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Digital connections can still be authentic.

Digital connections can still be authentic.

If you’re reading this hoping to find a magic potion to make digital relationships work, you may want to move along. There just isn't an elixir—or a wand or even a set of “10 tips for digital relationship success for your small business”—to create authentic virtual connections. But it’s actually quite simple: Digital relationships thrive the same way in-person ones do. With care, they can bring the same level of satisfaction as our face-to-face connections.

My very scientific research—which consists of 20 years of anecdotal data—has led me to this conclusion because of the common denominator shared by the real-life and digital relationships: Human beings.  

Trust, honesty, communication and connection are foundational to all relationships. Should a relationship suffer simply because resources aren’t being used effectively? I don't buy into the concept that the medium is the barrier, but I think many people feel digital relationships are harder. 

It doesn't have to be that way. 

We used to rely on our geographic region to support our small business at Render Studios. Over the years, technology has graced us with the opportunity to expand from local and statewide clients to doing work across the country. But no small business can sustain that level of growth without maintaining an amazing, accountable team while delivering exceptional value and service to their clients. And that all comes down to how you treat people—everyone at the table—internally and externally.

Many of my client relationships are virtual, and even my internal team works from afar on a week-to-week basis. The same principles that make a face-to-face relationship work apply in all iterations of remote/virtual/digital relationships as well. If digital relationships are habitually challenging for someone, it may be time to take a step back and see how their analog relationships are going. 

When I have to take that step back, I remind myself to take the time to treat people well. Care that they have kids, an aging parent, a sick puppy or an exciting vacation coming up. The chatty, friendly exchanges at the office coffee pot can be replicated—and become even more essential—when having a digital exchange. 

Used properly, the right technology can set relationships up for success.  

When an email discussion is unclear after two exchanges, pick up the phone rather than bouncing back and forth in frustrating, unproductive dialogue. There are nuances only available in hearing someone's voice, their conversational pace and tone. When that nuance can impact your level of service, why write an exhaustive email? I believe in this approach so much so that it’s an office-wide rule at Render. As small businesses, we should reach out in service when friction is afoot.  

Have a project launch meeting with someone you've never met? Find a video conferencing tool to replicate a face-to-face exchange. Body language tells so much of the story; providing the opportunity for that kind of exchange to occur promotes transparency and builds trust. I’ve also found that being adaptive to the technology your digital counterpart is most comfortable with creates a mutually safe space, furthering authenticity and connection.

I also don't underestimate the value of meaningful banter, which I find critical to learning about a person. These are the details necessary to form a relationship, no matter the format. I remember to be mindful of how quickly technology can prevent that chatter, too — checking myself to make sure the technology doesn’t get in the way of being human with someone. 

For those who remember life before the internet (or instant messaging or social media or texting …), the idea of building relationships outside of face-to-face interactions can be daunting. Trust me, I empathize. I’ve found by embracing this digital age and the need for digital relationships, businesses opportunities have expanded, as have the meaningful relationships they’re associated with. 

Finally, I think that intentionality serves our digital relationships well. Whenever possible, build in those opportunities to be with people personally. For remote workers, establish touchpoints to avoid them feeling as if they’re on a deserted work island. These relatively simple gestures elevate relationships from transactional to authentic.  

If you’re a remote worker, look at your calendar to see which projects could benefit from your physical presence. Leaders — take off your busy blinders and connect with the clients, colleagues or staff who aren’t in the office. If you’re a traditional 8-to-5-er, try embracing progress and communication as fluid and not tied to the time of day. Hiring managers —consider attracting and retaining great talent with remote opportunities.   

When we intentionally create the conditions for positive relationships, the format in which those relationships exist doesn’t much matter.

 

Karen Stefl

Featured in the March/April 2019 issue of Focus on Small Business Magazine published by the Small Business Association of Michigan