As our respective states and cities start to reopen in some form, there will undoubtedly be variations among firms as to when employees will be asked to return to physical offices. For many of us, we will continue to work virtually for the foreseeable future.  With no end in sight, particularly, for those of us whose roles are to grow and cultivate an industry network and expand business relationships, how do we continue to effectively navigate this formidable and extraordinary period?

As an experienced Business Development professional with a strong track record, my role is to build long-lasting relationships within the alternative fund industry and acquire new clients who manage private equity, infrastructure, real estate, and hedge funds. Travel in and around the continent is one of the most vital aspects of my role, as this enables me to meet other professionals, attend relevant seminars and conferences, and reinforce our industrial ties. Social interaction is the key to everything related to business development.

Given that face-to-face interaction and international (even domestic) travel have been curtailed at the moment, there are key changes to take into account while we pivot with resiliency into the virtual world. Trust can undoubtedly be established and confidence in our firms’ reputations can likewise be boosted in this extraordinary period with a few tweaks to our approach.

Life Before the Crisis

Back in late February, I traveled to Boston with a colleague to meet with prospective clients and visit several industry partners. I recall sitting at this beautiful cafe, Tatte on Summer Street, as we waited to meet with a partner from one of the local audit firms. The place was bustling with life and the smell of fresh coffee and pastries added energy to the atmosphere. We arrived a few minutes ahead of time to grab a prime spot conducive for a dialogue and to also review our discussion points about the local market that we wanted to address.  Our guest arrived shortly after; from where we sat, we could see his friendly smile. As he drew closer, we greeted each other with smiles and handshakes. 

This was our normal: all those opportunities to meet up for coffee, working lunches, formal boardroom meetings, sporting events, and other face-to-face interactions geared to establish rapport and foster mutual trust. 

Rethinking Interaction

The events of the past few months have changed all that.

Given how faces are hidden under protective masks, we can no longer see other people’s smiles either from a distance or even up close. We can, for the moment, no longer extend a hand for a handshake or open our arms for an embrace. The rampant spread of the coronavirus has pushed us into the realm of social distancing, forcing us to shift paradigms from active physical interaction to virtual coordination.

This ongoing crisis has invariably forced us to rethink our current interactive processes in order to come up with more effective and creative ways by which we could connect with our prospective clients and partners online. As a result, we have embraced new methods of engagement, such as webinars, podcasts, virtual presentations, online coffee mornings, and even happy hours via Zoom. Yet, the aim remains the same: to achieve genuine interaction and open lines of communication.

The Need for Empathy and Adaptation

More than ever, the power of empathy is paramount. 

It is important that we prioritize being empathetic to the personal challenges everyone is experiencing. While we typically would jump into business-related conversations or presentations, it has become more important to put the well-being of our partners first and foremost. Everyone is clamoring for stability, so we need to check in on each other. Remember: we are all facing the same situation, but we have all had different ways by which to cope with it; we have to be sensitive to that.

Adaptation is, essentially, the key word in the new normal. More than just dealing with the situation, it is about learning how to operate in our new environment that is changing rapidly.

Likewise, we also need to manage our expectations of ourselves as professionals in the industry geared to initiate and develop relationships. While we have settled into a “new normal” over the past three months and have become quite resilient in the way by which we interact with others, we remain mindful of how we have built and managed professional relationships for over 20 years in our careers and that it takes time to transform.

Moving Forward

Here are three action items that will help you adjust in these extraordinary times:

1.      Build a comprehensive program. It is important to have a comprehensive business development program that encompass entertainment to a conservative degree, but also have a strong focus on regular check-ins with your partners and influencers in the industry;

2.      Know your prospective clients’ needs and act on this knowledge. Invest the bulk of your time and resources to learn what your prospective clients are really looking for. This can be accomplished by tabling regular, in-depth, and focused discussions. Provide them with valued resources based on their requirements. For example, if cybersecurity is a concern for a prospective client, seek out experts in the industry within your network and initiate an introductory call to address their queries;

3.      Be mindful. We should be mindful when it comes to new client acquisition. Know that there will be heavier reliance on reference checks, outside of the typical list we would normally provide. Prospective clients will call on trusted peers and existing partners in the industry in order to get their thoughts and experiences with a new firm they aim to partner with. This is where strong brand recognition and an established reputation will truly come to light.

As with all long-term transformations, it will not be easy as we move forward beyond the current crisis. But, if we instill relationship building measures that are comprehensive yet straightforward as early as now, then the resulting outcome will all be worth it in the long run.