Keeping it REAL Will Keep You in Business Internationally: Business-to- Business In-Person Meetings to Remain Relevant and Grow in Importance for Export Sales
The world is moving simultaneously toward more digitalisation in meetings and a greater importance on personal meetings for sales outcomes. These two trends amplify each other. The key is not to fall into the trap that the trend in virtual meetings will displace personal meetings. Both are actually becoming more important concurrently.
We have seen each other’s wall art, lighting fixtures and ceiling fans. Zoom, Skype, Webex, Team, and other platform venues have launched our in-need-of-professional-haircare images across the globe. It has been an amazing journey from our favourite chair in the kitchen, dining room, bedroom or verandah to doing business domestically and internationally. Commuting times have been cut to as long as it takes to put on a pair of socks – but only if one chooses to wear socks in the pleasure of one’s home “office”. Our hours have gone from organised to erratic back to organised – at least for those amongst us who have some fealty to standards and regularity (or a boss who does which is coming up to be a hot topic on some platforms as companies seek to monitor employee time). The masses are seething and ready to bound out of the gate. Nothing will return to “normal” and it is often heard that a “new normal” is coming. My thought is that the global trends indicate that this will be an “old normal with a new twist”. Coming out of this, we will see a new mix of managing trade meetings, whether virtual or in person. We will see a revaluation of the time spent in flights and lodging. Things will change but they will also remain the same in some ways. What will not change are our human natures and the trend toward the developing world continuing to take a larger share of the growing economic pie.
Personal meetings will become more important in doing global business. Looking at the present situation, this may be a contrarian view. This bears some explanation. It isn’t that the digital plethora of alternatives have not been examined. Amazon’s Jeff Bezo is now the world’s wealthiest human by a large margin based on the growth in virtuality. Indeed, the growth of digital discourse will continue to grow at the same time that in-person meetings will continue to dominate outcomes.
Humans are humans. Our psychology is drawn to trust those we meet in person. Nuances that can only appear when meeting someone in person are important at both the conscious and sub- conscious levels. We want to be able to trust someone, but we need a reason to do so when resources are on the line. In the “developed” economies, trust is assumed until someone otherwise commits an infraction. We are better than we think we are in gathering intuitive thoughts that can defend by avoiding a potentially poor future business partner altogether. We want to see their workplace to understand how they order their surroundings and deal with their staff. Chaos is usually a red flag. Catching them unaware in an unrehearsed moment lets one see a glimpse of the person behind the avatar. Gaining perspective from up-close insights as well as the ability to review business surroundings gives an advantage. .
“Emerging” markets, which now make up more than half of the world’s economy, are extremely relational in their requirements. This trend is only set to continue with Africa, India and South East Asia nearly doubling economic size every decade. Although it is a generalisation, the tendency in emerging markets is to seek out the personal meetings prior to business-to-business transactions
happening. Personal meetings count highly from India to Singapore to Kenya to Qatar. This does not mean that the persons in those markets are less digitalised than others. Often they are more digitally savvy – which is another contrarian thought. Where people grew up sensing need, they tend to work harder. When they have reached affluence that focus does not diminish their reliance on hard work and understanding what got them there.
“Developed” economies tend to be more transactional in business meaning less is required from the personal side. For those in the developed economies, a further pull-back into less personalised communication may be welcome at the personal level. This would be a defensive posture that will not create good export sales outcomes in the long run. Digitalisation may be a red herring to those who believe they can do less in terms of personal meetings. They may believe it abrogates any requirement to get out into the “real” world to conduct “real” meetings. This trend may see the emerging world trending faster relative to the developed world as they blend digital technology to meet the needs of personal meetings, rather than trying to supplant it in part or entirely.
Emerging market youth tend to use digitalisation relatively more for study or business outcomes than youth from “developed” markets. It may not be a curse have grown up without binge- watching series online or spending 60 hours per week on video games – leading inevitably to poorer mental outcomes and personal management issues. There is actually a competitive advantage to keeping your children and teens away from too much screen time, and the wrong type of content. The West will fall on the frontline where the unseen weapons of mass destruction, when used voraciously, are TikTok, Fortnite and Netflix. Where elements of digital adaptation are used for education and business development they will leverage success. Where digitalisation draws the youth into the infinite entertainment vortex it will not provide a happier outcome that creates wealth. Others will have their lunch and eat it. I mention this because, for example, the average age in Africa is 19.7 years old, the youth culture is extremely entrepreneurial – they are already out creating new businesses, and it is the youth culture in many of these markets which predominates new business.
“Developed” economies tend to be more transactional in business meaning less is required from the personal side. For those in the developed economies, a further pull-back into less personalised communication may be welcome This would be a defensive posture that will not create good export sales outcomes in the long run. Digitalisation may be a red herring to those who believe they can do less in terms of personal meetings. They may believe it abrogates any requirement to get out into the “real” world to conduct “real” meetings. This trend may see the emerging world trending faster relative to the developed world.
The competition is fierce. More and more of the competition is coming from emerging markets into other emerging markets where both sides undertake the personal aspect. This will put those who believe they can meet only virtually at a severe disadvantage. I have witnessed one country’s market share nearly vanish because their competition from Indonesia and Brazil was willing to visit their African partners every six months or so to catch up on orders and hear the news first hand about how their business partner’s family is doing. Understanding cultural nuances is important. The competition will come out as soon as the flights are available. It is a mistake not to use this time to make connections virtually but then to prepare to close sales in the target market personally. When the difference between competitors’ products and your own are marginal, it is on the margin
where the winning company will get the export sales. Letting go of the in-person meeting will set your firm at a disadvantage against new competition from the emerging markets.
Digitalisation is important as a tool. It is not the end-game. Used correctly, it is an intermediary set of communication vehicles toward the final points in the destination. It is also helpful in keeping up with counterparts easily in a mature business relationship. There is no argument here that distance communication has value and serves a purpose. Those who use it as a tool to motivate toward building real relationships will be successful. Those who use it to build toward the investment of travelling to a destination will gain mightily. Those who use it as a final substitute for real in-person meetings do so at their peril. The world will continue moving toward more relational ways of doing business. This will include elements of digital technology but it there will be a heavier reliance on personal meetings to hit the sales goals.
I have seen in-person meetings becoming more important in the two decades I have been running my business. This even as digital platforms have improved and become part of the furniture in the usual daily routine. This trend will continue, with its alterations. We will continue to do business wearing gym shorts for the next few weeks, but those days are numbered and soon we will be released back into the wild. Use the digital to make new connections and then travel to meet them.