The Internet is a wonderful thing. It has made our daily lives a little easier. In business, it is now an essential tool for everyone. What would we do without our e-mail accounts -- the ability to leave messages for colleagues at all hours and from any location? For our industry, every hospital and vendor company has to have a Web site; it's the first place many patients go. A lot of our business-to-business work is conducted over the Internet; I know the importance of online commerce.
A recent discussion during a golf outing, however, got me thinking again about the limits of virtual face time.
My foursome got into a discussion of sales, and one friend said he thought that little had changed in the basics of successful selling, despite the advent of the wireless world. In fact, those companies that insist on face time with clients and know how to maintain personal relationships now have an advantage. This man took over a company that had been struggling in the '90s and turned it into a multibillion-dollar organization in just a few years. As the chief executive, he insisted on going on the road to establish relationships with customers. He wanted his clients to be able to size him up, look into his eyes, so they could a get a fix on whether they could trust him and his company. Obviously, his strategy worked.
Too many people nowadays are hiding behind their computers or hand-held devices, thinking they are "communicating." It's OK to do this when absolutely necessary, but when it starts replacing most personal contact, it stops being effective. I have seen this happen with customers, colleagues and even friends.
Studies are starting to document how different e-mail is from other communication. There is a flat quality to the text, which often lacks punctuation, good grammar and the quality of empathy. Often people are needlessly offended by the terseness and wording of a note. Some people even carry on long-lasting feuds because of a badly worded e-mail from an associate that occurred long ago but wasn't forgotten by the person who received it. Other e-mails merely ramble on, making no apparent point at all but still managing to irritate the recipients.
The over-reliance on digital interaction has reached such silly proportions that some organizations declare e-mail holidays. I well remember getting a call from a newly installed CEO in a hospital in New Jersey who took great pride in telling me shortly after he took over the hospital that he had declared an e-mail-free day. Then he told me the story of one of his star executives who ran up to him to say that the e-mail holiday was a great thing because he saw people whom he thought had either left the hospital to go elsewhere or had died. Please think about that! Doesn't being civilized entail human interaction? Isn't it appropriate for bosses to get out and visit with their people? Shouldn't they leave their offices instead of sending out e-mails that have no feeling, no creativity and that cause the people who receive them to feel unimportant in the scheme of things?
For young people, the problem of excessive use of technology is an epidemic. They are so used to text-messaging, instant messaging, etc., that they seem to have forgotten how to spend quality time just being with someone. Many also have an especially irritating penchant for answering cell phones while you are in the middle of a serious conversation with them.
Whoever you are, get off your duff and head out the door to make a personal contact! For people in sales, this is essential to staying in business. I think it's true for everyone, though. Any good leader must make a point of regular in-person contact with those who work for him or her. I am regaled frequently by people in companies who tell me how one of the top executives stopped by to visit with them to see how things were going. It makes them feel appreciated. Employees want to feel like they are part of something bigger, that they are on a team. They want to know where they fit into the organization. E-mails, being so impersonal and often poorly constructed, simply don't help. Any leader who wants to inspire his or her people doesn't send out such canned content, especially when it is something important that needs to be communicated. That's when you gather everyone in a room where they can see their colleagues and be seen by them. Some of the best work gets done when there is that kind of group interaction.
I know we are all busier than we used to be. Budgets are tight and time is money. But as investments go, traveling to see clients is one of the most efficacious strategies you can employ. People spend untold billions of dollars on new information systems, but they balk at expense reports for meetings with the people with whom they do business. It doesn't make sense.
So get out there and get back to in-person contact. It's real, it's much more interesting, and it's far more rewarding, in every sense of the word. And turn off the BlackBerry while you do so.
Being there matters.