Is face-to-face dead?

Robo-advice, artificial intelligence, automation... with so many buzzwords doing the rounds in the business community of late, it begs the question: how important are face-to-face interactions?

Technology has come a long way since the Nokia 3310. The novelty of playing Snake on your mobile phone is now superseded by superfluous functions which have changed the way that we do business.

Smashing out 20 emails in the commute to work is a much bigger achievement than creating the longest snake while in transit. Communication is no longer limited to telephone: Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, Wechat, FaceTime are now household apps, which almost completely overcome the need to meet face-to-face to communicate with clients.

So then the question becomes, how important is face-to-face?

The digital dilemma of human interaction is not just limited to clients. It is the interaction between all stakeholders in each business which makes the wheels turn and ultimately the dollars come.

How you engage with all of these participants can often shape and determine the effectiveness of your communication, and ultimately hugely impact the success of your business. As such, I’d like to explore a number of reasons that face to face is still critical in the modern era:

1. Stronger connections

There is something about meeting someone face-to-face that leaves a lasting impression and a stronger connection. Speaking and interacting in someone’s physical presence often means you can develop a stronger relationship faster and get greater engagement from them.

In my meetings with clients, I often use diagrams or spreadsheets as a tool to elaborate on my ideas, so that clients can visualise the potential of their dreams.

How much better is it workshopping complex deals with a BDM face-to-face, and how often do we say that it is always nice to finally put a face to a name?

While Skype allows you to partially achieve this and feel the personality and charisma of an individual, there is an additional element of aura created from physical presence, which is more impactful in my experiences.

2. Body language

There are a number of non-verbal cues that can signal how clients are feeling and for good operators, this should influence the way that you continue the appointment.

As an example, crossing your arms can be an indication that there is a more to be heard, clients are yet to be convinced or there is an element of disagreement.

You should be able to read this and adapt quickly so that in the limited time you have with your client, you can still sell your expertise in a way that is relevant to them and therefore adds value.

Facial expressions are another way that you can identify how they are digesting the content and advice you provide.

For a perplexed client, coupling this with a soft tone of voice means that they may be more comfortable admitting that they aren’t on the same page and don’t understand the concept you are conveying. After all, a committed client is one who truly understands you and your value.

3. Misinterpretation and sensitivity

There is no doubt that face-to-face interaction can minimise the misinterpretation over other forms of communication. 

Time is always the scarce commodity so we default to emails or voice messages if people are unable to speak over the phone. Using your tone or body language can aid how you convey a message without it being misinterpreted (especially if it is negative).

For example, if a critical deal is struggling to get approved and your support staff need assistance, being able to sit down with them and work through the scenario both to get the deal approved and to assist with their professional development is immeasurable and sets you apart from a workplace culture perspective.

This would be much better than emailing them frustrated because they cannot bridge the gap.

Similarly, if there are sensitive issues that you need to address, be it acceptable behaviours in the workplace or letting someone go, it is always much easier to deliver negative news in person so you can feel the way they are taking it on and adapt your tone and choice of words accordingly.

At the end of the day, time is the scarce resource. If we had all the time in the world, it would be great to do everything face-to-face, but it is also very inefficient and unproductive.

Whatever business you apply it to, we are all in the business of people. Whilst the product from which we derive our income is different, it is the relationship that you forge with your clients and your stakeholders that makes you better than the rest.

Even though face-to-face can sometimes be difficult to accommodate due to distance or conflicting schedules, I always try to do the first meeting face-to-face to build the rapport, establish the relationship and move to teleconference, Skype, emails and text thereafter.

Natasha Choi is a lending investment manager for the Australian Lending and Investment Centre.

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