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10 Things To Avoid During Virtual Consulting

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April 29, 2022
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5 minutes
Lynn's diverse perspectives on business stem from her extensive experience as a management consultant - her role as a beloved wife, mother and grandmother adds further depth to her insights.

Virtual consulting has become commonplace as a means of communication with clients.

However, we’ve moved beyond adapting to remote work and figuring out how the technologies work. Now, if you’re consulting online, there will be an expectation of professionalism and technical expertise.

Communication expertise is paramount, as the rules and dynamics for virtual communication are not the same as for the real world. The consequence for getting them wrong is a breakdown in trust - which can be catastrophic if you are consulting online.

So what are the pitfalls of virtual consulting, and what should consultants avoid at all costs?

The problem with virtual communication with clients

Communication has both explicit and implicit content.

The implicit content in face-to-face communication comes from a whole set of verbal and nonverbal cues. The emotions we express through body language, a smile, a touch of a hand, or a look of concern, provide context to the message. They are an unconscious form of feedback and an expression of empathy.

Unfortunately, in virtual consulting, your client does not feel these emotions. When implicit feedback is removed, there is a strong likelihood of misunderstanding and a breakdown of trust.

Trust is central to consulting. Without it, consulting is almost impossible. As Warren Bennis says, "Trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations to work."

Trust can be fragile when all you have is virtual communication with clients. Even small mistakes and misunderstandings can lead to permanent trust breakdowns.

It is much easier to thrash out issues, apologize for mistakes, and move forward in a face-to-face environment.

"When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective." -Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Establishing trust and professionalism

In the absence of implicit cues, consultants should be very deliberate about the image they are projecting and the messages they are sharing.

In the following, some things to avoid:

#1. Looking At The Face On The Screen

Video calls are more effective than phone calls or emails for building trust.

However, remember to look at the camera to look clients straight in the eye during virtual consulting. Your webcam acts as the other person’s eyes, not the image on the screen.

It might be worth investing in a teleprompter. If you have your webcam behind a teleprompter and you project the client’s image onto the glass, you can be looking at the image and the camera at the same time. This creates a much better experience for the client.

#2. Being a Talking Head

Try widening the webcam view. If your clients can see your hands, they will also see more body language and we often use our hands to explain a point. You will seem more human and believable.

#3: Avoid Distractions

Regardless of how attractive your home may be, it can distract clients. You don’t want them reading the titles on your bookshelf or figuring out whether your office is your bedroom.

Zoom and Teams have some more neutral backdrops, or you can try companies such as Anyvoo and backdropexpress.

Children and pets can sometimes be forgiven but certainly don’t add to your professional image. This is especially true if you work remotely, but your client is on-site.

Just as in a face-to-face meeting, turn off your mobile phone and resist the temptation to check messages and emails.

#4: Fumbling the Technology

Know how the communication platforms work before you start your conversation. They all have help sites to show you how to share documents, create links, set up breakaway groups, and the like.

Ask permission before you record conversations, and be sure you know how to end conversations. You don’t want a “hot mic” blooper.

#5: Being Inconsistent or Inflexible in Communication

We have multiple opportunities to communicate informally with clients when we work on-site. This smoothes out and solves many problems and, of course, builds trust.

You can set up multiple contacts even if you are virtual consulting.

  • You can include quick phone calls, mobile messaging, emails, formal presentations and written reports, conference calls, and video calls.
  • Agree on asynchronous and synchronous communication - i.e., when people can receive and respond in their own time and when everyone must be together.
  • Be specific about communication across different time zones.
  • Have a timeline for responding to messages - even if only to acknowledge receipt.
  • Work out how to deal with hybrid teams - i.e., on-site and remote.
  • Including everyone in discussions is more complicated than it sounds. You cannot rely on the little hands-up symbol.

The key is to get agreement from the client and be consistent in your communication.

#6: Communicating Without Thinking

You cannot take back poorly thought-through communications. Emails and mobile messages can easily be misunderstood.

In general, it’s a good idea to ask

  • How could this mail or message be interpreted?
  • Where could this message end up?
  • What is the purpose of sending it?

#7: Having Poor Email Etiquette

If possible, call rather than email. Everybody can be clear, and it’s better for relationships.

Here are some tips to prevent making mistakes on emails:

  • Have explicit headers, so everyone knows the topic before opening a mail.
  • If it’s urgent, say so in the header.
  • Resist hitting the cc key unless you know why you should include each person.
  • Read the message and do a spell check before you send it.

#8: Using the Wrong Tone in Communication With Clients

The tone you use for online consulting primarily depends on whether the client prefers a formal or an informal style.

It also depends on how well you know them. The more established your relationship, the safer it is to be relaxed.

If in doubt, opt for formal virtual consulting.

#9: Using Emojis

Many people use emojis to convey the emotion of a message or mail. Sometimes this is effective.

However, it might be worth noting research on client responses, especially when they don’t know you well:

  • Smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth
  • Emojis are associated with incompetence
  • You will receive less comprehensive feedback to requests for information

#10: Being Too Impersonal

Trust and relationships during online consulting projects require conscious attention to the implicit communication signals that we take for granted in face-to-face consulting.

Final Remarks

Check that you are friendly and have a personal touch to your communication. Reaching out to the client, asking how they are, checking how they feel during a presentation, and even adding personal information builds relationships.

The Communication Rules for Virtual Consulting

Whether working face-to-face or consulting online, communication with your clients is critical to building trust and establishing relationships.

Virtual communication can fail if you provide only explicit content. You must add the implicit content that we usually get from body language and nonverbal cues.

The experience should be as seamless as possible to maintain clients’ attention and reassure them that, although you are remote, interaction will be easy and professional.

Hopefully, this list of ten things to avoid in virtual consulting will help you identify what you should do to make it work.