In a pandemic, business gets more personal

The pandemic has dramatically changed our relationships with clients, and business is no longer just business, says Bob Brody.

(Photo credit: Getty Images).
(Photo credit: Getty Images).

We who have clients expect a lot from those clients. Opportunities to perform our services. Occasionally impossible demands. Payment for our efforts. Maybe a little respect. But we never expect our clients to possibly save our lives.

Yet the pandemic has dramatically changed our relationships with clients. Yes, we still do what we've always done together: map out strategies, manage projects, meet deadlines and budgets. We're still operating as professional partners, still jumping through hoops, no matter how high.

Even so, business is no longer just business. In my experience as a consultant to corporations, nonprofits and individuals, I've seen a certain shift play out ever since the COVID-19 outbreak. Doing business has become much more personal. More than a few of my colleagues echo this observation.

For starters, clients increasingly express interest in matters unrelated to our collaborations. What's the status of the virus where you live? How are you managing working from home? How are your wife and children doing?

Clients also tell me more about themselves than ever before. One informed me that her husband had tested positive for COVID-19. Another revealed she was worried about her elderly parents and how her seven-year-old daughter would do without seeing all her friends in school. Still another gave me the lowdown on why she had recently moved her family from the city to the countryside.

We've come to know each other, clients and contractors, better than I can recall ever witnessing in my 30 years in public relations. Of all the topics I've discussed with clients over the years, such as implementing plans, following timetables and tracking progress, I never anticipated any asking about where I was living and working. I routinely hear about this client-as-new-friend phenomenon from my colleagues, too.

This new dynamic – we saw it after 9/11, too – recently came home to me thanks to a particular client of mine. We've both long specialized in healthcare communications, so we happened to get into a conversation about how the vaccination rollout was going. She mentioned recently getting immunized – a friend had helped her schedule the appointment – and then asked me if I had gotten my shot.

No, I told her. I was having difficulty navigating all the websites for the city and state where I live. I would fill out lengthy questionnaires, only to have to begin again. Appointments would appear to be available, only to suddenly evaporate. The rigmarole was all the more maddening because, as my client knows, I'm 65-plus and last visited my wife, daughter and two-year-old grand-daughter, Lucia Antonia, memorably nicknamed "The Meatball," in Italy more than a year ago.

The next day, this client sent me a link claiming a site near me had ample appointments available. Sure enough, I quickly booked a date and time. The next time we talked, I thanked her for her help, but I also let slip that I wished my appointment was sooner than six weeks. I never meant to insinuate that she should take action to correct this issue.

"Let's see what I can do," she said, and evidently scrolled through her phone searching for better opportunities for her vendor. Within a few minutes, she spotted an opening only 36 hours away. She then asked me for information to put in, including my birth date and address. Minutes later, an email confirmation for the appointment landed with a ping in my in-box.

In early March, on a bright Sunday afternoon, at a high school in Jamaica, Queens, I got vaccinated.

"You're my hero," I said. "I can never thank you enough, but I doubt that will stop me from trying."

My client, knowing I'm smitten with my granddaughter, then confessed her real motive. "Hey," she said, "whatever gets you to The Meatball sooner."

Bob Brody, a public relations consultant and essayist in New York City, is author of the memoir "Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age."

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