In Favour of a Personal Touch

Making this contribution to the 15th anniversary commemorative issue of LQ leads me to reflect on business activity in recent years and, specifically, what aspects of our business have changed or stayed the same.

by Jim Davidson

When you consider the impact of technology and how it drives our day-to-day operations, then absolutely everything has changed. Forever.

Think back over the past decade, and you quickly realize how dependent we’ve become on the Internet and wireless communications devices. Can you imagine tracking shipments without the Internet? Or getting through the day without your Blackberry? Neither can I. Given that technological advancements have forever altered every aspect of business, is there anything that remains relatively constant?

Look beyond what we see on the surface of business transactions to the human factor and what makes for success versus failure. Successful people possess certain qualities that withstand the test of time:  So much of success depends upon having a positive attitude, being honest and—by far the most important—the ability to build lasting relationships. These are the aspects of doing business that remain fundamentally the same. Regrettably, they appear to be losing significance.

In today’s high communications environment, too many people tend to lose sight of the value of relationships. Consider the bidding process that has increasingly become a live, online event for obtaining new business and renewing contracts. Most people assume that the lowest bid always wins. Not so. It has been my experience that more business is awarded to the company that has a competitive price as well as an established relationship with the customer.  Developing rapport and having a favorable history with a supplier allows the customer to say to them, “You can have this business for this amount of money.” I see this happening in our company all the time.

Sticking with what goes on in my own office, I have become somewhat famous for my “walking around” style of management. Given a choice between sending an email to an office colleague, or walking down the hall to speak with them in person, I’ll take the walk. There is profound value in seeing the other person and having the other person see me. While walking around, I see things, I see people and I get a clearer picture of what’s really going on; personally, I place value on being able to see, hear, feel what’s going on, as opposed to relying on one-dimensional communications tools like email. Email gets the information across, but the personal touch that is so critical to business success is lost. We don’t place enough value on individual relationships.

This became abundantly clear when I recently accepted an invitation from a major supplier (representing an annual Wheels Group expenditure of roughly $25 million) to watch an NHL game from their corporate suite in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. I purposely went in order to meet my counterparts in what amounts to a significant business arrangement, but for which there was no corresponding significant relationship. “What kind of customer are we to you?” I asked the executive from out of town. “You are very important,” he replied. “Very strategic.” But sadly, he couldn’t name our company’s representative. As a result, I insisted on both sides making an effort to build a better relationship, in which we both would have the knowledge and trust of who to call in times of need. Yet, to this day, we have yet to establish such a relationship with this company. And it’s not for lack of trying on our part.

What makes for a good relationship? It’s more than just knowing names and having the corresponding numbers entered into speed-dial. It’s whatever it takes for two parties to have an implicit trust and understanding of one another and one another’s business. Certainly it will vary from person to person. It doesn’t always require a personal visit—just communicating to the extent that both sides are comfortable with one another. Take the time and make the effort to build such relationships, and there will never be any question about getting and keeping business.

Perhaps what I favour is decidedly old-fashioned, but I highly recommend whenever possible, and for the benefit of everyone, that we communicate face to face. People have been doing it for centuries. You’ll be amazed at the difference it can make to your business success.

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