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Digital Britain: The Relationship Economy

December 15, 2011
at 7:00 pm PST

When does a new business relationship need to move from being a virtual (online) experience to a physical (in-person) experience?  That question was a topic of discussion with a couple of friends, over a beer after a recent TechHub event.  Moreover, I have been pondering this issue since I participated in the pilot of an International Investment Forum.

How much of our business conversations need to be face-to-face? With all the electronic communication options that are at our disposal today, does it really matter?

Building Relationships, Virtually

This is not an academic question for me, given my role as a Virtual Business Manager at Cisco UK. I routinely spend 90% of my time in the office, establishing and building relationships over the phone, while also using collaboration technologies such as WebEx and Telepresence. The remaining 10% is in-person interactions with the people I’ve met.

Building relationships over the telephone isn’t easy. The people you call will often push you to get to the point quickly, so you have to be succinct.  Also, given the Albert Mehrabian study findings — that 55% of communication is observed via body language and only 7% of communication is picked up via the words spoken — you may wonder, just how effective is virtual communication?

Actually, the Virtual Sales force within Cisco has proven to be a great way to scale our efforts to reach out and connect with our customers and channel partners. It has become a very productive growth engine and it is instrumental to our partner-led Go-to-Market strategy.

Breaking Down the Virtual Barriers, Visually

My own experience demonstrates that meeting a customer or business partner within the first few months of contact is imperative. It’s been the foundation of my ability to build long-standing business relationships.

Once I have gained people’s trust, then I can start the process to earn their respect and – in time, I’ll be given an opportunity to help guide and influence their business technology procurement decisions.

But the question remains, what is the best way to achieve that initial trust, without travelling to attend multiple in-person meetings?  Cisco has opted to use immersive video communications.  I conduct regular video-enabled WebEx meetings with my colleagues and partners — for product updates and project status-related discussions.

High-definition (HD) video capabilities are pervasive in all our visual collaboration offerings. That means we can see each other clearly and capture the 55% of body language communication that we would otherwise be missing in a voice-only call.

I have also witnessed how important business transactions are being finalised by my customers during immersive TelePresence meetings, which is speeding up decision making, reducing travel costs and improving our work/life balance.

Unlimited Visual Communication Applications

As mentioned in a previous post, visual communication technologies are already being used in creative ways via the Cisco IBSG pilot initiative — an innovative International Investment Forum that will hopefully help the next wave of budding UK entrepreneurs fund and launch a start-up.

I believe the future of online collaboration applications are limited only by our own imagination.

Clearly, the desire for face-to-face communication will never diminish – its part of human nature.  That being said, perhaps the primary motivation to apply online collaboration is not cost reduction. Instead, it will be universally valued as a tool to facilitate the development of open and highly interactive commercial networks of peers.

The relationship economy of today is still based upon trust, but it’s also enhanced by the availability of a suite of converging collaboration technologies that enable us all to adapt to the needs of tomorrow and beyond.

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