Face-to-face interaction will never lose its luster.

I was posed a question recently at the WANE Executive Leadership Conference in Baltimore about how important it is for face-to-face meetings with vendors and competitors in this digital age. The answers to this question ranged from once a year for manufacturers to once a month for vendor representatives. I think the idea behind this question is far more important than the answer.

As I wrote about last month, with the new generation making its way into the business, digital communication is becoming paramount. The question is whether it’s hindering our ability to do business. There are many people I talk to on a day-to-day basis or a week-to-week basis that I couldn’t pick out of a lineup. They could be manufacturers, vendor reps and sometimes even customers. It’s a sad state of affairs when you see someone you’ve known for years and can’t identify them.

There also are people who I never deal with on a daily basis and I only see them at cocktail parties or company outings. While it’s good to catch up and talk shop, I’d normally only call these people if I were to run into an emergency or a problem. On the other hand, the relationships with the people I deal with day-to-day stay as simple as answering the phone and asking a quick question.

With this being a digital age, should we actually be trying to see each other face-to-face more often? I’ve always said that I’ve formed far better relationships on a golf course than on the telephone. Everyone knows that this is a people business. We may be selling toilets and copper elbows, but the most successful of us have formed lifelong bonds and friendships with vendors, reps, competitors and customers. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to form these strong bonds through phone calls and emails.

How many times have you received an email and you couldn’t tell whether the person on the other end was yelling at you or complimenting you? It’s difficult for there to be any subtlety, any sarcasm and any humor in an email. I think we’re all beyond the days of typing “LOL” to each other, certainly when you’re following it up with an official company-sanctioned email signature. It doesn’t quite work. At this point, not only do I get emails from customers and vendors, I also get text messages or LinkedIn messages and a lot of times I have no idea if I’m being chastised or praised. In the past, if I knew the person, if I had played nine holes or had lunch with this person, I’d be able to tell if they were serious or joking.  These days, you just can’t tell.

I know most of you are thinking, “Well, if he’s really mad, he’s going to call.” That’s certainly true with a lot of folks, but then again this new generation coming in is not used to conflict and  direct confrontation. Therefore, in the coming years you’re going to be getting yelled at a lot more in emails than on the phone. While that’s probably a relief to most of you, how much damage control can you do when you’re not having a full conversation about fixing the problem? A closer personal relationship with this person would help alleviate that.

Get out and meet people

I’m not suggesting we start having group lunches with vendors or we all start having communal dinner parties every week, but I think we can’t ignore the importance of already established meetings. Whether it’s through a buying group or through ASA, it’s more important these days than ever to have face-to-face meetings with other people. We can’t become an industry of people who Skype each other to stay in contact because relationships are far too valuable.

Most of the younger generation in this business, myself included, have heard about the “glory days” of this industry when wholesaler-to-wholesaler relations were at an all-time high and everyone knew each other, worked with each other and actually liked each other. For the past five years we’ve all been focused on our own companies and our own problems with the economy going down the tubes. Now, there are signs of life, we’re coming out of our shells and there is a new and exciting group of people in the industry that don’t know anything about the “glory days” and are eager to meet and get to know others.

I attended the ASA Young Executives meeting earlier this year. I had skipped the meeting in past years because I was too busy or because something came up, but now I regret the times that I missed. “Young” is a relative term in this meeting as I believe the ages ranged from 24 – 70. This year’s meeting was about forming relationships and listening to engaging speakers that taught, informed and entertained. I encourage all who have been hesitant in the past about attending one of these events to give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.

Young Executives is just one of many different ways to get to know other wholesalers and vendors. Each event holds its own value and importance. While the technology of today is nothing short of spectacular, there isn’t a technology out there that can beat face-to-face communication and bonding. It’s more important than ever to realize that.

So vendors and vendor reps, when you’re visiting a wholesaler and you’re meeting with someone that you’ve known your whole life, invite someone else to lunch, too. No one ever said lunch had to be one-on-one. Get to know the people you talk to every day, get to know the people you work with. Wholesalers, I encourage the same of you. Allow your sales staff to meet these people they deal with every day. Not only will it boost morale, but it will also increase efficiency.

I look at it the same way I look at training. When I was working counter sales and was included in a training seminar and was taught very well on the product, I’d sell that product because I’d understand it and I’d be comfortable dealing with it. In the same token, if I’ve met someone face-to-face, eaten lunch with them and had fun with them, the next time I deal with them on the phone, not only am I going to enjoy hearing their voice and talking to them, but we’re going to understand each other even better and get some real work done.

I’m not saying we have to start having lunch dates every day or get distracted from our work by chitchatting, but as with everything you need to find a balance. The answer is pretty simple. When you’re doing business, all other things equal, do you want to work with someone you’ve never met or with someone you consider a friend?