I always enjoy attending trade shows with my longtime colleagues from VT. I find that walking through an exhibit hall generates energy different from anything we experience in the average workday. This inspiration spurs interaction and conversation long after we’ve returned. This year, unfortunately, the concurrent scheduling of the National Automatic Merchandising Association’s and the Amusement and Music Operators Association’s annual expositions in two far-apart cities meant that all of us could not stay together, and I missed catching up with old friends.
Attending trade shows and conventions always reaffirms my belief that face-to-face interaction is a necessary part of doing business, both within your organization and outside of it. Case in point: When we moved our offices recently, it was suggested that we simply rent a small room as a central meeting-place where we would gather once a month; on most days, everyone would work remotely. This surely would have saved considerable expenses on rent and office furniture, but although I was tempted by the cost reduction, I decided against it.
There’s no doubt that progress in technology has allowed many of us to work away from the office when necessary. I love the fact that I can communicate with my clients from the comfort of my couch when I don’t feel like sitting at my desk. I also enjoy the convenience of taking my files with me when I travel. This permits me to provide the best customer service possible, no matter where my schedule takes me. And email has proven a wonderful medium to publicize trade shows, and then for following up on the leads.
Even so, as I see it, the engineers have not found a substitute for "face time" with your staff – or your customers. Human interaction is like recharging an exhausted battery. Anyone can go through the motions of doing their daily tasks, but every so often we need motivation and inspiration from sources outside ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong: Online "conferencing" solutions like "GoToMeeting" might be very useful. But when you participate in a "webinar" or buy an item online, you start by knowing exactly what you want to purchase or accomplish. By contrast, it’s the chance encounters, the discovery of items that you’ve never seen before, that make walking a trade show so beneficial.
Last month, I talked about the fact that in business, buying can be based on relationships as much as it is on specifications and product requirements. Even when we are buying on behalf of our companies, we are social animals. Developing good verbal rapport is very important, at a minimum; and we often feel the need to look the seller in the eye before signing a big contract.
Most companies recognize this, and spend the bulk of the sales and marketing budget on building a strong and capable sales force, whether inside on the phone or out in the field. Conversations are required to sell. And the most fruitful environment for conversations, of course, is a physical event where hundreds or thousands of qualified prospects make your life easy by coming to a single city and gathering under a single roof for the primary purpose of conversing with people like you.
Bringing together like minds with common goals is educational and invigorating. And, let’s admit it – we all could use some helpful stimulus about now, and reinforcement of our common purpose. Philosophical works from Aesop’s Fables to Pink Floyd’s The Wall have reminded us that "united we stand, divided we fall."
In today’s business climate, it’s easy to justify swapping your physical office for a much cheaper virtual one, if you overlook those psychological elements. And it might be tempting to forgo that trip to Las Vegas or Chicago in favor of logging onto a Web conference instead. Who needs to pay a surcharge for checked luggage when you can enjoy virtual travel in your chair?
Maybe you do. The Internet has done a lot for communication, but it has not eliminated the need for personal interaction. The apparent upfront savings may turn into a major expense when your customers no longer know who you are, your employees have become routinized and you find yourself out of touch with the outside world.
Of course the way we do business needs to evolve. And we need to get smarter about using all the available tools in concert to integrate our marketing communications. The Internet provides many new ways to help do that, and so it can be a powerful aid to efficiency (sometimes).
It is well worth keeping in mind that technology is meant to enhance our experiences, not limit them. The idea is to widen your horizon, not narrow your field of view. I’m all in favor of using all our wonderful new resources wisely and productively – and this "wisdom" teaches us to use technology for what it can do: improve the accuracy of calculation and reporting, speed up targeted research and free humans from mindless repetitive tasks. Developing systems that take full advantage of those potentials will free up time and resources.
A reward for doing that is our ability to get off the couch more often, and go out and talk to one another.