Why do we tend to trade with our neighbours rather than people on the other side of the world? This question was asked in a recent documentary about trade on BBC Radio 4. The answer seems obvious: it’s more expensive to carry goods a long distance than a short one.
Yet that argument has been undermined by modern transport and digital technology. And still we’re more likely to do business with people near us than those far away. It seems that the key difference is, after all, human contact. For all the ease of online contact – email, websites, social media – and mobile phones, what makes business work is meeting people in the flesh.
You must have experienced this yourself. There are tasks you can do, and do better, on your own, in your own time quietly sitting by yourself. However, when it comes to tasks that require an exchange of views, and questions and answers, online communication can be inefficient and frustrating.
Batting emails back and forth often results in delays, misunderstandings, people not answering the question and so forth. Talking on the phone is a great deal better, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I get the most work done when I am sitting beside a colleague or a client.
Putting the finishing touches to a website last year, elbow-to-elbow with my client, went swimmingly: in a couple of hours, we got through a huge number of small tasks. If we’d been exchanging emails, I reckon it would have taken days or even weeks.
A year or two earlier, I failed to land a job I’d tendered for. When I asked what had gone wrong, I was told that one reason was that I had not visited the client’s place of work, although we’d had two meetings in London. It may not have been the only reason, but it contributed to a lack of confidence on the part of the potential client.
So I’m impressed by someone I met recently who promises to visit any new client, free, before establishing a relationship. I’m sure that is the way to do good business.