What do meetings, lunch & learn sessions, and workshops look like in a virtual world?
In today’s current environment, businesses are changing the way they think about engaging with their customers, partners, and clients. Since we can no longer see each in the same meeting location, or visit each other’s offices and shared workspaces, or attend yearly technical conferences, we are searching to find new ways to build, engage, and nurture these relationships.
Salespeople know this better than anyone.
Before the coronavirus, sales was the art of blending offline interactions with online check-ins, and so forth. But since the coronavirus has forced companies all over the world to shift to almost 100% remote, those touchpoints have become entirely digital—dramatically changing the playing field.
I have been in the technology universe for many years, and I can personally say I’ve never quite experienced anything like what we’re going through today. Looking back when I was in IT management at a large FSI corporation, I vividly remember when the tech bubble burst in 1999. The same for the housing crisis impact of 2008. But watching the entire world move to a virtual-first model where physical offices feel like a thing of the past has been one of the biggest changes of my entire career. And as the co-founder and CTO of a content security firm, Reveille Software, for the past 18 years, I can say first-hand the coronavirus has changed the way we’ve had to think about engaging with our clients and partners from afar.
Here are 4 things we’ve found to be crucial to holding productive meetings, sessions, and events virtually, especially for partner development.
1. Schedule virtual meetings during convenient times for all parties with priority to the desired audience.
Just because everyone is “working from home” doesn’t mean everyone is (or should be expected to be) available all hours of the day—and night.
In the predominantly virtual environment, business leaders are learning a new kind of etiquette. When it comes to scheduling video conferences especially, you need to be conscious of what you’re asking from the person on the other side. For example, if you’re coordinating a call with someone on the US west coast, and someone in Europe and you’re on the US east coast, don’t set the meeting for 7 p.m. or 7 a.m. their local time. While some people might make the effort to wake up early (or stay up late) to make certain call times work, you want to avoid asking this up front. They are already juggling time zones for their own internal meetings.
As a rule of thumb, always try to find times that are most convenient for the prospects, clients, or partners you’re looking to engage—with the time zone priority given to the desired senior participant meeting attendees. And be respectful of the work from home dynamics—if there are inquisitive homebound children, lunchtime or the dinner hour is probably not the best selection. Video is great for gauging non-verbal reactions and most everyone enables it by default, but make it optional until you understand the comfort level of the attendees.
2. Have a focused agenda sent ahead of time to make the most productive use of time.
Jeff Bezos has a number of well-known clever tactics for holding highly productive meetings.
According to Inc. Magazine:
- No team (in a meeting) should be larger than can be fed by two pizzas.
- No PowerPoints. Instead, a 6-page narrative memo is sent to everyone ahead of time.
- Start with silence: allow everyone 30 minutes to read the memo, silently, together before discussing.
Now, I support using such tactics when they fit, but to avoid lengthy video meetings, we’ve found it’s most productive to send a targeted agenda with pre-meeting background information several days ahead of time. People are then able to skim them and come to meetings or workshops better prepared, so that we can crisply explain and speak directly to the questions they have, and/or the information they want to spend time discussing. Focus on their issues, not your process and procedures.
As a company, we spend a significant amount of time, energy, and effort educating our partners and clients, so finding ways to better equip them with the resources they need is crucial.
3. Provide multiple channels for people to engage with the content you’re providing and discussing.
Building on the above, it’s important to take the time to understand how your clients and partners want to engage and learn from you.
The standard approach is to send around some written content, materials, PDFs, etc. However, more and more, customers and partners are looking for other, potentially easier ways to consume the same information, faster. Some people learn better by watching videos, for example, or listening to an explanation via audio, or roleplaying a situation. What’s important, and this is especially true on the partner side of things, is that you do not think solely in terms of “one size fits all.” Or as a recent Broadway play said “Talk less, smile more.”
Yes, you want your information to be scalable, but if you truly want to build meaningful relationships with other partners, vendors, and companies, then you need to find ways to provide the right information in the right ways for that specific individual or group. Mix up your content for the meeting. Consider random poll questions to help generate interaction versus the meeting by inquisition flavor.
4. Make virtual meetings more engaging by sending physical materials and/or involving some form of entertainment (or edu-tainment).
One of the classic techniques for making “lunch & learns” more engaging is to have a noteworthy speaker present a relevant topic.
In the virtual world, this is even easier and more feasible to execute. Not only are you able to pull from a wider group of talent (than who would be able to show up physically and locally), but you are also able to work around people’s schedules. You can have a speaker hop in for the last fifteen minutes of a virtual meeting, add value to the group, and then jump off to their next engagement.
In addition, you can also combine the virtual world with the real world by sending attendees a food or gift certificate to have physical goods arrive at their doors. For example, Microsoft held a virtual event in May where attendees were sent a box of swag, similar to the sorts of stuff you’d receive if you attended a Microsoft conference in a convention center. These gestures symbolize how, in the coming years, we very well may move to an environment where virtual events, meetings, workshops, and so on, become the priority, with “offline events” becoming more rare, specialized, and more expensive.
For us as a company, partner development in a virtual world is going to be centered around making sure the people we work with feel the same level of engagement online as they would as if we were right there in the room with them. So finding ways like the above to help people feel interested, prepared, educated, and even a little entertained, is crucial to building and nurturing long-term partner relationships.