11/20/2012 12:28 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Certain Things Are Better in Person

I just finished The Art of Possibility by Ben & Roz Zander. In it, Ben tells a story of his father catching an early morning plane from Glasgow to London in order to have breakfast with an acquaintance. When his father returned home that evening, young Ben inquired why his father had gone to such lengths for a single breakfast meeting. Why hadn't he just used the phone? The elder Zander replied, "Certain things in life are better done in person."

That made me think of Haiti. In Haiti, it is rare to have a conference call. Almost all meetings are face-to-face. Greetings are warm and individual. Every person in the meeting is acknowledged often with a hug or kiss on each cheek. Coffee is always served, usually in a delicate matching china demitasse setting. Even meetings that take place in buildings still half-destroyed include these niceties.

At first, as an American, I found the routine quaint. But it didn't take long before I learned to appreciate the tone it set. First, that everyone in the meeting was important enough to take a moment to personally greet. Second, that our work together was valuable enough to all of us to slow down to enjoy the coffee and steadily build a relationship. Finally, the ritual itself facilitated real conversation. PowerPoints were set aside and we talked about their challenges and goals. I did not sell my client, we discussed the various ways it brought value to the circumstances facing the Haitians.

Cut to my first sales call back in the States. It was with a long time client. Someone I would consider a friend. There were five or six others joining us, most of whom I knew fairly well. I walked in the room. A couple of us shook hands, but mostly we all nodded to each other before settling down to work. No individual greetings, no coffee. Just a nod and present.

It was disconcerting. We might as well have been on a conference call.

In sales we wax on about the importance of relationships, but my experience in Haiti revealed an important distinction in how we build them. Too many of us, me included, opt for the conference call or the webinar. We cite cost of travel, time, et cetera, et cetera. But are those valid reasons or excuses?

Social technologies are changing the way we sell. The buyer is now well into the buying process by the time he reaches out to a sales rep. Therefore, common sense says we need to reach buyers where they are searching for information. The logical response to that is putting more content on the web... or is it?

In today's world of socially facilitated selling some companies tend to undervalue the face to face interactions that used to be the core of selling. It's all about expediency. Why travel when you can do a GotoMeeting? Why have a meeting to share your unique point of view when you can blog it instead?

Just as when I wrote about the thank you notes, I am increasingly concerned that technology enablement is eroding our commitment to relationship building. We've not only lost sight of how important it is to spend time, face to face, with prospects and customers, but we've forgotten how to make those face to face meetings worth the extra time and expense. We've lost the art of conversation.

The Holidays are upon us. They are a good excuse to invest in spending quality time with prospects and customers. Who knows, you might uncover a great 2013 opportunity!