How to develop relationships digitally

Can interpersonal skills really be taught effectively via digital platforms?

Humans are social by nature; most of us prefer to interact in person. Apply a filter, whether it’s a video call, email or text chat, and we have to find a whole new range of tools to make sure what we mean is what is understood. 

This is a particular minefield for those in professions that lean heavily on interpersonal skills. The areas of sales, business development, teaching, journalism and more all depend on learning how to be what some might call a “people person”. 

With a huge shift to online interactions, the challenge is twofold: how do we train and then replicate interpersonal skills in an almost totally digital environment? 

Digital is not a barrier to learning

“I don’t see the difference between having a cup of coffee with someone versus having a Zoom. If I start putting up mindset barriers then psychologically that has a big impact. You have to normalise this,” says Heather White, chief executive of Smarter Networking. 

White reels off the tips and tricks for adapting the in-person approach to a digital version. One notable aspect is time; online the rule of thumb appears to be that the time needed for a conversation is halved. But other rules remain largely the same. As you might connect with someone over your surroundings in a café or office, so you do the same across a video call, picking out interesting items in their background or even bringing a prop, such as the latest book you’re reading, to create an interesting segue in the conversation. 

“If you translate these skills online, it’s near enough the same stuff. The only difference is that you’re on conference calls and you can see them looking at different screens. The format is slightly different. That’s all it is,” says White. 

Piers French, director of clients, supported living, at, agrees: “There isn’t a secret sauce for a Zoom meeting. It’s connecting with a person who sincerely wants to do some good for them.” 

Developing authentic connections with people seems to be key to successful relationships in digital environments and perhaps the last 12 months has been a fast track to getting to the point. “We’ve learnt more this year from clients than any possible selling techniques. You’re having more in-depth, valuable conversations.” French adds.

Adapting to the digital medium

That’s not to say raw authenticity doesn’t need a polish. Without some of the delaying tactics common to in-person connections – it’s not called an elevator pitch for nothing, it may be quick but the audience is captive – it’s hard work developing a cold connection digitally.

“We took on three recruits who had never done outbound selling in our industry before and taught them about how to secure time with a busy executive. That meant researching the right people in a business and creating a warming email that shows them as worthy of that person’s time,” says French. 

Maggie Jones, director of qualifications and partnerships at the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), agrees interpersonal skills via the written word has boomed in lockdown: “One of the most important soft skills to learn now is actually writing because that’s how people are interacting with their customers. Our copywriting courses are now one of our most popular because you have to get the message across as succinctly as possible. If you don’t get that initial email right…”

But, by and large, the online environment has presented as many opportunities as it has challenges. The ability for more junior staff to get involved, receive real-time feedback and take a leap of faith. 

Embrace shadowing for deeper learning

Kate Hamilton, global customer experience manager at petcare company Lintbells, explains how customer service representatives are able to explore resources and receive support, wherever they are. “We’re adapting as best we can remotely. A lot of it is about listening to calls in real time and we make sure we can still do that. We also have a buddy scheme so if they feel they benefit from ‘sitting’ with other people. Finally, we invested in a new customer service system that will let us create a bank of best-in-class calls and this lets us work on specific soft skills.”

Being able to “lurk” digitally by both managers and junior staff has been seen as a huge benefit. Aaron Shields, executive director of experience strategy, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Landor & Fitch, notes the previously somewhat performative and often highly orchestrated process of client pitching in the marketing agency sector has been opened up to more junior staff, allowing them to learn at potentially an accelerated pace. 

“The great thing about lockdown in terms of less experienced staff is you used to have to worry about ‘casting’ who was in the room. That’s gone away. The junior folk are present a lot more than they used to be in client-facing meetings. They’re getting to see the client’s eyes light up and have more exposure,” he says. 

Support for emotional fallout

Support has perhaps been the hardest part of managing interpersonal and soft-skills learning remotely. “We forget with skills and relationship building that it can be difficult to do that behind the screen. We make sure they have support and know who they can go to,” says Hamilton, noting it’s a sad fact of their business that customers cancel subscriptions due to the death of a pet. “When you’re sitting on your own it’s hard,” she acknowledges.

Kate Gardhouse, CIM director of customer experience, IT and operations, says digital learning still has a way to go to replicate vital office interactions that are more than just watercooler chat. She says: “What people miss is learning by osmosis, overhearing a colleague dealing with a situation and learning from that. I have so much admiration for the people who have joined our business in the last year because this is so much harder to do from the spare room. If you’re in the office and have a bad call, your colleagues are there to bring you up.”