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|Even In a Virtual World|
|Published Friday, February 1, 2013|
Relationships take more than texting, friending, and online connecting. Technology has yielded some great communication tools, but Barefoot Wines founder Michael Houlihan says they are not relationship builders. Here, he shares seven reasons why the personal touch will always be more effective than pixels on a screen.
It’s official: Email, texting, and social media are no longer just helpful supplemental business tools. They’ve taken over the whole game. Yes, technology has made many aspects of modern living more convenient and connected, but the pendulum has swung too far. Now, people are reluctant to do something as simple as picking up the phone, preferring to shoot off an email instead. And face-to-face meetings—well, they’re almost unheard of.
This technology takeover is not without consequence, says Michael Houlihan. Misunderstandings abound. Relationships stagnate. Trust is at an all-time low. And all of these issues are at least partially due to the fact that genuine human connections have been replaced by mouse-clicks and keystrokes. “Social media and technology do have their place, but they are not, and never will be, a substitute for in-person interaction,” says Houlihan, coauthor with Bonnie Harvey of The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built a Bestselling Wine (coming in May 2013 from Evolve Publishing, www.thebarefootspirit.com).
“Your physical presence—or at least the sound of your voice—builds trust you can’t even approach with a keyboard, screen, or profile image,” Houlihan says.
Having bootstrapped a business from the ground up, Houlihan says he knows what he’s talking about. He and Harvey are the founders of Barefoot Cellars, a wine company that has worked to transform the image to fun, lighthearted, and hip. When the duo started their company in the laundry room of a rented Sonoma County farmhouse, they knew almost nothing about winemaking or the wine business.
“I can’t tell you how many retailers, suppliers, and potential customers I visited in person during those early years,” Houlihan says. “What I can tell you is that I would have never gotten satisfactory results if I had tried to build those relationships via email and social media. The Barefoot brand would never have become a national bestseller without meetings, phone calls, and recurring personal visits that kept relationships all over the country healthy and up-to-date. ... People don’t just buy your product; they buy you.”
Houlihan says he worries that people’s dependence on virtual communication has stunted the social skills they’ll need to attract customers. Through no fault of their own, many young professionals have inherited a world that provides a comfortable firewall insulating them from personal rejection—one in which they simply don’t have to communicate in real time. “Could you learn to walk if you were handed a crutch at birth?” Houlihan asks.
Let's face it, in a global economy, face-to-face meetings are expensive. When clients, vendors, and even employees are on the other side of the world, it’s not economically feasible to hop on a plane every time a meeting is needed. In these cases, says Houlihan, Skype is the next best thing to being there.
“Live video streams allow you to do just about everything short of shaking hands,” he says. “I have begun to use Skype frequently in my own business dealings. I love that I can make eye contact with someone who is sitting on the opposite side of the country. We accomplish so much more when we become more than just an email address or a disembodied voice to one another!”
If you make the time necessary for personal meetings—if not in person, then via Skype or, at the very least, on the phone—Houlihan says others will not only remember you, but they will appreciate the effort you put forth.
Read on for seven specific advantages of real-time, in-person, face-to-face relationship building.
- The time investment shows you care. It’s a fairly universal truth that human beings want to be valued and appreciated. Spending time with someone else, whether that’s in person, face-to-face on a computer screen, or, if all else fails, via a phone call, is one of the best ways to convey these things. In essence, an investment of time says, “While there are many other things I could be doing, I’m choosing to spend my time with you. That’s how important I think you are!” Minutes and hours spent with another person have the power to create a bond that money can’t buy. “When you spend time with others, you find out what you truly have in common and you have an opportunity to share your opinions,” Houlihan sayss. “Plus, visiting someone repeatedly over a period of time can also provide valuable non-verbal clues to his or her values and concerns. In my own experience, I have been amazed by how helpful it can be to travel with someone, whether it’s a colleague or client. On any trip there will probably be instances that cause stress and anxiety, which presents an opportunity for both of you to see how the other handles a variety of situations and to learn to work together more effectively.”
- It’s hard to multi-task on something unrelated when someone is physically planted in front of you, demanding your attention. Unless you have no problem with blatant rudeness, you’re focusing on the other person, responding not only to what they say, but also to their mood, movements, and many other non-verbal signals. You will read these signs and adjust your behavior accordingly. “Letters on a screen can’t compete with the personal touch,” Houlihan says. “In my experience, when you use someone’s name along with eye contact and an attentive demeanor, they’re more likely to be agreeable and to give you the benefit of the doubt. They know that your time is valuable and that you chose to give it to them. The next time they see you, they will be more relaxed and familiar in your company. And the more visits you have, the more your relationship with that individual strengthens. Trust me, people want to do business with people they know. You can get to know them much better offscreen.”
- When you’re talking to someone else in real time, you can make progress in real time and solve problems in real time. (Believe it or not, lobbing emails back and forth isn’t always the most efficient method.) Thanks to facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice (see below for more information on each), you’ll usually find out more than just the basics when you have a verbal conversation. In fact, if you’re really observant, you may notice things about the other company or clients that they themselves aren’t even aware of. Houlihan says, “When an important client or critical team member is on the other side of the globe, a face-to-face meeting once or twice a year can often be a smart investment. The rest of the time, if your communication is anything beyond a simple FYI, be sure to Skype or call.”
- Facial expressions help get your message across. Did you know that the human face has at least 20 muscles that work in concert to create a myriad of telling facial expressions? When you put it that way, the process sounds complex, but we don’t have to consciously think about forming those expressions at all. This is a powerful argument for face-to-face meetings, whether they’re in person or via Skype. “Observing those expressions during verbal communication can give you instant feedback about how your message is being received,” Houlihan says. “You can quickly adjust your message on the spot to make it more meaningful or agreeable, and avoid possible misunderstandings. Facial expressions are also an invaluable way through which to express sincerity, interest, curiosity, happiness, and more.”
- Body language. Unlike looking at a posed profile shot or any still image sent over email, being face-to-face with another person gives you the opportunity to see the other person’s dynamic reaction and make adjustments to your own message. Real-time body language provides tons of non-verbal cues that are impossible to convey in a text or email. “As humans and social animals, we are naturally wired to get this feedback instantly,” Houlihan says. “We’re also equipped to share our own feelings and attitudes through the way we stand, sit, gesture, and more. It’s a good idea to spend a little time learning the basics of body language. For instance, if you know that hands in one’s pockets indicate boredom or disinterest whereas leaning slightly forward indicates interest, you’ll be able to respond more accurately to others and avoid sending messages you don’t mean to.” And so does your tonality.
- The deadly email. It’s happened to everyone. You send an email that’s laced with sarcasm or humor and the recipient fails to pick up on. Oops! Now you’re left frantically doing damage control. According to Houlihan, that’s one major reason why texting, emailing, and friending can be great ways to communicate while failing to succeed at relationship building. “When spoken, the same words used in a text or email can have a very different meaning based on the tone, inflection, and the emphasis that the speaker gives,” he says. “It’s much easier to ‘get’ intentions behind the spoken word. And if the other person sounds reluctant, uncomfortable, or guarded, for instance, you can take advantage of the opportunity to ask why and discuss ideas that might never have been brought forward over email. So the next time you find your mouse hovering over the ‘compose’ button, think about reaching for your phone instead.”
- Your vulnerability shows. In the virtual world, you can almost totally control the image you show to other people. You choose the pictures you post on your profile. You censor the information you do and don’t want to share in your messages, posts, and updates. And usually, you can think about and edit what you want to say before pressing “send.” But in a real-time, face-to-face relationship, the other person can see you in 3-D and observe your dynamic, spontaneous behavior, including tone of voice, expression, dress, and body language. The other party sees your human imperfections and is aware that you are vulnerable to potential personal rejection. “Imperfections and vulnerability make you appear more believable and sincere,” says Houlihan. “Most people will overlook minor foibles in appearance and speech because you are literally there for them. It’s special! This can be a big advantage in the long run. And in the short run, you take precedence over all their virtual relationships.”
Despite his belief that people want in-person attention, Houlihan says Barefoot didn’t avoid technology as it developed—far from it. What’s important is to use these tools appropriately and not let them become crutches.
“A relationship can start through text, email, or social media. In fact, I encourage entrepreneurs and other businesspeople to utilize those resources,” he says. “But in order to be lasting and dependable, a relationship has to grow in person. Yes, developing your face-to-face social skills will make you feel vulnerable at times. As is the case with learning to walk, though, feeling vulnerable is why we get so good at it!
“Like any skill, becoming personable takes practice,” he says. “A good way to start is to eliminate virtual communication when in-person communication is possible or more effective. So shake hands and come out a winner! Remember, genuine, lasting, and dependable relationships take time and physical presence. High touch beats high tech every time.”
Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey, authors of The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built a Bestselling Wine, started the Barefoot Wine brand in their laundry room in 1986, made it a nationwide bestseller, and successfully sold the brand to E&J Gallo in 2005. Starting with virtually no money and no wine industry experience, they employed innovative ideas to overcome obstacles and create new markets. They were pioneers in what they termed “worthy cause marketing” and performance-based compensation. They held a comprehensive view of customer service, resulting in the National Hot Brand Award for outstanding sales growth in 2003 and 2004. They now share their experience and innovative approach to business as consultants, authors, speakers, mentors, and workshop leaders. Their book chronicles the history and lessons learned building the popular Barefoot Wine brand. To learn more, visit www.thebarefootspirit.com.
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