I’m often asked why I travel so much. Why do I insist upon meeting with clients in person rather than on the phone? Why fly five hours to meet with analysts? Why travel to Hong Kong or Tokyo or Paris to meet with regional PR agencies? Can’t you just have a conference call? Isn’t that what telepresence is for?
My answer is in five parts, but all boil down one thing—relationships. I believe building and maintaining positive relationships is one of the most powerful things you can do to be successful in business and meeting in-person makes that possible.
First, I am a person, not an email address or a phone number. When I meet with someone in person, I get to know them and they get to know me. I know that it’s possible to build meaningful relationships remotely, but there’s nothing like spending a day in a conference room and then going to dinner to get to know someone. Repeat that every quarter and you’re a human being in the mind of the person you are working with. Not just an email address.
That matters when conflict arises or you need something sooner rather than later. When I reach out, the person getting the email or answering the call thinks of me as Kim, a person who likes to kayak and hike, who likes good food and refuses to stay at dumpy hotels. A mother of a daughter. A history buff. A fast talker who makes connections quickly and apologizes for interrupting when she gets overly enthusiastic (which happens often). I’m not just kim@280blue sending an annoying email. I’m a human being that they know and, hopefully, want to help to be successful because they know that I want to help them to be successful as well.
Just like they know me, I know them. I understand that a short email doesn't mean they're angry or annoyed. It just means that they hate writing long emails. That what could be interpreted as a snarky comment on the phone is just their dry wit coming through.
Second, attention. If the person on the other end of the phone is silent when I speak or a client speaks, I have no idea if that silence means they are clipping their fingernails, surfing the web or listening with rapt attention. That's frustrating. And, I'll admit it, it's hard to stay focused when you're on a conference call. I'm like everyone else. I get distracted. So, this is as much about my attention as it is theirs. Telepresence can help (at least I’ll know whether personal grooming is happening), but doesn’t come close to meeting in person.
Third, body language. See number two, above. On the phone, I have no idea if you’re even paying attention. In person, I can read impatience, acceptance, excitement, resentment and a whole host of other emotions without the person saying a word. I know whether the message is being received positively or not. Misunderstandings are more clear. And, I can read objections even when they aren’t spoken. That means faster conflict resolution, better message refinement and better customer engagement. Again, telepresence can help a bit, but isn’t the complete answer.
Fourth, the person I'm meeting with knows they are a priority. When I take the time to meet with someone in person, they notice. I’m saying, you matter to me and what we have to say to each other is so important that I was willing to take hours/a day/days our of my life to meet with you. And, that means they are much more likely to place importance on our meeting.
Fifth and I think most importantly for internal teams, accountability. This one I will tell through a story. In a past life, I used to meet with regional PR teams on a quarterly basis. We’d pull together the regional marketing teams and their PR agencies across Europe and meet in Munich, London or Paris and across Asia and meet in Hong Kong, Tokyo or Singapore.
The first time I met with the five PR agencies from Asia, the presentations on past results were sloppy and the plans incomplete. Except for China. The China agency's presentation was well thought out and their plan exceptional. The other teams cringed. I didn’t need to call them out because we were all in the room together. They could see that they had let down not only me, but the rest of the team as well. They were embarrassed.
And, they knew that I would be back and that they'd have to look me in the eye after they presented the next time. They knew they were accountable to Kim, the person, who cared deeply about the work they were doing. So much so that I got on a plane and flew 14 hours to meet with them. I was not an anonymous VP back at "corporate" in the US.
I came back three months later. This time all of the plans were good and we were able to have thoughtful and productive discussions. The next time, all of the plans were great. Results improved measurably. The regional teams started sharing ideas and collaborating without any prompting from me. Several of the far-flung agencies staff became friends. There was competition to be the best, but it was all in the name of making the overall team succeed. I was able to cut my visits to twice a year, while the rest of the team continued to meet more regularly.
I believe that this would have been impossible over the phone or through email.
So, I continue to travel. Even though it’s physically demanding. Even though it’s more expensive (in the short term) than a phone call. Even though it’s time consuming.
I think it’s a worthwhile investment.