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Developing Relationships in a Virtual World

by  Susan Fennema – Beyond the Chaos

Developing relationships in this virtual world of email, chat, and conference calls can be challenging. How do you convey the personality of your company and team members when you do not have opportunities for face-to-face contact and sometimes, not even phone contact?

An added challenge for those of us running virtual companies is developing relationships within your own team members. In my case, we are spread out from New York City to San Francisco. Plus, we have clients from Maine to Los Angeles. So, even figuring out time zone conversions for meetings can be an issue.

All of this affects our abilities to do our jobs well. But, not all is hopeless. Developing relationships virtually just requires a different skill set than the in-person relationship building of old. Let’s start with the different types of digital communications:


Email has been tried and true since about 2004 with the advent of AOL Mail. (Anyone just hear that dialup sound in your head?) Obviously, upgrades to email throughout the last 15 years have brought it into all areas of our lives. Whether you love it or hate it (or both!), it is a necessity for business communications… and many personal ones. Email gives you space to create a tone, which helps with developing relationships. A big rule here is to remember not to hide behind it. By letting your personality come through, you’re able to convey who you are and how you interact.

My rule of thumb is to write it as I would say it, and then go back and edit it to include any nuances. And, possibly I would edit it to be more concise. Even with the ability to type all you want, you still need to get to the point, to avoid TLDR responses. Or, have people ignore the email completely.

This method might be your only way of communicating with people, especially initially. Even during our sales process, I use clear, concise communications. The intention is to start educating our potential clients on what it would be like to work with us.

Conference Calls

It’s not enough to just call people anymore. You have to share screens and have more than one person on most calls. For us virtual companies, that’s how we run all of our meetings. If you haven’t seen the “real-life conference call” video, I encourage you to be entertained. Over time, those interruptions and issues have become so common-place that we just accept it and move on.

Initially, I hated to use the video part of the conference call tools. It felt sort of like those who hate hearing the sound of their own voice when they record an outgoing message. Also, as a work-from-home person, I felt like I had to go “primp” for every time I was going to be on screen. But, video calls give you the ability to see colleague’s expressions and reactions and to have “eye contact”, even when you are just looking at their image and it looks like you aren’t looking at them at all. It still helps facilitate communication.

So, how did I get over my video issues? I just did it. Just like everything else, the more you do it, the easier it gets. If I am called into a video call and I’ve just come back from walking the dog in Texas heat, I say that straight up. “Forgive my crazy hair, I just got in from walking the dog and, man, is it hot!” With that type of communication, you are letting people into your real life. You’re sharing who you are and what might be “happening” in your life. Plus, you find out more about others. “Oh, you have a dog? What kind? I LOVE DOGS. I foster animals from the pound all the time.” That type of information is usually not communicated over email.

That being said, if I know I’m recording something for a videocast or it is the first time I am meeting with a person, I absolutely up my game. No attendance at those in fleece pajamas with frizzy hair and no makeup. Perception is still important. (But, no one knows if you still have your PJ pants beneath that professional top.)

I am a professional. I also walk the dog and wear PJs to work most of the time. So, be who you are. And don’t be afraid to let people see it.


Chat is my favorite tool for developing relationships. There are so many options have come out over the past few years: WhatsApp, Teams, Google Hangouts/Chat, Teamwork Chat, Basecamp Campfire, and Skype. But, Slackhas made all the difference to me, my team, and my colleagues.

Since we work in project management, which often requires instant communication with clients, we use almost all of those applications regularly. But, Slack is by far the best. I currently am in 14 workgroups. Within those groups, I can communicate with literally hundreds of people. Instantly. When you interact with people via these chat spaces, you are able to quickly see who has a sense of humor, who is happy most of the time, who likes to brag a bit, who communicates really clearly and, of course, the opposite of all of those. I’m a huge fan of emojis as responses to posts, both to acknowledge that the person has been heard and to convey an emotional response. Your personality even shows through the use of those. And you can truly get to know each other through these tools. Even those people you will never meet in person.

My team’s main communication tool is Slack. We get help from each other that way. We share challenges and basic information. Sometimes we just complain or vent. We also share silly stories of what happened to us today. (Think water cooler talk, if you were in an actual office.) Laura has worked for Beyond the Chaos for 2 1/2 years and I’ve never met her in person. We don’t talk on the phone much. We don’t even have that many conference calls. But we know each other very well because of our chat communications. That goes for the rest of our Chaos Killers as well (except Maria and Kim… I’ve met them in person.)

Lessons in Developing Relationships Virtually

So, what are the lessons here? Lesson #1 is that you CAN be yourself over the airwaves. You can demonstrate your sense of humor, confidence, knowledge, and approach. People can feel that they know who you are by your writing style.

And that brings us to Lesson #2. You can truly get to know each other through these types of tools. One of my favorite client relationships is with The Proof Group. All the team members are dramatically different in personality. I worked with the team for over a year before I met them in person in December 2017. I was so excited to meet all these characters whom I had come to know through Slack. And they were exactly what I expected. One day, maybe I’ll even meet my own team members!

Lesson #3: Pay attention to perceptions. And know yourself. Self-awareness is one of the main keys to sharing your personality so that people get the true sense of who you are.

And, finally, Lesson #4: You have to be able to write, despite hearing all the rumors that the English language is dead. Your readers perceive you differently if you aren’t using correct grammar and punctuation. Business writing is one of those skills that is still required. And more so than in the past, you have to do it on the fly, without another proofread and without lead time to think about it. It is instant. And if you cannot do it naturally, and integrate your personality and culture into it, you will struggle with developing relationships. Guaranteed.

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Winning, Consequences, and Productivity

by Susan Fennema – Beyond the Chaos

Winning is a consequence of a choice. And, it has its own consequences as well. While it is an innate desire in most of us, we have to be prepared for what happens afterward.

So, what do I mean by that? Winning is fun! We work hard to be winners, but we don’t often take into consideration the effects of winning. One of my first and favorite clients was weighted down by his success. He sold a lot of projects (winning!). The result (consequences!) was that he become so busy that he started to lose his ability to enjoy his life. He was working too hard and too long – his consequence of winning.

We were able to help him “get his life back” (his own words!), by putting together some project management systems. Being organized and setting clear priorities was yet another way to win in his case.

Winning in Sales

If you keep closing deals, your consequences might be like my client’s above. While we high-five (even if it is figuratively) when we close a new deal or score a new client, we must remember that we still have to do the work. Are you thinking of that consequence as you put proposals out? Are you managing your timing and your workload for you and your team in advance?

I am blessed to say that I recently closed several new proposals and have several new clients. It’s exciting. And it feels good to know they are willing to trust me with their business. Our team is looking forward to serving them in an effort to improve their lives. (Just like we did for the aforementioned client.)

…and, the Consequences 

But, we’re going to have to deal with some consequences as well. The first is that we will all have more work to do. We need to focus. We need to plan. Organization is key. One of the things I find is that when you have more to do, you get more done. I believe the quality of work is better when you are more focused as well. You get in a better rhythm.

Furthermore, you change your priorities. For example, writing is one of the things I will need to forego over the next couple of months. With four new clients and a speaking engagement in August, blogging will have to go on the backburner. (Don’t worry – we’re planning to be back in September!)

We might have longer hours for the coming months too. Which means that things like making dinner need to be streamlined. I love to cook. It’s a creative outlet for me. But, family members might have to help more. Or, maybe I’ll buy some of those pre-chopped vegetables to make my prep go faster.



I’ve mentioned my love of calendaring before. It’s definitely a way to manage winning new work. You must plan so that you can deliver the best product. Additionally, you need to be clear when your workload is lightening up so you can sell and plan future projects appropriately.


We talked about delegating in my last post. Determining what to delegate and who to delegate to are important steps toward productivity and focus. I can’t stop marketing and selling, but I can bring in other companies or people to help with it. Remembering to serve your clients by using your particular set of skills to their advantage is paramount. In other words, do those things that only you can do. Delegate those other things that you might be capable of doing, but that someone else can handle for you. (And, often, they even do a better job!)

Celebrate Winning

When we work at something and then win, we feel a great deal of satisfaction. Whether that is a professional achievement or a personal one, winning feels great. Working, learning, planning, executing are all parts of putting yourself in the position to be able to win. When you do, you should stop and celebrate.

My husband and I just got back from Park City, Utah, where we attended Ford Performance Racing School. My husband loves cars and racing. He’s participated in it in various forms throughout his life. He has worked at it. He’s learned it. His base of knowledge and skill is much higher than mine in that area.

So, when we got to the AutoCross part of the training day, he wanted to win. We had driving instructors to educate us on what could be improved. He planned his drive. He failed once and learned from it and planned again. And, then, he executed… and won!

The same day, I learned I had won a new client and a large project. We both felt that satisfaction flowing from our work. So, we stopped for a moment to acknowledge and to celebrate our wins.

But, we have consequences even with the AutoCross win. Both of our necks were sore after the race. (We weren’t just turning left on a track!) As we licked our wounds, so to speak, we had a reminder of the win.

So, don’t let those consequences get you down. Work through them. (Take some Advil… or calendar your work.) Let the neck pain or the focused work days be a reminder of your win. And if you are hurting a little here or there, take a breath and a quick moment to celebrate again before you dig back in.

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How to Become A Customer Centric Business

Customer-centric is an approach to doing business that focuses on providing a positive customer experience both at the point of sale and after the sale in order to drive profit and gain competitive advantage.

Customer-centricity begins with your company’s culture. If you want to be customer-centric, then your business needs to make a company-wide commitment to your customers’ success. The steps below explain what your organization can do to make that commitment to your customers.

  1. Anticipate Customer Needs

There’s a great quote from Henry Ford that says:  “If I had asked people what they wanted; they would have said faster horses.”  So, why is this mentioned when it seems counter-intuitive to the concept of customer-centricity.

Ford is saying that if he had only listened to what customers thought he could build he wouldn’t have produced a car. He was thinking light-years ahead of his competition, and for that reason he created a product that anticipated the market’s future needs. Ford knew what the customer wanted before the customer knew they even wanted it — that’s a game-changing business move.

We can see similar styles of future-forecasting in Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. These visionary CEOs pushed the envelopes on what people would want in the future, giving the world the iPhone, iPad and the Model X — and companies with valuations of $1.08 trillion and $48 billion, respectively.

While most customers are able to accurately provide an account of what they want today, gauging what they want on a longer time horizon is extremely difficult for most people. They rely on companies to do that work for them to anticipate their needs — and make helpful suggestions accordingly.


  1. Collect Customer Feedback

It may seem obvious, but to create a great, customer-centric company, you need to communicate frequently and regularly with your customers.  In today’s digital world, there are countless opportunities where you can collect feedback. Here are a few touchpoints that you might already use to communicate with customers:

  • Chat
  • Email
  • SMS (text messaging)
  • Phone calls
  • In-app messages
  • FB Messenger
  • Message boards

Today, valuable communication can occur on so many different platforms.  Every department should be using all of the communication channels available to them to learn about customers — and the sheer volume of measurable insight you receive from these messages can help you greatly as you adjust the direction of your product.

But there’s also a level of qualitative feedback that you need to be proactive about collecting. While the aforementioned communication is likely already occurring at your company, user research is something you might be ignoring.

If you’re not already doing so, here are three customer research techniques to consider:

Conduct a Survey

By telling your customers that you’re not perfect, you can gain insight and track your performance. The most successful companies in the world already know the value of surveys, and by conducting a regular customer satisfaction survey or product survey, you can provide an avenue for great feedback.

Launch User Testing

Modern digital marketing tools such as Usertesting.com and Hotjar provide a simple framework to collect feedback from real people about your product. In the quest to build a customer-centric organization, this can help validate your ideas and guide your work towards the highest-impact projects.

Make Direct Calls

Many folks prefer talking vs. texting.  There’s something more personal about a conversation outside of the digital realm — by simply picking up the phone, you’re able to get a more robust form of feedback from customers.  And you can adjust your line of questioning in real-time to adapt to each situation.

“Talking to customers is probably the most important thing I do all week. While there’s a level of product development that requires you to take a stance and anticipate needs — it’s impossible to do that without an understanding of your customer’s current situation.”  CTO J.P. Morgan


  1. Be Easily Accessible

We all know the concept: make it difficult to contact support, and you’ll spend less time servicing those difficult customers.  There’s a huge financial and time expenditure used in servicing customers, so many brands (especially digitally built businesses) hide their support behind many layers of pages.

For example, try to find a phone number on Facebook’s Help Page. It’s nearly impossible. They’d rather communicate through help articles and live chat before giving out their number.

On the other hand, there’s Zappos, the online shoe retailer with a completely opposite approach to customer success.  Zappos identifies that when a customer wants to talk to them, they should make it as easy as possible. Note how they include their phone number prominently on the top bar of every page with the note “Available 24/7.”

“A lot of people may think it’s strange that an internet company would be so focused on the telephone, when only about 5% of our sales happen by phone. But we’ve found that on average, our customers telephone us at least once at some point, and if we handle the call well, we have an opportunity to create an emotional impact and a lasting memory … Our philosophy has been that most of the money we might ordinarily have spent on advertising should be invested in customer service, so that our customers will do the marketing for us through word of mouth.”  …Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos

Make sure your ‘Contact Us‘ page is highly visible and easy to access — and that it actually answers common customer questions you see crop up time and time again.


  1. Meet with Customers In-Person

One of the biggest trends facing modern organizations is the loss of feedback from in-person meetings. Before the arrival of the Internet and our diversified global economy, it was far easier for a business to interact directly with a customer.  Direct, human contact happened on a daily basis simply because it was a necessary part of commerce. If you wanted an item, you went to a store, talked to a salesperson, and bought it in-person. That feedback could be used by a business to improve the consumer experience.

Today, in most businesses, this is not the case. While the number of your potential touchpoints for feedback are far greater due to technology, there is less in-depth contact.  You can prevent this by bringing back the     in-person experience. It may seem old school; but hosting in-person events can be beneficial to achieve your goal to be customer-centric. By hosting an event, you provide value to two parties: the customers and the business.


  1. Provide Proactive Customer Service

One of the best ways to differentiate your business from its competitors is to provide your customers with added value that extends beyond the point of purchase. This shows them that you’re truly invested in creating a positive customer experience and will go above-and-beyond to deliver it to them.

One way to provide added value is to include proactive customer service features. Proactive customer service gives your customers resources that help them solve problems on their own, without having to reach out to your business for support. This way they can resolve simple issues and avoid waiting on hold for your customer service team.

One example, WashCard Systems is one company that has profited immensely from adopting proactive customer service. They used HubSpot to create a pricing page so customers wouldn’t have to reach out to a live rep to see how much its products cost. This accelerated the company’s sales process as customers knew immediately whether or not WashCard Systems would fit their budget.

A pricing page may seem like a simple addition, but it completely changed WashCard Systems’ lead generation process. Rather than dissuading customers, the pricing page encouraged them to reach out to WashCard Systems and learn more about what the business had to offer. This type of proactive customer service demonstrated the business’s customer-centric approach to improving the buying experience.


  1. Adopt Customer Service Tools

The customer’s experience with your business is just as important as the product or service you’re providing. Customers don’t just want a sale; they want to enjoy the entire buying experience. Even if your product is great, you’ll lose customers to competitors who are able to make their customer interactions enjoyable and productive.

Adopting the right customer service tools plays a major role in creating a customer-centric experience. These tools help customer service teams create seamless, multi-channel support systems that provide customers with immediate solutions to their problems. By doing so, customers are more satisfied because the business is investing in their short- and long-term success.

One company that does an excellent job of utilizing customer service tools is the insurance company, Lemonade. Lemonade recognized that one of its most difficult challenges was changing the customer’s perception of its industry. Most people loathe speaking with insurance companies because the customer experience is typically dull and frustrating. So, Lemonade invested in chatbots to help change that experience for its customers; making the interaction more “playful and instantaneous”.


  1. Look Beyond the Purchase

At the end of the day, your business’s goal is to get customers to purchase your product or service. However, when customers buy once, you’ll want to ensure they buy again. After all, studies show that it costs nearly five times more to make a new customer than to retain an existing one.

How do you motivate your current customers to purchase from you again?  The best way is to provide them with added benefits that extend beyond the point of purchase. These benefits should help customers achieve their goals and create a more memorable customer experience. By doing so, customers will begin to associate their success with your company’s products and services.

One example of this can be seen with the industrial clothing company, Rocky Mountain Industrial Supply, or RMI. RMI sells flame-resistant clothing to labor crews operating in industrial worksites like oilfields and mines. In addition to its clothing, RMI creates added value for its customers by providing them with free safety certification courses. Customers take these courses to receive credible certifications that will qualify them to operate a product or piece of machinery. This not only helps customers avoid costly mistakes but also gives them the tools needed to excel in their careers. As they take more courses and enhance their skill set, customers begin to rely on RMI to assist with their long-term goals.


  1. Create an Onboarding Process

If you want to create a customer-centric culture, your team can’t abandon customers after you make a sale. Instead, make sure your customers get the most from your product and services. That way they’ll be more inclined to return to your business when they’re ready for an additional purchase.

One of the best methods for optimizing your product’s value in the eyes of the customer is setting up a detailed onboarding process. An onboarding process introduces your products and services to the customer and explains how to use them to fulfill their specific needs. Each customer’s needs will be unique, so your team should personalize this process to ensure every customer is properly set up for success.

The Sales rep can assist during the onboarding process. The benefit of this was that the sales reps could reference customer needs outlined during their previous interactions with the customer. Then, the onboarding rep could identify products and features that would help the customer fulfill those needs. This ensures your customers are getting the most value possible from their purchases.

Source:  Ben Johnson for blog.hubspot.com

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Managing Interruptions: Fixing Your Calendaring

by Susan Fennema – Beyond the Chaos

Managing interruptions is a huge deal for me. Despite thinking that I’m an awesome multi-tasker, I’m probably just a good fast switcher. As we know, multitasking isn’t a thing. And, it’s why I can’t even listen to a podcast all the way through. But, managing interruptions with calendaring is a thing. And it usually works…unless it breaks. Let’s start by talking about what can break it and then we’ll talk about getting back on track.

My calendaring broke this morning. Here’s why. I’m trying to leave for vacation and doing all those last things to allow for a work-free time away. So, I’m managing interruptions in advance. The first part of that is getting all of next week’s must-do’s done. And that includes writing this blog post. Which I was supposed to start an hour ago.

Breaking Your Calendaring 

But, I got interrupted with a last-minute dog boarding change, which resulted in me having to coordinate that, change plans, reverse payments, pay new people, and whatnot. Following that, I got a response to a for-sale item I had listed online. Wanting that extra $150 spending money for my vacation, I set up a time for the person to stop by and made that sale.

Compound that with a business issue where I’ve been troubleshooting something through a support ticket. It all got put back on me to address with another provider. So, I also had to re-start that ticket somewhere else. So, how did I get off track this morning? Life. Life just happens sometimes.

Many other things can break your calendaring as well. Sometimes, it is just procrastination. Or, a flat out emergency. One of my clients got called away for a family emergency the other day. Not only did that break her calendaring, but it also broke mine. What about when something just takes longer than was expected? Or a big one…you just don’t feel focused enough to work on the task you designated at that time.

I’m not going to lie. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed this morning, trying to get out for vacation. Managing interruptions and respecting my calendaring hasn’t worked for me today. But, that doesn’t mean all is lost! So, let’s get to the meat of this. How do you get back on track?

Getting Back on Track 

The first step is to recognize that you’ve blown it. You’ve probably passed up some calendar blocks. Hopefully, you didn’t actually miss any meetings, but it’s possible.

Once you are aware you’re off track, the next step is to avoid scrambling around like a crazy person. You have to actually stop and assess. Go back and figure out what you missed. If you actually missed a meeting with another person, it is imperative that you prioritize that communication. Get in touch with them, apologize, and figure out when you can reschedule.

The beauty of calendaring is that you did the active planning. So, you know what you were supposed to do, which allows you to accommodate, now, what you have to do. I will reference one of my favorite quotes here:

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

I’ve heard this attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, but also that it was a US Army maxim. The gist of this is that you learn so much from the planning that you can readjust. You learn so much through the exploration of options and contingencies that it is much easier to adapt.

Calendaring Tetris®  

So, let’s get to moving calendar blocks to accommodate the changes. It can be like working a puzzle. I find it kind of fun. If I could plan and schedule all day, that would probably make me happy. But, it’s also fairly unproductive, which makes me unhappy. So, the goal of rearranging is to do it as efficiently as possible.

If it is a working block you missed, there are four options:

  • compress it
  • reschedule it
  • skip it
  • change something else

Compress It

I try to cushion my calendar blocks because I know I like to get up, check Slack, pet the dog, get a drink, etc., while I’m working. So, for example, I’ve been thinking about the topic of this blog post all week. I’ve been pretty excited about it. It’s actually kismet that my calendaring broke this morning so I had good examples. With that said, I was able to reduce the 2-hour block for writing down to 1 1/2 hours, especially by not allowing myself to interrupt me!

Reschedule It

Assess whether your calendar block is necessary to do today. Look ahead a week or two and see where it might fit. If you are calendaring regularly, you should be able to see where you have availability. Perhaps you have to move some other things to accommodate the timeliness of moving the current block. But, if all your blocks in place, you should be able to find a hole.

There are times when you might be backed up and have to find a Saturday or an evening to fit the block. I don’t recommend that you allow this practice to become a habit. You need your time with your family and to recreate so you can clear your business brain to become more creative during your business time. But, from time-to-time, you might have to bite the bullet and give up some “free” time.

Skip It

What happens if you just choose to not do the “thing” at all? Was it time-sensitive and you missed the window? Or, in retrospect, with crunched time, is it just not important to ever do? It could be something that you just add back to a someday/maybe list that you will address at some time in the future. So, in this instance, that calendar block just disappears.

Change Something Else

Perhaps there is something later in your schedule that could be rearranged to accommodate your missed block of time. Go through the future items the same way that you went through the past ones. Can you compress, reschedule, or skip those? One of the things that helped me to get my schedule back on track today was that it appears it will never stop raining. So, I canceled the dog walk. Bummer for Shelby, but I can compress my part of that exercise time, which usually takes about 45 minutes, into a 20-minute yoga session. It gets me some exercise (although not as much), but gets me back on track.

Managing Interruptions (in the first place) 

If you are living in a world where you are constantly managing interruptions, you need to look at your overall process. What are those things that are regularly interrupting you? Can you get a virtual assistant to help you answer the phone, manage your emails, or to set your appointments? You can turn off Slack and email. It will be there when you come back.

Do you have processes and procedures set up in your business to handle client changes or support? What about sales? These are areas where you can automate and/or systematize to prevent interruptions. And, to help hand off tasks to others if you prefer.

Some interruptions are true, important, and urgent. But, if they are not, block those into your calendar to handle in the future and don’t let them take you off track.

If you need help systematizing, don’t hesitate to reach out. It’s part of what Beyond the Chaos does!

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