Not everyone is wowed by virtual meeting technology, but is there a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater? One such example is a survey conducted recently on behalf of Crowne Plaza Hotels, which makes the blindingly obvious observation that people prefer to meet face to face, rather than virtually.
This isn't exactly news to most of us. Especially coming from a hotel chain with more than a small vested interest in getting people to travel and stay at, well, hotels like theirs. But if we work round the inbuilt bias, the survey actually came up with some interesting statistics cited that are worth bearing in mind for to anyone trying to use virtual meeting tools appropriately.
First, let's get the obvious things out of the way.
47% of business people believe they had lost a contract or client simply because they didn't have enough face to face meetings, which resulted in the estimated yearly revenue loss of 24%. That's a bunch. And, if true, is cause for concern.
Of course, how many deals have been lost because people finally realized who they were actually working with when they meet in person is a very open question. And conveniently, we know nothing about how much virtual contact they had in between visits. Were they in constant contact, or were there gaping black holes in communication?
81% of survey respondents say face to face is the best way to build strong, trusting relationships with customers. No argument there.
66% have reported the number of virtual meetings they attend has increased in the last 5-10 years. That makes sense given that prior to that time they pretty much didn't exist. But who are the other third of people who were using some alien communication technology before the rest of us found out about it?
But of course, we need to remember that the type of business travelers whose expense accounts run to Crowne Plaza Hotels are going feel differently than someone whose company will only pay for them to stay at the local Motel 4. And we also need to bear in mind that the decision to have a virtual meeting is not always about money. Time, space and dimension play a role as well.
Some other results from the survey include the fact that apparently the average live meeting starts after 7.5 minutes of "light hearted small talk". In the UK and US, this seems to often take the form of talking about the weather, as opposed to places like China, India and the Emirates, where current events is the most current topic. The fact that the weather in the UAE seldom changes may account for that. ("Hmmmm 35 degrees and sunny again. Next topic…")
It also seems that face to face meetings are most important when starting a relationship, negotiating terms and closing a deal.
OK, so here's what I take away from this.
First, we get caught up in this "real or virtual" debate when it should be when we use each, rather than simply if we use them. There are times, like when you're negotiating a large deal, that you want to be eye to eye with the other person. Where it makes sense, get on the darned plane. On the other hand, there is a lot of critical, interstitial contact that can be maintained virtually. Take advantage of it. It's not either / or.
Secondly, the small talk and "getting to know you" stuff is important. What's often ignored, though, is that this can be accomplished virtually, we just often don't do it well. We treat getting online as something to be endured and kept to an absolute minimum. In the interest of "making the best use of everyone's time" we cut out the very things that can help humanize virtual connections - getting to know the people you're working with.
Webcams, posting pictures, taking the time to allow small talk (and somewhere in between 0 and 7.5 minutes is probably the right amount) and encouraging participation throughout the meeting can help to alleviate much of the feeling that we are not creating real relationships or building trust.
What happens is that we often don't use the right tool at the right time, and when we do, we use it poorly. Are you and your team letting your discomfort with the technology get in the way of using it well?
Odds are, we should take advantage of the chance to meet face to face. When we can't, we should maximize whatever value we can get from those virtual interactions. How are you and your team doing on that front?