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Citrix GoToMeeting, Skype, Google Chat, Apple FaceTime and a host of other products and services support virtual face-to-face meetings. Long-distance interviews, requirements gathering, medical diagnosis, can all happen over the Internet.

Visual chat provides what telephone conversations miss. Humans are patterned to read meaning into facial expressions and interpret body language. Visual teleconferencing permits attendees to see the wink of the eye, the twisted mouth, the disinterested glance, or unstrained happiness. All are important parts of communication.

While observation enlarges semantic expression, is looking at a real time digitized face sufficient to:   

  • develop trust
  • communicate clearly
  • sustain a long-term relationship

It seems important to have a face-to-face meeting at the start of any engagement, and periodically during the run of a long project. Final delivery of product also seems to require a personal approach, since that is also the time when follow-up contracts can be secured.

Social neuroscientists have demonstrated that the very act of touch (if only a brief tap on the arm or a hand shake) changes the way strangers subsequently interact in a positive way. 

Unfortunately, real face-to-face is not always practical. Very long distances make it costly to get a team together. Security considerations—like having a client in a civil war zone or at the epicenter of an ebola epidemic—limit what staffers can be expected to do.

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Replies to This Discussion

We find that clients are extremely tolerant of lower bandwidth communications, as long as we have:

  • established a good face-to-face relationship at the outset
  • renew personal contact periodically
  • respond promptly to issues at other times

Our practice offers virtual project management services. Responsiveness is critically important to maintain our credibility. An important selling point is that we're less costly than a full-time project manager who has to be paid to be there in case he/she is needed. But to make that true, we do have to "be there" when a spontaneous issue arises. Waiting for a scheduled meeting doesn't cut it.

To my surprise, clients are usually very tolerant of initially low bandwidth communications. Since we work in different time zones, we can be just having breakfast, be at the beach or on the golf course, or navigating the subway in some mainland city. As long as we respond promptly—and commit to getting back to them presently with what they need—we continue to have happy customers.

Sometimes a text or email message back is preferential to video, because it is clearer. In times like that, when the client is just trying to alert us to a problem, any contact is worthwhile. It allows the client to get back to his/her people saying, "I contacted them and they're on it."

To make that work, however, we feel that it is important to have those up-close-and-personal moments from time to time. You can feel when the time is ripe, although I don't think I can nail down concrete factors. Random drop-ins don't seem to work. Sales associates who just drop by to renew relationships waste valuable time. Our clients want us to show up when they really want to feel some human activity around them. It doesn't have to be something that requires long meetings: we conduct considerable long and complicated discussions with multiple players over the wires. Perhaps it's a matter of things seeming to "close in" on the client-side operatives when they most need a friendly and reassuring face in front of them.

If we've built quality face-to-face relationships, then for a large number of interactions, we find that a phone call or a message gets happy returns.



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