I had to laugh the other day when I came across a web site for a company that made web conferencing software and saw a big ad for their annual User Conference splattered across the top of their home page. Join us in Orlando!....
After all, their value proposition was all about saving time and money, improving efficiency, increasing productivity, and growing green by replacing costly, pesky, jet-fuel consuming in- person meetings with online versions.
But - of course - even in this day and age of second lives and virtual everything, human contact matters.
When I worked at NaviSite, my two closest colleagues and friends were my fellow Opinionated Marketers, John and Sean. (John, of course, you know from his opining here. Trust me, Sean is just as opinionated.) NaviSite, when we were there, was an agglomeration of small Internet services companies, pretty much scattered all over the place: Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Texas, California. John, Sean, and I communicated daily - sometimes incessantly. We would e-mail periodically, and pretty much IM throughout the day. If we found that our IM conversations were getting to long, we'd get on the phone.
We also saw each other in person irregularly - Sean drove from Syracuse to Andover (where NaviSite HQ was) every couple of weeks, John flew in from DC (and, later, Houston) every month or so. Yes, our working relationships were forged through a lot of IM-ing and conference bridge calls. But our friendships were guaranteed when we saw each other in person.
What did facetime get us that virtual didn't?
- Hang time: When John and Sean were in town we'd have at least one lunch and one dinner together. We also go to take walks around the parking lot (more fun than it sounds).Here's where we really got to know each other, and learn what made each of us tick.
- Nuance time: I don't care how good the audio and video are, you really miss the facial expressions, body language, and intonations that help you understand what people are saying - and just who they are.
We were all in the same group, so we were working together pretty closely, participated in a lot of the same meetings, etc. But if you're not in the same group, and the only time you're with people is for an official meeting that's conducted virtually, you'll never get to know the people you don't have to know. No running into someone in the kitchen or caf. No getting to meet the guy in the office next to the person you're there to see. Business might be conducted more efficiently when it's all virtual, but sometimes you're going to miss out on the spark divine that gets struck during a more casual encounter. Creativity, communication, networking, you never know...
If it works this way with internal colleagues, it certainly works that way with customers.
Obviously, it's more a business "thing" than it is a consumer "thing." I don't really need to know L.L. Bean's grandson now, do I?
But if you're in high ticket, B2B - or doing consulting work - it's absolutely essential to put a face on things once in a while.
Not for every encounter, or course, or even for every other one. There's much to be said for virtual meetings. If nothing else, they're far easier to cancel and reschedule if something comes up. And there's no question that without travel time on either end, they're more cost and time efficient.
But sometimes you - especially in the early going of a relationship - you want to be eye-to-eye. You want to know what your customer looks like, what's on the office walls, what they take in their coffee. You want to get to know whether that pause in the conversation means they're thinking about what you said, rolling their eyes, or staring off into space. You want to see how they interact with others around them. And the customer, of course, wants to size you up, too.
John, Sean, and I haven't worked together for over 3 years. We were, in fact, all pink slipped on the same day when "our side" lost out in a major post-acquisition political shoot-out. We were all laid off via phone calls. We let each other know the news via IM. We got together on the phone that afternoon.
But - thanks to those non-refundable airline tickets from Houston - we all got together in Andover the next week for our final farewell dinner at The Chateau - attended by about 50 or so of our former colleagues, and with the tab picked up by a couple of Navi VP's. It was a lot more meaningful that we got to say our final good-byes with hugs, rather than emoticons.
These days we keep up with each other - and work on projects with each other - virtually. And with phone meetings. And - blessedly - with occasion "reunions". One's coming up.
IM looking 4ward 2 c-ing u both. (:))