Although electronic communication is efficient, a CEO recently told me, "I see them as a commodity — faceless and easy to replace."
More often, executives complain, they have never even met face to face the actual person on their account — a lawyer, accountant, account executive — leaving them asking: Is this the new way of doing business?
Alejandro Fernandez, a senior executive at a Florida industrial parts company, says he hasn't seen a few of his service providers all year and won't let that happen again in 2013.
"I'm not saying I need to go to lunch with you every day, but if I'm dealing with you for a year, come out and meet me," he said. "How do they know all the issues they could be addressing if they are just answering the question I ask?"
Of course, business owners and high level managers are busy, and many time-pressed clients even will say they prefer texting to emails or calls.
But workplace experts say don't mistake an interest in efficiency for lack of interest in face-to-face interaction.
Jeff Connally is president and CEO of CMIT Solutions, which provides information technology services to small business and has 135 offices. Connally visits his customers a minimum of once a quarter and requires his franchisees do the same. He attributes the company's high retention of customers to the on-site visits. "We think it's vital because people do business with people they know and trust."
Connally says the visits open the door for cross-selling opportunities that email communicators miss out on. His managers will analyze calls that come into the help desk and bring ideas to the client. Visiting in person allows him to understand the company culture, management style and business needs. "As we listen, we find opportunities to deepen the relationship."
Consultant Jerry Wilson, a recently retired board-elected senior vice president of the Coca-Cola company, recommends knowing how and why to ask a senior executive for face time. "You need to understand the valid business reason. If you're just asking someone to lunch to plug your company, that can be seen as a time waster and that hurts relations."
Wilson says inviting someone to lunch or golf won't forge a bond as strong as a face-to-face connection to discuss business issues and ways to partner. "It is no longer about entertaining. People don't have time for that. This is about your team thinking about your client's business as if you were their CEO."
Going forward, the challenge for service providers appears to be a new generation of staffers who look to technology to boost productivity and service multiple clients at a time from their tablets and smartphones. Often, they just don't see face time or travel, even local travel, as necessary when they can get in front of their clients electronically, through e-newsletters, social media, Skype, WebEx and text messages.
Even business etiquette expert Barbara Pachter, author of the upcoming Essentials of Business Etiquette, says personal meetings now are considered less necessary. "A 10-minute phone call to catch up is okay. Particularly if you're doing your job well and the client is happy."
Yet, the clients themselves see the value of human interaction as they service their customers. In a new American Express survey of 200 U.S. CFOs and senior financial executives found that face-to-face meetings are the No. 1 reason their companies invest in business travel - both to build new business and retain current business.
Jorge Herrera, a former corporate attorney, travels often as he works with his partner, Jack Locke, to build his Miami-based company, Nopetro, a compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquified natural gas (LNG) provider. Nopetro recently opened the first CNG and LNG fueling station in the East Coast in Tallahassee and plans on opening more in Florida. Herrera finds personal contact critical to develop client rapport and new business.
Because he travels often, Herrera says once he establishes a relationship with his service providers, he is comfortable doing business by email. But the more business he gives a provider, the more effort he expects them to make to see him in person. "If they don't make that contact, there's not much distinction between them and a competitor besides price."
Going forward, Fernandez wonders if future generations and the firms that employ them understand that risk. "How can you groom the next generation of rainmakers if they haven't been trained to practice those in-person relationship building skills with existing clients?
But maybe it just won't be an issue, he says. "The customers of tomorrow may have different expectations. Today we want trust and that comes from personal interaction."