If you’re reading this blog, it’s probably because you’re heavily involved in the virtual space. The Internet is your home, and you feel at ease doing business on it every day. However, can we really go all virtual? Is it possible to completely abandon means of communication like snail mail and the telephone? Can programs like Skype and AOL Instant Messenger truly substitute older ways of communicating?
I’m reminded of the movie Up in the Air, where the process of laying off employees was moved entirely to a virtual space. Despite numerous struggles, the process largely worked in the end.
But I’d argue that there are four key areas in which the Internet cannot replace "meatspace" communications:
Networking. In my experience, it’s nearly impossible to replicate a face-to-face, first-time meeting online. When you’re introduced to someone in the virtual space, it’s often a “Hello” followed by immediate discussion of business. Nothing personal enters the conversation, and the players often just add each other to their buddy lists, where they become one of hundreds of entries.
In the “real world,” introductory meetings often involve discussion of families, interests, and work experience before anything business-related slips into the conversation. What results is a considerable degree of buy-in from the very beginning, which makes business even easier to discuss. When you meet someone in person, an extra dimension to your relationship is added. You don't get that in the virtual space.
Bargaining. Rather than bat emails back and forth aimlessly for days, the process of bargaining is greatly expedited in person. If you’re trying to buy a car, for example, it’s much easier to go to the dealership and have a conversation, rather than send an email to a sales associate. If you do the latter, the rep will answer it on his own time, send it back to you, and you’ll respond when you have a spare moment. The process could take days or even weeks. But when you drive your beat-up Chevy to a dealer to discuss a new Dodge, you'll get instant service, and the process of purchasing a car could take just 10 minutes.
Similarly, negotiating advertising deals is often simpler in person. Face-to-face communication isn’t necessarily easier in all industries, but I greatly prefer it where possible.
Client Retention. If your goal is to retain clients, then face-to-face interactions are important. From client appreciation events to providing customer service when business turns sour, face-to-face contact is critical to keeping clients.
I recently created a new account at a local bank and was asked several times to come by the branch. It didn’t matter that I could send everything I needed to set up my account through the mail; my account representative wanted to meet me. She kept stressing all of the “drinks” and “deposit slips” I could get in person. The odds of the bank retaining me as a client long-term are greater because of that personal effort to arrange a face-to-face meeting.
When client interactions go wrong online, sometimes an in-person meeting is just what the doctor ordered. Meet your suppliers in a foreign country when you feel like traveling. Find a local graphic designer and sit down together to sketch out ideas. Then, if anything goes wrong, it’s an easy, face-to-face, mano-a-mano fix.
Conversation. I can’t stress enough how important using that thing called the telephone is. Sure, you can sit behind your Macbook all day and fire off emails, but picking up the phone to talk to a client, customer, or co-worker gives you the opportunity to have a more personal interaction. Good old-fashioned talking, even when you can't see other person, can build and solidify your rapport with your contacts. It doesn't matter if it's nothing more than a five-minute call to chat about your weekend. Give it a shot.
What do you think? Can we really go virtual in every way? My personal and business experiences tell me no.
— Dan Cypra is an Internet gambling industry expert and writes for several of the leading poker news sites on the Web.