Technology has undoubtedly made business more efficient. Instead of paper grids, finance professionals use electronic spreadsheets. Instead of sending notes through the postal system, they use email. Instead of tapping their on-the-desk calculators, they use smartphones or online tools.
And instead of travelling to meet a client, colleague, or prospective new customer, they often host virtual meetings, through a plethora of websites and apps. But, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “ay, there’s the rub.” While virtual meetings may reduce a company’s travel budget, save precious time, or simply make things easier, they also can put a company’s essential business relationships — the feeling of connectedness with clients or employees — at risk.
“Trust is an integral part of business relationships, and building trust is clearly a function of having repeated personal interactions with one another,” said Richard Arvey, Ph.D., psychologist and professor in the Department of Management and Organisation at the National University of Singapore Business School. Almost a decade ago Arvey published a white paper for the Hilton Family titled Why Face-to-Face Business Meetings Matter, and his findings are echoed by what professionals are saying today: that in-person meetings often provide more value than get-togethers facilitated via technology.
In-person meetings provide many benefits: the occasion for a handshake or humour; the chance to develop real social relationships over coffee or lunch; the ability to make eye contact and interpret other nonverbal cues; the capacity to learn about people and organisations; the time to strengthen one’s team. All of these also increase the likelihood of making the sale, said Ingolf Planer, president and CEO of Alu Menziken Extrusion, a Switzerland-based engineering and aluminium manufacturing company. “You need to make your customer understand what differentiates you from the competition,” he added.
“Business is made between people, not between machines,” Planer said. “Videoconferencing tools are ideal for tackling technology issues and doing operational day-to-day business, but it’s just not the right media for out-of-the-box thinking and conquering the world together with your business partner.” Planer travels extensively meeting clients and believes the process has been integral for his successful company, “a small player” in the aluminium extrusion field, he noted.
Vesa Ristikangas, executive coach at BoMentis Coaching House in Finland, works with corporate managers and stresses the importance of face-to-face meetings in-house as well, particularly in this age of telecommuting. These gatherings allow employees to air their opinions, become energised and enthused, and feel connected. They also create trust amongst workers. If communication is only conducted virtually, “You don’t get the potential out of the team,” said Ristikangas.
So how do professional managers maximise the value of face-to-face meetings? Planer and Ristikangas offer these tips:
Meet early and follow up. Meet clients early in the relationship to start building a rapport. Once a meeting ends, digest the information from it, and make a plan for moving forward together. Meet with your client at least once a quarter so that he or she knows you care. “Do not make it a one-time event,” Planer said. “Make it a routine with all of the people you really want to be in business with.”
Ask, listen, and learn. It’s easy to focus on the agenda at hand during an in-person meeting, but it’s even more important to understand the person sitting next to you and their situation. Ask as many questions as possible and listen intently. Create good questions to draw out your counterpart during the meeting. What problem does your client need to solve, and how can you help solve it? “The more questions you raise and create, the more you get out of a client,” Ristikangas said. Figure out “what drives their behaviour, and it will be a lot easier to do business with that person”, Planer added.
Augment formal with informal encounters. Planer often goes with clients to dinner, to sporting events, or on other excursions, along with their spouses. These outings help build relationships that augment formal business meetings during the year. “I have customers I go to the opera with and they love it — and three years later we talk about the tenor or soprano of the performance,” Planer said. “I have never experienced a customer reminding me of a videoconference we had two years ago.”
Challenge your employees. In-house meetings create difficulties, particularly in larger groups. Employees are often silent and reluctant to speak up, even though they may have valuable ideas to share. To get the most out of your internal gathering, put workers in pairs to help draw them out and to make conversations more personal. “Remember that your main task as a manager is to get people to think,” Ristikangas said. “So challenge them.”
— Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.