The business trip isn’t what it used to be. These days there’s an ever-increasing pressure to reduce travel budgets. In addition, improving technology is enabling more business communication through teleconferences, video conferences, and social media. Because of these trends, the majority of middle market business executives are traveling less today than before the recession. According to a Forbes Insights study, 58 percent of executives reported taking fewer business trips.
When asked why they prefer technology-enabled meetings over business travel, 92 percent cited time savings, 88 percent cited cost savings, and 76 percent cited the increased flexibility that technology offers. Clearly, technology-enabled meetings can be an effective replacement for many meetings that were formerly done in person. When you need to exchange information, or provide updates, or coordinate planning and implementation, whether within remote areas of your own company or with your suppliers or important customers/clients, business travel isn’t necessarily any better than a technology-enabled meeting.
So when should you take a business trip? Here are four situations when being there in person is better:
- Complex negotiations cannot be done effectively via email or technology-enabled communication because they require you to read and quickly respond to important verbal and non-verbal signals from your counterparties. Emotional intelligence is an in-person, real-time capability. Also, nothing is better than a face-to-face meeting for developing a deeper understanding of, and creating a constructive dialogue with, your business partners. Whether it’s small talk or big talk, being there helps make it better. “The art of negotiation takes the kind of nuance that is only present in an in-person meeting,” says Dan L’Ecuyer, an executive at packaging-provider CSP Technologies, in the previously mentioned Forbes Insight report.
- Fluid decision-making situations are best managed in person. If give-and-take or back-and-forth are required, you’ll need to make a business trip and fully engage in the real-time messiness of the process. According to the Forbes Insights report, 91 percent of business executives believe face-to-face meetings are best for persuading others, and 86 percent believe in-person appeals work best for driving engagement. Sometimes it’s worth looking someone directly in the eyes and asking for their buy-in.
- Fixing a business relationship that’s in jeopardy can be an extremely senstitive and difficult task. If mistakes happen and emotions are fraught on all sides, deal with the messiness in person. If you know that a business partner or important customer/client is unhappy and considering alternatives (like switching to your competitor), it’s time to take a trip. Allowing your customer/client or business partner to vent their frustration at you in-person is the fastest way to start patching up a broken relationship. Apologizing in person shows conviction and courage, and gives you the chance to convince them that you’ll fix the situation.
- Prospecting and developing new customers takes a personal approach that can’t be replicated through virtual communication. Companies rely on business travel to win over new customers, strengthen new relationships, and close new business. Personally visiting a prospect shows respect and demonstrates the importance you give to growing the relationship. Having a meal or socializing with your counterparts in the prospect company can carry over positively into all aspects of the ongoing business relationship. Breaking the ice is best done in person, and so is deepening relationships. According to an Oxford Economics survey, more than double the number of prospects are converted during face-to-face interactions compared with virtual interactions.
In general, the messier and more undefined the situation, the more likely you’ll prefer a business trip over virtual communication. Deep levels of human emotion, like trust and loyalty, are more accessible face-to-face. These are hard to develop in a conference call, as folks on both sides offer limited attention spans and make partial emotional investments in the interaction. Despite the sometimes-grueling nature of the business trip, it will always have its place on the menu of business communication options.
Is there a situation that wasn’t mentioned here you think requires a business trip?
Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education.