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Summary:

On Tuesday, I left my desk and made the short, yet scenic, drive from Marin County into San Francisco. I went into the city to meet a client — an editor I’d been working with mostly via email for the past six months.

On Tuesday of this week, I left my desk (and my laptop computer) and made the short, yet scenic, drive from Marin County into San Francisco. I went into the city to meet a client — an editor I’d been working with mostly via email for the past six months. I also met a video editor and producer at that same company I’d had numerous phone and email exchanges with.

The video editor and producer greeted me at the check-in desk, and the editor joined us a few minutes later. I had no idea what these people looked like before I’d met them, and their images in my imagination were fuzzy.

So why am I telling you this? I’m telling you because I’d almost forgotten how important real conversations, in real time, in real rooms, could be. That day I was reminded again that there is nothing like a face-to-face meeting.

I’m a huge fan of social media. I teach it; I write about it; I develop small business strategies around it. But I believe that even in today’s wired world in-person meetings meetings are a key ingredient in establishing relationships and an essential part of being productive.

After spending just an hour with my clients, I had a significantly deeper sense of who they were, how they operated and their personalities. All of which will make me more productive in working with them in the future. Besides, when I email them now, or speak to them on the phone, I can see their faces in my mind’s eye.

The impact of in-person meetings that I experienced personally this week has been studied in some depth by the fine minds at the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. In a 2009 global survey of 2,211 Harvard Business Review subscribers, 95 percent of respondents viewed in-person meetings as a key to success in building long-term relationships. Specifically, face-to-face meetings were seen as most effective for:

  • Negotiating important contracts (82 percent)
  • Interviewing senior staff for key positions (81 percent)
  • Understanding and listening to important customers (69 percent)

Joanne Black, author of “No More Cold Calling,” says she’s not surprised by the strong feelings businesspeople have about the productivity-enhancing properties of in-person contact. “We have become so organized around technology that we have almost forgotten what it’s like to talk to people,” says Black. “But when you find yourself face-to-face with someone, you realize you can explore, ask questions, keep asking more questions and get to the heart of the matter.”

Black points out that we have all had the experience of email trails that go on forever, until someone finally picks up the phone and resolves the issue in a matter of moments. “While in-person is the best,” says Black, “even having a phone conversation gets you so much farther in a conversation than the written word.”

Black recalls one instance where she was on a personal trip and decided to go visit a client she had only met once, very briefly. Black met with the woman for an hour and not only learned about the client’s family and life, but also how the organization worked and how they budgeted for their speakers. As a result of the meeting, Black booked two speaking events and became a regular contributor for the client’s publication. “This is a woman I could not even get to return a phone call,” says Black. “But if you say you are coming into town, that’s different. It’s special, even in today’s world.”

As a result of my recent experience, I’ve made a personal decision to go out of my way to make time for those special meetings with clients and business associates. To do more sit-downs, invite more people to lunch and pick up the phone more often. I am going to make the time to attend more brick-and-mortar conferences and, when all of that isn’t practical, use the video conferencing feature on Skype to at least get a visual on the person I am talking with. I am convinced these actions will not only make me more productive, but ultimately will be more satisfying.

Do you still make time for fact-to-face meetings?

Photo by Flicker user Simon Blackley licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

By Karen Leland

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  1. The majority of my work with clients is also done virtually. While I do love being able to work with people from all across the world, I still find that I’m able to get more done in a face-to-face meeting. In particular, being able to be physically present in a client’s workspace let’s me notice things it would never occur to the client to tell me.

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  2. Thank you for an interesting post. Also, I wanted to add that as a therapist I see some people that work from home and use mostly mobile communication and some have said there is an isolation that can develop without much interaction in person. And of course as you pointed out it makes getting to know another person much richer and can further business relationships.

    Deb

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  3. This is actually something that I wrote about a couple of years ago in a post for BT (http://www.insight.bt.com/blog/When-not-to-conference-call/). As you’d expect, a communications company like BT makes a lot of use of conferencing, voice calls, and other online collaboration systems. But this means that knowing when not to use them is a vital part of understanding how best to do business.

    I’d say there are three elements to consider. First, does your meeting require you to communicate passion? Passion for a project is something that doesn’t come across well electronically, even with video.

    Second, to what degree do you need physical collaboration? If your meeting will generate collaborative diagrams, sketches, or text then having someone there with you can be more effective.

    And finally, have you met the person before? If you haven’t, then meetings can be an opportunity to get to know a client or partner better, and engage with them socially in a way which is difficult online.

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  4. I am a technology and management consultant, and many times, when people hear what I do, they assume I work remotely / from home a lot. I always give them a resounding “no”.

    I prefer to be on-site with my clients as much as possible. I cannot do nearly as effective a job remotely, for exactly the reasons you have described. Words are only a small part of communication, and without face-to-face interaction, you are missing out on many of the other components (body language, etc.).

    There is also a higher volume of “casual conversation” when you are with someone in-person, and those conversations provide a lot more valuable information than most people realize, because they help you get to know the person’s passion, motivations, pet-peeves, strengths, weaknesses, etc.

    Great post.

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  5. I feel face to face you don’t get the same mixed signals which you can get online. You need to know what is expected and what their goals are in the long run. I know email this can happen but when you build relationships the trust factor comes through. You do business with people you know, like and trust. So it is easier to do so in person.

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  6. I think we will find that the built-in webcams are going to cause video conferencing to be more suitable to quick face to face meetings. Before this the webcams were extra costs and not something our companies would normally purchase. Be prepared for more face to face time over Skype and other methods. That is great! But still not the replacement for a real face to face meeting.

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  7. Meetings are mostly a waste of time and a load of hot air. The only two necessary meetings nowadays are interviews and massaging the ego of an old-fashioned (but important) client.

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  8. Meetings are a good way to build trust. Trust lets you do things that you can’t do with people you don’t trust.

    Of course, sometimes, the point is to get people to trust you so you can screw them over.

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