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When It Is --and Isn't -- Worth Meeting in Person

Strategic investment in travel can save both money and time.
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Drew Martin, founder and CEO of MeCam wearable video cameras, thought it was pretty cool that he could work with his Taiwan-based manufacturer strictly over e-mail, Skype and Google Hangout. "When people asked how many times I'd been to Taiwan, I was proud to say, 'Oh, I didn't have to go over there,'" he says. 

But when disagreements arose over design and money, he spent months trying to work things out remotely. Then, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, he finally met his manufacturers face to face. "We went to dinner, had a couple of drinks, went to a couple of meetings together. It made all the difference," he says. 

He was able to explain his vision for the company; trust was built, and money changed hands. And the problems? Gone. "What had set us back about three or four months we got done in about four hours," he says. 

Martin is now developing another product, and once he comes to an arrangement with his new manufacturer, the deal will be finalized face to face.

The miracle of modern communication technology can give the impression that you can get your job done without costly flights and hotels. But an opportune investment in travel can result in time and money saved.

Laura J. Benson, founder of Edina, Minn.-based Jeanne Beatrice, imports and sells handmade baskets and other items from Morocco, Guatemala and elsewhere. Benson--who once lost a couple thousand dollars to an online scammer posing as a supplier from Kenya--now works only with vendors referred by a reliable source. 

As a new relationship gets serious, she travels to their home countries to meet them, establish trust and rapport and assess the working conditions. "It's what I needed to do to be a responsible business owner," she says. "It's very expensive and not the easiest to get to, but the reality is that I love it. It's sort of like, 'Oh darn, I need to go to Morocco.' So I feel blessed that it's necessary."

Jackie Kimzey, executive director of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas at Dallas, condones this approach, saying the best time to jump on a plane for a face-to-face meeting is when a relationship is truly starting to flourish. Many young entrepreneurs, he says, are too quick to jump to meet with potential clients.

"I'm in the venture business, and a lot of times we give them enough money to go out and get in trouble," he says. "They think, Somebody's interested in what I'm doing; I need to go see them." However, Kimzey advises, "you want to make sure that this is a serious potential customer or client, not just a tire-kicker." When it's clear the person is ready to make a decision and you're in the running, "that's when you can shower them with the kind of attention they expect or hope to get when they do business with someone."

What about when problems arise? Even then it's not always necessary to show up in person, Kimzey says. Consider your budget, the amount of time you've been working together and importance of the client to your business, and whether you think the account may be in jeopardy. If you already have a good rapport, you may be able to fix things from a distance. 

"If they're having an issue with your product or service, they really don't care about seeing you; they just want the problem fixed," he points out. However, once a major problem is resolved, a follow-up visit can't hurt. "It's always a good idea to circle back and see how they're doing."

The bottom line is that electronic communication is valuable and cost-efficient for initiating contact and building rapport. But when things get serious, for better or worse, it's time to hit the road.

Sophia Dembling writes about travel and psychology. Her books include The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World. @sophiadembling

This is your brain on human contact

Face to face isn't just a nice way to do business. Our brains actually respond differently to in-person interactions vs. the virtual kind, says Dr. Srini Pillay, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based leadership-coaching firm the NeuroBusiness Group.

"Recent brain-imaging research shows us that when people are in a face-to-face dialogue, this creates brain synchrony that results in a feeling of connection," Pillay says. Thanks to "mirror neurons," which mirror the behavior of others, "actually seeing the face of someone helps the brain detect and understand who they are and what they feel." As a result, he says, "We are more likely to feel 'known' when we are facing someone than speaking to them by telephone." 
We gather a lot of information about people by observing how they move and hold their bodies; we even pick up information from the way they walk. Skype and videoconferencing, which focus on the face, provide limited information. And e-mail is obviously even more limited.

In addition, eye contact helps maintain attention, and it can help us spot a threat. "The brain is wired to detect untrustworthiness of faces as a priority," Pillay says.

Fortunately, once you've had a face-to-face meeting with someone, the brain tucks all this information away for future reference. 

"Brain-imaging research also indicates that facial- and speech-recognition areas in the brain are connected," Pillay says. "If you have the first meeting face to face, subsequent audio-only meetings may be easier because the brain will automatically match a face to the voice." --S.D.