Make Eye Contact Every Time – Even Virtually

by | Dec 20, 2015

Eye contact. It’s a big deal.

It makes us feel like we are connecting with the other person. It makes use feel like the other person sees us as human and cares what we are saying. (They may not but at least if feels that way.)  Eye contact is personal, welcoming, and conveys respect in modern society.  Eye contact conveys trust. Eye contact is the secret of a great handshake. It is the secret of great networks and great sales people. It is what we teach our children to do to appear genuine and respectful and to signal that they are paying attention. It is the secret to great in-person customer service.

The absence of eye contact conveys something a little shifty and untrustworthy about the individual or the transaction. We teach people to not make eye contact when they don’t want to engage a specific person, maybe a seemingly dangerous person on the street or the subway for example, and it usually works. No eye contact = don’t talk to me.

Eye contact is also the secret to not getting squished while exercising on the road.

I’ve been running a lot lately (and by a lot I mean frequently not a lot of distance, just to be clear). Running in the city means you have to cross a number of streets and alleyways, many of which don’t have traffic lights or typical rules of the road, and doing so safely requires an unspoken partnership between the runner and the driver. The onus falls on the runner to kick off this partnership. Making eye contact with a driver allows the runner (or biker or walker) to know that the driver sees her and it activates that momentary partnership: “I’m going to cross in front of your car and are you good with that?” or “I’m going to turn right so stay right there on the sidewalk, runner” or “I’m not going to pull out of this parking spot until you get passed me.”

 Without eye contact, or a traffic light, the runner and the driver are not engaged with each other. They don’t know if the other person saw them at all. The runner is usually at the disadvantage here because they are smaller, less protected, and crossing the roadway that the driver is already in. Eye contact doesn’t ensure that you will get this silent partnership right – nods and pointing help too – but without the eye contact you can’t even get the partnership started. 

Two days ago I was trying to cross an alley that comes out from behind a building into a main road. A delivery truck and I hit the intersection at the same moment. I stopped on the sidewalk’s edge to his right, he stopped at the intersection to make sure he could safely pull out. I cross this alley a lot and normally a driver will look both ways, catch my eye, acknowledge me, and nod for me to pass by him because it will take a while for him to get out into the roadway. This time the driver looked to the left, saw that the traffic was too busy to let him out, and the he started reading something on his phone. I was stuck on his right waiting for eye contact – waiting for him to let me know he saw me so I could pass either in front of him or behind him. We sat there like that for what seemed like an eternity (probably 20 seconds) before he looked up from his phone, made eye contact, put down his phone, and pulled out. 

Of course in the big scheme of things, and my glacial running pace, this 20 seconds was not a big deal but it reminded me of how critical eye contact is in personal relations. I was talking to a colleague recently who does sales trainings and he was telling a story about how hard it is to train new sales people to make eye contact during networking.  And there it was again: eye contact, it’s the secret weapon. People need to be acknowledged to know you have their best interest in mind or at least are hoping to have their best interest in mind in your partnership. Ceatro Group recently did some research on the culture of collaboration in companies and what makes collaboration work well. What was the secret to starting it off well? Bingo – human to human interaction, even if just over video conference. Why? Eye contact makes us know the other person is a real person and let’s us solidify the partnership.

Since I run so slowly I have had a lot of time to think about stuff while running and the lack of eye contact sometimes got me thinking about, you guessed it, customer experiences. Do we effectively achieve what “making eye contact” conveys through out the experiences we offer to customers? If we did this, even virtually, would it let customers feel like we cared more about them and that we were in a partnership? Yes, I think it would. Much of what upsets customers about companies is how cavalier they seem to be with feelings, values, and things that are important (money, time, property, effort) to the customers. We can’t get a customer experience 100% right for everyone so what if we made customers feel like we cared about them like we would if we were in person? They would give us more leeway.

Just like organizations, drivers are considering a lot of things when driving and that is the art of driving.  I’ve noticed in the last few months that it is very hard to get eye contact from drivers, especially at the end of the business day, because of … you guessed it, texting/emailing/Facebooking, and driving. (If you don’t know why doing this is so bad read these statistics and sad stories.) Actually it is more like “Texting and Rolling” in traffic jams and at stop signs.  Recently, as a driver almost rolled into me in a crosswalk, I gave him a “Come on! I’m a human. Right. Here!” look and he gave me a “Hey! I was busy reading my phone, what do you want from me?” hand gesture.

I’m not sure about the driver education class you took to get your license but in Maine, where I got my license, we were taught two things that have stuck with me: if there is a rolling ball there is a running child not far behind it and the driver is always responsible for the horse on the side of the road; the horse is not responsible for the driver. (That last one might have been unique to Maine, huh?) The driver is responsible for the less protected people and things on the road just like the organization is responsible for their customers. Figuring out how to let your customers know you see them and acknowledge them, in all parts of the experience, is just something you have to do.

I was recently in a group of 20 business and non-profit executives for a discussion about employee engagement. The facilitator asked the group whether they would rather buy a car that was $500 less expensive from a person they didn’t like or spend $500 more to buy it from a person they liked and appeared to have their best interest in mind. 90% of the room chose the second option. Data tell us that people buy from people, not from companies. In enterprise sales and relationship management we can dedicate a real person to the account because of the large value of the contracts and make that real eye contact happen. But in most other customer experiences we either have people on the end of a phone, over email, or there are no people at all, there is just technology. No real eye contact.

How can we make virtual eye contact? How can we make the customer (the singular customer) feel like the organization looked into their eyes and acknowledged them:  “I see you. We are going to do this together” ? This is what customer experience is really about:  your customer gives you something valuable to them (time, money, effort, property, loyalty) and you give them something that is valuable to them in return (usually the product or service) and it is better for everyone if this happens under an unstated halo of trust and partnership. The organization gets more time with the customer, gets more chances to get it all right, and the customer feels willing to participate with the company, even if there are hiccups along the way. Under that halo the organization doesn’t just give them the product or the service, they give them the product, the service, respect, trust, acknowledgement, and so on. A little mushy? Yes. But it is the reality of human relations.

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Originally published on September 28, 2013