If you’re finding it difficult to build remote relationships with customers, partners and teams and – you are not alone. Of course, there are the ongoing challenges to virtual relationship building – lack of eye contact, missed (or mixed) signals, and inattentiveness, to name a few. But at the root of this inability to connect is something most fail to recognize: The traditional communication loop which we’ve learned to rely on is broken in a virtual world.
The Traditional Communication Loop
Any ideas, thoughts, or emotions are traditionally expressed through a communication loop. This simply means that the Sender sends a message, the Receiver interprets it, and the Receiver provides feedback to the Sender, confirming their receipt. (See above diagram.)
In person, the communication loop usually takes place wordlessly and without interruption, as follows:
- Seller smiles (sending the message that they are pleased to see the customer)
- Customer interprets it correctly
- Customer smiles back (providing feedback that they received the message, interpreted it correctly, and sending a new message that they are happy to see the seller)
Based on the customer’s response, the Seller can now confidently engage in a conversation. And it continues: sending, receiving, and providing feedback. Unfortunately, this natural process is often disrupted in a virtual world, breaking down at one or more of these three critical stages.
Stage 1: Virtual Message Breakdown
This occurs when you think you’re sending one message, but you are actually sending a different message. Whether the message is different than intended is due to the camera’s distortion, there’s not enough context, or it’s not visible or audible to the other person, is simply irrelevant. For example:
- Seller thinks they are showing attentiveness because they are staring at the customer’s image on the screen (and not their webcam).
- Customer interprets that the Seller is distracted or uninterested.
- Customer cuts the call short, leaving the Seller confused and disappointed.
Certain behaviors, movements, gestures, and expressions mean different things on screen than they do face-to-face. Assigning an in-person meaning to on-screen behavior often leads to confusion and miscommunication, as you’ll see below:
- Customer has a blank expression on their face as the Seller is speaking.
- Seller incorrectly interprets this expression as boredom or impatience and races through their presentation, never stopping to pause.
- Customer (who was not initially bored or impatient) sees only a disorganized or rushed Seller and interprets this as a lack of credibility or interest on the Seller’s part. The Customer’s expression remains blank (or shows signs of disinterest), further fueling the Seller’s panic.
Stage 3: Virtual Feedback Breakdown
Can you imagine sitting across from a customer in person, asking them a question, and they just sit silently, staring at their desk? You’d be right to feel concerned. The equivalent to this happens all the time on video, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing. it’s a prime example of the virtual feedback breakdown. We rarely get feedback to our virtual messages, whether it’s eye contact, a facial expression, or those small “hmm’s” or “um-hum” This produces needless and detrimental stress and anxiety on the person sending the message. For example:
- Seller asks a question to a small group of Customers who are not on video.
- Despite hearing the question, Customers are silent – either contemplating an answer or waiting for one of their peers to respond.
- After a short pause, Seller nervously answers their own question, reinforcing for the audience that their participation is not expected.
These breakdowns happen over and over, dozens of times on the same video call or meeting, compounding their impact and making relationships difficult or impossible to take hold. What is to be done, short of checking in with your audience after every message to confirm proper receipt, or ending each sentence with a desperate plea of, “Does that make sense?”
If your objective is to build strong virtual relationships you need to be aware of how and why these communication loop breakdowns take place to avoid misunderstandings, missed connections, awkward pauses—and unhealthy spikes of adrenaline. You must also understand how to interpret your customer’s on-screen behavior so that you communicate with confidence regardless of whether you receive visual confirmation of your message being received.
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