What is Virtual Coaching and What’s New?

Traditionally, individual coaching (or therapy) happens face-to-face and is usually confined to a fixed setting. Now that technologies like smartphones and wireless internet can replicate the functions of an in-person session, face-to-face coaching and therapy is evolving to virtual mediums.

Geographical locations and fixed schedules are no longer barriers because virtual coaching or therapy is done via phone, video conference, email, SMS, iMessage, WhatsApp, FaceBook and a myriad of other apps.

Current Market and Technology Trends

As a reformed angel investor[2] from Silicon Valley, it is second nature for me to spot trends within trends. The mobile web trend was overtaken by smartphone apps, and now apps stand poised to be overtaken by on-demand virtual assistants that use any messaging channel.

Why load your device up with dozens of specific apps, when it’s easier to just message what you want?
New startups like Operator, Magic, Swell, Alfred, Zirtual, Kit and others are innovating the interface for next-gen on-demand services for both consumers and business users.

Behind the curtain there is a mix of humans and artificial intelligence (think Apple’s Siri) working on your request. Their goal is to provide you a concierge-like experience, like having your very own virtual assistant.

In addition to the above mentioned virtual assistants, the next generation of virtual coaches and therapists are emerging as well.

For instance, Talkspace – the all-you-can-text therapy startup – raised $9.5 million in financing.[3].

Latern offers mental health on demand and recently secured $4.4 million in ounding and claims to have 3,000 users.

Cloud 9 offers technology for psychology, claiming to be like Uber for video therapy and Fitbit for your feelings.

iCouch is a HIPPA compliant platform for users seeking therapy and therapists to manage their schedule, billing and therapy sessions.

Mentegram offers patient engagement for mental and behavioral health by monitoring clients’ triggers, confirms clinical diagnosis, and provides insights for treatment plan modification.

The list goes on.

Of course, this ‘virtual’ trend will have both winners and losers. For instance Google closed its Helpouts service in April 2015.[4]

What Virtual Technology Can And Can’t Do

Some factors become more important in virtual scenarios versus in-person coaching or therapy. Non-verbal communication cues such as body language is read through tone of voice or choice of words. A virtual coach must discern attitude through a video call, read between the lines in text message or email, and watch for subtle clues in FaceBook or WhatsApp response patterns.

Other differences to bear in mind are:

  •  Building a trusted bond with a virtual coach may take a bit more concentration.
  •  Virtual coaching is a two-way dialogue. It’s a process, not a one-way Tweet to ‘fix it.’
  •  Multitasking during a virtual session will reduce its benefits to you.[5]
  •  Virtual communications usually occur in smaller bursts. One must be careful not to lose the depth or context of the issue being discussed.
  •  Virtual coaching sessions are more flexible than “office hours,” but a regular frequency is important to keep momentum (every two weeks on average is optimal).[6]

Is Virtual Coaching Right For End Users?

1. The number one factor to consider in virtual coaching is the end users level of technology savvy. Are they comfortable doing video conferencing or instant messaging by themselves or do they require IT support?[7]

2. Does the medium fit the end users’ personality type? Studies show that introverts tend to perform well in electronic conversations and even prefer a healthy distance over face-to-face conversations.[8] (Note: If one’s goal is to develop interpersonal skills, this medium is not congruent with that goal).

3. Can end users build bonds and express themselves easily in writing? Aside from audio and video, much of your communication with a coach will be in asynchronous text.[9]

4. Can the end users coach keep up with them? Can the virtual coach follow an end users’ train of thought as they shift between phone, text, Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter DM, and a myriad of other apps?

Response times and availability are key factors when coaching across multiple time zones and geographies. Is your coach available seven days per week? Do they offer a guaranteed response time for communications between scheduled sessions?

Virtual coaching and therapy is predominantly technology driven at the moment. At this stage, it is too early know how market adoption will play out. But it will be interesting to watch which end users will adopt virtual mediums and which end users will respond better to traditional methods.

Jeff Propoff is a successful executive who has served as vice president in a Fortune 500 company as well as several Silicon Valley startups. He is a LinkedIn Top 25 Executive Health Coach and contributor  to the Men’s Health Network. You can learn how to lead stronger and lead longer at The Healthy Executive.

References:

1Do You Read Fast Enough to be Successful? Forbes
2. Jeff’s profile on AngelList
3. Text therapy startup raises $9.5 million, CNN Money
4. Google Helpouts is Shutting Down, Forbes
5. The Myth of Multi Tasking C.Rosen.

6.Coaching Frequency Study ,Coaching Research Institute
7. p.295 Advancing Executive Coaching, Gina Hernez-Broome, Lisa A. Boyce, 2010
8. Hubschman 1996, Hamilton & Scandura 2003
9. Giadagno & Caildini, 2002

Smartphone conference photo available from Shutterstock