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Pleased to meet you: The business case for face-to-face

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  • Even in our wired world, research shows that face-to-face meetings remain a key factor in establishing and maintaining effective business relationships

It can be tempting, when considering ways to grow an international business, to reach for a technological solution. Our world is hyper-wired and clients, employees, and target customers are always present on one digital platform or another for conversations or meetings.

But while virtual communication is certainly efficient – not to mention convenient and inexpensive – research shows that overreliance on it can hamper the achievement of important long-term business goals. Face-to-face meetings may require a greater investment of time and money in the short term, but they are powerful catalysts for establishing, deepening, and maintaining key business relationships.

It starts in your brain

Face-to-face meetings stimulate our brains in ways virtual meetings cannot. Researchers from Beijing Normal University found that face-to-face communication is unique because it allows participants to read each others’ facial expressions and body language, and because participants can actually see how involved and invested others are in the conversation.

This non-verbal language can dramatically affect the result of the meeting or conversation. Researchers from MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, in observing hundreds of groups interacting face-to-face for business, found that:

“Usually we can completely ignore the content of discussions and use only the visible social signals to predict the outcome of a negotiation or a sales pitch [and] the quality of group decision making.”

The relatively intense eye contact present in face-to-face meetings also helps participants to build trust and connection – crucial foundations for successful long-term relationships.

Trust fuels results

In the context of international education, trust is a key consideration for educators, agents, and students. Study abroad is a big decision and a significant investment, so students need to be sure they can trust the information given to them about schools.

Recruiting international students similarly involves a complex set of decisions and processes, and relies on strong working relationships between trusted partners, including educators and agents. Such trust and personal connection can be difficult to establish though virtual and/or digital means alone.

Take, for example, a Crowne Plaza study of 2,000 business people worldwide that found businesses could boost revenue by 24% if they increased their face-to-face contact, because such contact delivers benefits not achievable by other means.

Nearly half of the business people surveyed believed they had lost a contract or client due to insufficient face-to-face meetings, and 81% said face-to-face meetings have the edge on virtual meetings when it comes to building strong client relationships.

The respondents considered “starting a new business relationship, finalising a deal, and negotiating contracts” the areas where in-person contact matters the most.

Mixing face-to-face with virtual

While business travel for face-to-face meeting time is important, most institutions and businesses will have budgetary constraints limiting how often this can happen. The good news is that quality beats quantity when it comes to in-person meeting time. For many, this means that while virtual channels – email, Skype, video conferencing, webinars, social media, and others – may compose the largest proportion of contacts over time, well-chosen face-to-face meetings (e.g., via a FAM tour or attending an education conference or student fair) will be a critical step in driving business results.

In 2010, The Maritz Institute and Cornell University’s Center for Hospitality Research published a study called The Future of Meetings: The Case for Face-to-Face, which found that the best uses of face-to-face meetings are:

  1. To capture attention, especially when new ideas or particularly important ideas are being presented. People participating in a face-to-face meeting cannot multi-task the way they might in a virtual meeting, so they are more likely to be focused on the agenda and goals.
  2. To inspire a positive emotional climate and a real sense of connection.
  3. To build human networks and relationships. For example, business executives participating in a Forbes Insight research study said the most important benefit of face-to-face meetings was the opportunity to “build stronger, more meaningful business relationships.”

In the context of educator-agent relationships, face-to-face meetings might therefore be most important:

  • When first deciding whether or not to work together;
  • When familiarising agents with the campus and key benefits of studying at a school;
  • As a routine check-in opportunity or reward perk when agents are clearly demonstrating they are consistently placing students who are a good match for the school, to keep the positive energy and momentum going in the relationship.

The relative infrequency of such in-person meetings relative to all the other virtual communication that goes on between an agent and the school they represent can make these meetings all the more special and productive. A school’s commitment to investing in them – whether on campus, at an industry event, at the agency itself, or on-site at an education fair with students – shows the agent they are valued partners in the school’s recruitment efforts. The personal connection they help to establish is then more likely to carry over to routine virtual communication, and to make the latter more productive as well.

Make it worth it

A face-to-face meeting is a special and important opportunity that calls for careful preparation, planning, and follow-up. Making the most of in-person contacts can be an invaluable way to distinguish yourself, and your institution or agency, in a crowded field.

In a previous ICEF Monitor article, we noted how an audience member attending a seminar on FAM tours spoke up to share her memories of a tour organised by a university: “She remembered everything about the tour, from the beautiful basket of local food every participant received to red carpet treatment with a photographer capturing it all … and she summarised, ‘They take such good care of their visitors.’”

As even this single example reflects, face-to-face meetings, wherever and however they occur, present a unique opportunity to create the connections that fuel lasting business results and that create competitive advantage in the marketplace.

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