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The Golden Rule Online

Written by Eileen Parzek, © 2003

When I recently reorganized my contact database, I saw the tangible evidence of how many clients could also be consideredS friends and how long some of my business relationships have lasted. I reflected on the times that other business people have expressed concern that I was "too personal" with my clients. I didn't really listen because it felt unnatural for me to behave any other way. With the terms relationship building and relationship marketing popping up a lot lately as a critical way to build businesses, it occurred to me that it really is as simple as applying the Golden Rule online.

Right up front, I will say that I don't necessarily encourage folks to rush out and become friends with all their customers - it IS important to maintain a distinction. It may also be noted that I'm looking at this from the standpoint of a service-oriented business. That said, I do feel there is a great deal of ground between being cold and businesslike, and being a real person who just happens to be doing business online.

By simply using the Golden Rule, relationship building has become an hallmark of my businesses. And some of the most successful people I've known online conduct themselves in a similar fashion. Yet, so many others go in the opposite direction - they launch a web site and then sit back and do nothing. They get an email address and answer email when they feel like it. They make a sale and don't even bother to say thank you. This is a HUGE missed opportunity - the web offers so many free chances to build relationships with our customers, and so many tools to make it easier! Sadly, many times the sterility and anonymity of this technology leads people to treat their customers in ways that they may not dream of in a real-space environment.

Granted, the web has given a lot of introverts a way to make a living and thrive, without ever needing to dress up, schmooze, and shake hands. But that doesn't mean they can stop networking and building relationships! Human beings have been making decisions and forming alliances for thousands of years based on face to face meetings, first impressions and "gut reactions" to each others physical presence and body language. With all that stripped away, it is absolutely critical that we use other tactics to build credibility, communicate effectively, and get to know each other.

After a brief, sweet period where it felt like I was one of an elite group on earth that knew what "WWW" meant, I quickly became just one of thousands of faceless people stampeding onto the web to make a living. Certainly, having become known as "Turtle" helped brand me and made my business memorable. I think the more important decision was to be myself, and build relationships naturally. That is easier than it sounds, even if it doesn't come naturally! Simple things like just answering your emails in a timely manner (aim for under 48 hours but try within the business day), and putting a little effort into it, go a long way. Use an auto responder to tell people when you are away for longer than that, when they can expect to hear from you and stick to that, no matter the deluge of mail when you return. Use emoticons to indicate what you are feeling when you write - and let your personality shine through to the email. I tend to write like I would converse with someone in my emails. It does take time to respond - which is notoriously short in supply - but it is worth every minute, as my contact database attests. If this seems impossible, maybe you could find a way to store a set of canned responses that you customize so you don't have to type the same things over and over.

Keeping Do unto others as you would have them do unto you in mind, take the time to exercise your manners on the web. If you've asked for help from someone, do not ever lose sight of the fact that the person you've written to is also a busy human being - with the emphasis on human. I know I've made it my practice to always answer a legitimate email, and it saddens me when there was not even an acknowledgement that the information was received. Yet, I will keep doing it because that is what relationship building is about. For everyone who treats me like a "bot" made to do nothing but answer questions, someone else will remember the time I took, the knowledge I shared freely, and think of me when they need to hire or refer someone my way. The web is full of people sharing their experiences and ideas with others - how hard would it be if we remembered they were human, and shot out a quick note saying "thanks - you really helped me!" I've made some very interesting and brilliant friends that way! ;) «-- in case you don't already know, that there is an emoticon that says I'm winking when I wrote that.

Most of my work has been virtual - meaning, I've never met most of my clients. You simply can't survive and thrive in the virtual work environment without building relationships with your clients and associates using available technology. The key is to simply never forget that out of sight should NOT mean out of mind. You need to communicate regularly with them - give regular status reports, schedule a weekly phone call or chat, and make up for the distance by being in touch regularly. Remember, no one can see what you're up to - so if a crisis hits or you get super busy, you have to tell the people who are "out there" relying on you. It makes people queasy enough to deal with someone they can't see or watch so it is extremely important that you reassure and sooth them by communicating.

Another really natural but very effective strategy I've found is to not concern yourself with the clock too much when you get to talk with a virtual client. If you have the chance to talk to a client by phone, and the conversation does veer off into what funny thing their dog did or the house they are buying, consider that time spent (within reason) as an investment in the relationship you are building with this customer. And, if the client seems comfortable with it, offer little glimpses into your own existence too - carefully and thoughtfully, of course. Remember, they can't see you and may never experience your body language or expressions, but that doesn't mean you can't get to know each other, at least on the same level as you would in real life with a client or a colleague.

A few people are probably reading this and thinking "But, I really prefer to keep business and friendship strictly separated." I understand! I prefer not to work with people who are already friend or family because the dynamic is set to be just that, and things can get really wierd and murky. But, I have found that (assuming good boundaries and an open attitude) being friendly, acting human, and genuinely getting to know your customers and colleagues is invaluable. It builds trust, and strengthens lines of communication. Think about it - if a client thinks of you as a person, they are going to treat you better than if you were just a faceless somebody out there doing their bidding or providing a product. If trouble strikes, life is a lot easier if you had established a rapport with that customer first. But who needs trouble - my experience has been that I can make most anything work out, because I've got a good thing going with my clients, the relationships are long term and mutually beneficial, and life is a lot more pleasant when you really like the folks you deal with.

Of course, another benefit to building relationships on the web is that the referral field gets a lot broader - if you're good at what you do, build trustworthy, professional yet personable alliances, usually your customers and colleagues will have no qualms about giving one of their customers or friends into your care. And if your business relies on word of mouth like mine does, you simply can't afford to operate any other way.


Eileen Parzek is an award winning graphic and web designer providing digital and print graphic design and web design services. Always found at the intersection of information, creativity and technology, her business, Business Design Studio (www.businessdesignstudio.com) helps small businesses make a big impression.

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