Managing relationships with business owners during the pandemic

By Rick Goossen | July 30, 2020 | Last updated on July 30, 2020
3 min read
© erhui1979 / iStockphoto

I was dreading the call. It seemed like reaching out to someone after a tragedy. The source of the problem was clear: a global pandemic not seen in 100 years. Health regulations and concerns ground much of the economy to a halt. The carnage was immense. People’s businesses were in jeopardy. The interaction could be uncomfortable, awkward and unpredictable.

So, how to contact business owners who are prospects and clients?

The challenge for advisors and those in business development is the reflex to sell something: we see a prospect and try to get them to say yes to what’s being offered. A higher form of selling, as we all know but do not always practice, is to develop relationships so we understand the person and their business.

How you conceive of your role will impact how you function during the pandemic. Thinking of yourself as a “relationship manager” rather than a “seller” offers a different perspective.

A useful reference point is the work of Daniel Goleman, who argued that effective people all have a high degree of “emotional intelligence” (he wrote a book with that title).  The five components of emotional intelligence are  self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill.

Empathy and social skill are most relevant for connecting with clients and prospects in the current environment. Empathy is the ability to understand people’s emotional makeup and to treat them according to their emotional reactions. Social skill is defined as proficiency in managing relationships and building networks, and the ability to find common ground and rapport.

How have prospects and clients fared since Covid-19 upended our lives in March? Here is a snapshot of three different experiences.

Clients in the retail sector were sideswiped. A 40-year-old family business — profitable and very well run, with a presence at malls across Canada — went from 100% capacity down to zero almost instantly. The company laid off 300 employees (90% of their staff) and was left to wonder if their life’s work was going up in smoke. Another family retail business of 50 years, with $30m in revenue and 130 staff, stopped in its tracks.

Others are thriving. One trucking business contact had his best months ever at the start of the pandemic. Remember the rush for toilet paper and the pleas to “share the square?” My trucking contact was one of the people organizing shipments of toilet paper, getting calls at wee hours from retail chains.

Another client provides software that’s critical to the functioning of municipalities around the world. The company has long-term contracts, and moving providers is unlikely. He felt sheepish that his company’s fortunes kept growing in the midst of general carnage — like poking your head out of your bunker to find you fared better than your neighbours, and trying to keep a low profile.

The pandemic has produced a wide range of experiences — some devastating and others not.  Here are five ways to demonstrate emotional intelligence during client interactions:

  • Don’t avoid challenging conversations. Make the call. Check in even when the news is bad. Ask “How are you doing?” You may get a one-hour response.
  • Be empathetic and offer encouragement. Try this even though it may be a challenge when your own tank is running on fumes.
  • Offer context. Yes, things are bad, but they will bounce back. There are always cycles, and this may be an opportunity for innovation and creativity.
  • Make sure you understand clients’ and prospects’ businesses and how they’re weathering the economic storm. This will make you a better resource and sounding board.
  • Always think long term. Client relationships can last many years. Making the effort now will create loyalty. Clients and prospects will bounce back, and they’ll remember who was there for them in the challenging times.

The pandemic is a formidable challenge for many businesses. Now is the time to forge a deeper relationship as people need an advisor who listens and understands. Emotional intelligence can be learned — and the pandemic provides an opportunity to do so.

Rick Goossen, BA, LLB, LLM, PhD, a graduate of McGill and Columbia law schools, drives business development across Canada at Nicola Wealth, an independent wealth management firm.

Rick Goossen

Rick Goossen, BA, LLB, LLM, PhD, a graduate of McGill and Columbia law schools, drives business development across Canada at Nicola Wealth, an independent wealth management firm.