completely remote setting.

Build trust

Building a reputation as a credible and trustworthy business partner can help bring in new clients, close deals faster, and help you market better through referrals from happy customers.

To build trust remotely for a stronger relationship with your clients, here are some considerations:

These efforts can help your client feel both confident and secure when conducting business with you.

Establish how you will communicate

Since remote work limits client engagement, it is crucial to have several methods of communication for meetings, updates, and check-ins. In addition to exchanging email addresses and phone numbers, it may help to discuss preferred applications for project and task management, platforms for video chat, and other mediums for both communicating and sharing documents. You may need to download new software or coordinate an alternative to ensure compatibility with your client’s preferred apps.

Likewise, take the time to find out what your customers are comfortable with. Some may prefer voice calls without video. Others may prefer written communication over live voice. If you are working from different time zones, you will need to establish early on meeting times — whose time zone will be the default? Addressing these questions in advance will help build trust and save time by cutting through any chaos that may happen through virtual communications.

Set clear deadlines and expectations

Deadlines are not just a matter of due dates for delivering products and services. Depending on the nature of your work, you may need to discuss results with your client. For example, are you providing consulting services? Helping with a marketing campaign? Perhaps you are a lawyer or a counselor who will be working with a client for an unknown amount of time. It is important to set clear expectations for the duration of your work together, your goals, and the benchmarks you will look for to measure your progress.

Defining what will happen, when it will happen, and especially why it is important are key steps in setting expectations for your remote working relationship — and making communication focused and effective on both sides.

Listen actively

Actively listening means staying present, not looking for a place to respond — but to learn and understand. It can be easy, when using a video chat platform, to get distracted by other emails and messages, and fall into the trap of simply waiting for your turn to speak to avoid cross-talk. Some of us get distracted by our own image on the screen, as cyberpsychologist Andrew Franklin discusses at Insider. These challenges can prevent you from absorbing what your client is actually saying.

Actively listening to your client lets them know you are sympathetic to their needs. It will also help determine the root causes of your client's problems and better direct you in helping solve them.

Before you respond, ask questions. Repeat what you heard back to them, in different words, to ensure you heard correctly and that you actually understood what they were expressing. Likewise, ask them questions after you speak to get them to use a similar pattern. Not only will active listening improve your understanding of your customers needs, but it can help you ensure that they listen to you when it is your time to speak.

Make sure your systems are compatible

Communication comes before collaboration in the digital age. This goes for the tools and software used by different teams inside your business, and taking the time to discover what the preferred formats, applications, and systems are for your customers. Even when you are on the same page in terms of formats and apps, you may need to discuss security and access restrictions.

For instance, if you have a healthcare client who requires a certain level of security or has to screen digital files with special software, you will need to build this process into your communication system with them. You may have a customer who prefers to share files through a cloud application and won’t open email attachments. Going digital effectively means communicating early and often to learn one another’s boundaries, preferences, and limitations before they become obstacles for working together.

Make sure to share docs and get signatures digitally while sticking to your respective security best practices. It is far easier to have a digital document solution that supports all your workflows rather than wrangling several different services to complete one project. A best-in-class solution lets you toggle security or access settings in one place. Your clients will appreciate this convenience, which helps you build stronger relationships with them.

Get personal

Even the most professionally conducted virtual meetings can feel a touch impersonal, and other forms of online communication can seem isolating. To foster strong client relationships, encourage communication that’s personal and fun. As Sammi Caramela writes for Business News Daily, there are many ways to connect with your clients on a personal level using a combination of different mediums (social, phone, video, and in person when possible) and different message content.

You can accomplish this by communicating often, answering questions, gathering feedback, and responding accordingly. For instance, you might send a customer an email asking them to leave a review online, then respond to that review thanking them for taking the time. You may even adopt a messaging service where clients and employees can communicate in real-time, and you might also include channels for icebreakers, trivia, or other games.

Continue to adapt

A project can change course quickly, and without constant communication, an unexpected change can put a client relationship in jeopardy. It is essential to adapt to changing schedules, workloads, and responsibilities — especially in a remote setting.

Make it a priority to communicate as soon as possible about any problems you may have with an upcoming project. This could include sharing concerns with scheduling, technical issues, or the established expectations.

Relationships have always been the foundation for success in the business world, but the shift to digital business processes has increased the need for creative and intentional efforts in this sphere. If you make sure that both your team and your clients have access to helpful tools and valuable resources, you can help make this transition feel both more human and harmonious.