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How to build strong business relationships – remotely

While many managers have adapted to virtual meetings to replace face-to-face meetings as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, developing new business relationships online presents particular challenges. Since successful relationships are built on trust, it is critical to make an effort to work around the shortcomings of virtual interactions.

As explained in our book, Looking for trust in a global economy, just before the pandemic, we interviewed 82 managers from four regions of the world about how they decide to trust new business partners. Their answers vary according to region and culture. For example, we found that managers in both Latin America and the Middle East/South Asia prefer to spend time getting to know potential new business partners personally in order to establish trust. In Latin America, managers used that time to assess the shared values ​​of potential business partners, while in the Middle East/South Asia, managers focused on assessing respect for different values.

Then in November and December 2020, we re-interviewed those 21 managers and asked them how the pandemic affected their ability to develop new business relationships. We find that their cultural differences are still active. For example, belief did not change during the pandemic. It was even lower in Latin America and the Middle East/South Asia compared to East Asia and the West. However, managers’ common experience with meeting virtually has led to a consensus: it is impossible to build the kind of trusting relationships that will sustain their businesses through a pandemic when only virtual meetings are possible. He explained that virtual meetings are transactional but require deep relationship building to decide to trust new business partners.

Here, we discuss specific challenges faced by managers in actually building business relationships. Then, we offer four expert tips on how to overcome those challenges.


Our pre-epidemic interviews identified four criteria managers use to make trust decisions: openness, competence, respect, and rapport (ie, similar values). Our interviews during the pandemic underscored how difficult it is to find information to assess potential partners against these criteria when social interaction is limited to scripted, time-limited, online communication.

For example, one manager from Japan explained:* “It was very difficult for us to evaluate the level of competence before [meeting with them].” Another manager from Hong Kong said, “I think it’s very difficult to convince people to sign a billion-dollar deal, let’s say in Cambodia, and have never seen the land or seen the project.”

Participants lamented that online communication limited their ability to see and hear how potential business partners interact with each other. A manager from Thailand explained that understanding the decision-making process in a potential partner’s company was challenging when met virtually. His company eventually stopped making any final decisions until there was a lull in the pandemic and they met in person. She told us, “Lo and behold, we learned that all their decisions were made by one person. Well, we ended up not working together.

Advice from expert trust builders

Two years into the pandemic, everyone has learned a lot about what can and can’t be done online. The managers we interviewed have accumulated significant experience and wisdom as it relates to building trust with new business partners. Here are four lessons from his experience.

1. Don’t skip personal stuff.

Although devoting time in virtual settings to getting to know others is less than ideal, it is still important to build trust while building new relationships. Here’s why it’s important to be intentional about devoting time to more personal conversations:

Because in virtual space you have less chance to know other person. Time is very limited. You don’t start chatting about your family or how you grew up. I find it much harder to talk about personal things in a virtual environment than going out to dinner with someone, where the barriers go up, or after about 30 minutes, an hour together. – Manager from Bolivia

These are the things you don’t learn because everything is on the agenda. If you hold an online meeting, you won’t be devoting enough time to the offline discussion that will give you clues. – Manager from Germany

We all used to hear and watch video and everything but face to face is still preferred. [In in-person meetings] You’ve got all the other conversations that happen after meetings and stuff. [Those side conversations] Currently happening on WhatsApp or iMessage and phone calls. But that’s just it [quick] Catching a taxi or something like that. Personal moments where you build trust with a partner. – Manager from Singapore

2. Use your networks.

People you trust in your existing networks can introduce you or help you evaluate potential partners. They can act as a broker for you. Clarify what interests you may have in common with potential partners and what questions you have about them. Here’s what some participants had to say about networking:

There is no formula for this. You need to find people in your network who can be most helpful and willing to help you. And I recognized three or four people. I approach them and say, “I have to meet a certain person. Can you help me make that introduction? ” – Manager from US

A current German customer introduced us to its Austrian subsidiary. And we had a good season with the Austrians. But then, there was a corporate reorganization and I thought we might lose all the business of this company. Instead, new management at the top, who we had not worked with before, reached out to say they wanted to continue with us next year. – Manager from Italy

Importance of references [skyrocketed], because it’s not easy to make a connection with someone you don’t know. People ask for more and more references. Because right now, we can’t make anonymous connections with people. You have email and everything, but that’s not enough. – Manager from Turkey

A Japanese manager explained that he had identified a potential new business in Taiwan, but was unable to visit the site due to the pandemic. Instead, he turned to another Japanese company he trusted and knew the people visiting the site and meeting people were in Taiwan. He told us, “Now, we usually ask a trusted third-party company.”

3. Consider experimenting with a new partner.

If someone approaches you about a new business, start with less investment than you would if you could meet them in person. Similarly, if you’re reaching out about new business, understand that a potential partner’s preference for small deals at the beginning may eventually lead to bigger deals. A Saudi Arabian manager told us:

There was this transaction that we closed last week. It was our first time dealing with these partners, but we really liked the opportunity and we liked the markets and our due diligence was positive across the board. We are willing to commit huge funds to this particular investment opportunity. However, due to our inability to meet the team face-to-face and see the company with our own eyes, we decided to phase our investment. We want to invest a certain amount now and have the option to invest additional amount in the future, once we meet face to face.

4. Share expertise with trusted partners.

You can help them streamline their processes – create savings – or provide better service to their customers – develop new business for them and for you.

A manager from Nicaragua explained:

We are building some online tools to help sell their products. Not only does it help sell our product, but it also helps sell all the products they carry. That helped us expand our business with them because they see that we are going to help them. It was more than just a business; It’s like trying to help each other survive in this new environment.

Another manager from Finland told us that his company’s equipment is capable of transmitting digital information about performance. Customers who didn’t opt ​​for this service in their original contracts were asking how to turn it on and get more during the pandemic. The result is new business for their company and a new line of marketing services their company can provide.

The future of the search for faith

There was agreement among participants that learning to work online during the pandemic would make a lasting difference but not completely abandon meeting in person when deciding to trust a potential new partner. As one Italian manager put it:

We probably do [do more] Online after Covid-19, but I don’t think it’s just an online thing, because we’re human. Everyone wants to go back to what we were doing, but there are some meetings that both parties understand that we can have online.

And as one manager from the US told us:

I think it’s going to go back a little bit to the way it was in in-person meetings, but I don’t think it’s going to get there again. The epidemic will extend far too long. And you’re going to develop new habits and new techniques and new communication tools and you’re going to get pretty comfortable. And in most cases, you’ll find that this is good enough. Being in person is not that important to me in some situations like I was in the past. It’s not as good as it would be in person, but it gives me an opportunity to make better use of my time and not have to do every trip I’ve done in the past.

. . .

As the pandemic continues to interfere with in-person business development, managers are increasingly resigned to online communication and see few benefits to it. Nevertheless, what dealing with Covid-19 has taught us is that when it comes to relationship building for new business relationships, it is important to use business relationships purposefully. Resist the urge to skip taking the time to have a personal conversation while online, use your networks to make connections and make potential partners, consider a limited trial before taking a big risk or find creative ways to say no to a deal altogether and help trusted partners streamline and grow their businesses.

*Editor’s Note: Participant quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.

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