The internet facilitates ever more transactions around the globe but face-to-face contact is still vital to build relationships and trust.
The technology that has transformed communication and the spread of information has transformed the way that people do business, creating new business models and new opportunities for people in every continent – from tech entrepreneurs to African farmers.
Transactions or relationships?
Electronic messaging, e-mail or even e-commerce platforms provide efficient means to exchange information at a transactional level – e.g. confirming a meeting, providing information, sending a contract, completing a purchase or handling a payment.
But when it comes to more complex matters – particularly when trying to form working relationships with new colleagues, partners, clients or suppliers – you cannot rely on technology to do the job for you. You need to talk. And face-to-face talk especially still plays an extremely important role in establishing trust and building business relationships.
At a basic level, direct discussion can be more efficient and save time by avoiding the misunderstandings, red herrings and the offence that might be caused by ill-considered words fired off in haste. Face-to-face, we can see whether we are understanding each other correctly. We see the puzzled look, the smile or the disappointment and can adjust our explanations or offer clarifications while we are speaking.
We are also more able to pick up the nuances and the precious extras – the clues, comments, gossip and feedback that convey the news, views and potential opportunities – but which would never be set down in an e-mail.
And communication face-to-face is much richer. It brings into play the individual behavior and human chemistry that are a basis for trust. It takes place on many levels simultaneously – not just verbal and physical, but also contextual, intentional (or non-intentional). Human beings are very effective at sensing non-verbal messages and, being face-to-face, we are able to verify that the true intentions match the stated words.
Face-to-face is particularly important in environments where information is imperfect, rapidly changing and not easily codified. Many creative activities depend on the exchange of complex tacit knowledge – creative sparks and ideas that have not been fully articulated. This only happens when people are together and able to explore and respond to half-formed ideas as they arise and rapidly evolve.
Where ideas come together, where relationships are formed, projects conceived and deals are struck, we need to meet prospective partners face-to-face and ‘see the whites of their eyes’. Many sectors continue to operate in geographical clusters – e.g. The City, Hollywood, science parks – precisely because of the opportunities to meet face-to-face.
Apart from the clues and signals that are communicated, physical presence is important as a sign of commitment. By investing time to meet face-to-face, (which means that they cannot be meeting with someone else), people qualify for a level of trust that is not available to others. They establish intentions, sincerity – they are put ‘in the loop’. Physical presence necessarily carries more weight than Skype / FaceTime ‘meeting’.
Face-to-face presence is important too in creating the engagement and enthusiasm that sustains challenging projects. Successful enterprises depend not only on ideas and creativity but also on motivation and team spirit. For this, physical presence still counts a great deal.
The idea of presence has always been central to what we do at Jo Ouston & Co and enabling people to be effective and act with integrity in face-to-face situations is at the heart of the Developing Personal Presence programme.