By Eliron Ekstein
COVID is one of those things we will tell our grandchildren about. We are the generation that COVID hit smack in the middle of our careers and adult lives. It changed many of our decisions about where we live, how we holiday, who we hang out with, and what we do for a living.
There’s no argument that for the most part, COVID has been and still is a bad thing. It destroyed lives and livelihoods. But one outcome that is only beginning to gain wider acknowledgement is the way COVID has changed the rules on business engagements.
Some of us have already read the books about how ‘digital is eating the world’, we already got used to the verb ‘Googling’, to ordering our stuff on Amazon and doing most of our routine communications over Zoom/Skype/Whatsapp/Facebook/(name your favourite platform and I’ll tell you which generation you really are).
But before COVID, very few of us had actually started companies, raised funding, hired new people, secured multi-million dollar contracts, and launched new products - all without meeting in person a single human soul. This year we managed to do all of the above, and something tells me it’s just the beginning.
I was one of those preaching about the importance of human interaction in business, and to remove any doubt - I still firmly believe that (keep reading). However, the last 18 months have taught us that even in the most conservative of businesses, the norms are starting to change, levelling the playing field for those of us who are trying to sell software products internationally.
Who likes 5-course dinners anyway?
Admittedly, some of them can be quite fun. But for the most part, trying to sell into a major corporation is a gruelling journey of conferences, face-to-face meetings walking the halls of the headquarters and way too many drinks with your client sponsor. All, with the hope that they will raise their hand in favour of your solution when the critical decision comes.
For a young startup trying to secure some big contracts, the burden on the expense account becomes simply unbearable, especially when you’re making your way across the ocean for each ‘roadshow’ or meetings, creating lots of wasted time on the road and taking local meetings you wouldn’t normally have simply because you’re already there. You therefore have to make bets - sometimes desperate ones - and burn out quickly if you’re wrong.
The result: local vendors with deeper pockets have had the better odds to win.
COVID has changed it all: digital conferences and roadshows are efficiently funnelling new opportunities, and relationships can (!) be developed over Zoom. This means you can spread your bets over a much larger client portfolio, and experiment with digital marketing strategies formerly only available to consumer-facing marketers.
So is this the end of physical interaction?
Absolutely not. While creating new relationships and establishing initial trust are important, a dimension of information exchange is lost in the online universe. Just as a text message doesn’t convey any tone of voice, and a voice message doesn’t convey facial expressions, a video call still lacks what we call ‘the human context’.
The human context conveys a deeper level of understanding; it’s the mood, the state of mind someone is in when they discuss a topic. And it’s influencing almost everything we say or write, the way we interpret someone else’s messages.
In addition, working in the virtual world allows some of us to divide our attention between a conference call and doing our shopping online, picking up emails, or even taking another call ...
And so, some interactions in a business context will be either stronger in a physical setting, or simply essential as such. In selling into a large company, listening and providing insights is simply part of your product whether you like it or not. We find ourselves consulting our clients on the future of their business and how we could play a role in improving it. So deep discussions like this are necessary to move the relationship up a notch.
The good news is that, getting to that level is typically a sign that you’re ‘in’ with this account and not just fighting your way into winning it. It’s also correlated with you growing your business and actually being able to afford the travel and entertainment expenses.
So will we still have 5 course dinners? Yes, but we will have them with fewer clients, we will take them less often, and make them more meaningful.