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May 31. 2014 8:01PM

Face to face versus virtual meetings, a decision to struggle with a lot

ONE OF the routine decisions faced by everyone in business is whether to hold a meeting in person or virtually. It's a decision I struggle with a lot, and I often find myself weighing the pros and cons of each over and over in my mind.

Call me old school, but I still think the old-fashioned in-person meeting is the most effective, whenever it's possible. However, technology has made virtual meetings extremely effective and depending on the meeting agenda, a viable alternative to being physically present to discuss business with a customer. Solutions like Cisco WebEx, Adobe Connect and ClearSlide have certainly made our lives a lot easier and our virtual meetings more impactful.

Everyone has different opinions on this, and the reality is that in today's world, a lot can be done via phone and Web conferencing tools. A good friend of mine who sells technology solutions does 95 percent of his millions of dollars in annual business from his home office in Florida, and he has customers all over the country. Case in point, meeting face to face isn't always a requirement. He rarely travels.

There are several disadvantages to in-person meetings. First and most importantly, the loss of time and productivity is a major factor to consider. Last week, I traveled to Texas to do two customer presentations. One was on Tuesday, the other on Wednesday. I threw away precious hours traveling and getting to the customer's office in order conduct the meeting.

The other major factor is cost. Take my trip to Texas as an example. Two one-hour meetings spread out over the course of two days cost the company nearly $2,000. And that's not factoring in all of the downtime and loss of productivity I incurred during my time stuck in a metal tube 30,000 feet in the sky. Was it really worth it? I suppose it depends on how you look at it.

But there are also many disadvantages to virtual meetings. Virtual meetings can be brutal. You have no sense as to how engaged the customer is. For all you know, they could be playing Solitaire during your meeting. It's also almost impossible to truly connect with people on a phone call and computer. It's just not the same.

It's also impossible to assess body language. When you're meeting with someone in person, body language can tell you a lot. Virtual meetings are limited to verbal queues and their overall level of interaction. It's not easy.

It's important to weigh the benefits of being in person with a customer versus conducting a meeting virtually. And one of those factors is the overall opportunity and benefit of physically being there. I also always consider the importance of the meeting as well as the expectations the customer may have.

If a customer invites me to be there or suggests an in-person meeting, I'll almost always figure out a way to make it happen. I also factor in the purpose of the meeting and whether the agenda warrants it. For example, if it's a prospect and the agenda is more of a discovery type meeting, I'll lean towards conducting the meeting virtually.

As it relates to the sales cycle, depending on how far away the customer is, I'll usually lean toward virtual meetings early on in the sales process. Once things start progressing and moving closer toward a close, it's pretty easy to justify the time and expense of being there in person.

So this whole dilemma is very easy to debate and go back and forth on. There are a lot of factors to consider. At the end of it all, my decision is based on these three factors; the value of the potential opportunity and customer, the stage of the sales cycle and the location of the customer.

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Christopher Thompson (cthompson@catch22solutions.com) writes Closing the Deal weekly for the Sunday News. Thompson is the vice president of sales and services for Leadership Solutions at Skillsoft, a Nashua-based provider of learning solutions. Visit Skillsoft on the web at skillsoft.com.


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