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In a recent survey by Nuvias, just over one-fifth (22%) of channel partners admitted that the inability to see customers and colleagues in person was a source of frustration. Is that figure higher or lower than expected? It probably depends on who you ask, although it should be noted that as many as 70% found remote working beneficial, either for productivity (40%) or strategic thinking (30%).
Personally, my feeling is that 22% is lower than most people would have expected. Face-to-face meetings with customers and vendors have often been considered one of the virtues for many channel partners in their capacity as trusted advisers.
So just how important are face-to-face meetings for partners in the post-Covid world? We all saw how the lockdown(s) prompted organisations to adopt new ways of working and communicating to replace in-person meetings and office working. Those methods have now become part of the fabric of how they operate on a daily basis. This raises the question of whether there is any prospect of a return to the way things were before, with a giddy rush to revive in-person meetings in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Ben Audley, chief revenue officer at Summize, believes there is still a place for face-to-face meetings. “Nothing beats an in-person meeting to establish and nurture those all-important relationships to show customers that they are valued business partners,” he says.
Nevertheless, Audley thinks the process will become comparable to a dating app or a shopping trip where “people speak to lots of other people and whittle them down before meeting in person, or they will try on different clothes before choosing what suits them best – business is no different”.
Describing himself as a “big advocate for flexible, hybrid working”, Vertiv channel sales director Martin Ryder argues that it brings more efficient working, a better work/life balance, lowers the environmental impact and gives vendors and partners “an opportunity to check in with customers more regularly than in the pre-pandemic world”.
However, Ryder believes that face-to-face meetings still have a place and can be “absolutely crucial”. They foster better collaboration and make it easier for people to ask questions that may otherwise have been forgotten or remain unsaid.
“Since face-to-face meetings have been re-ignited, I’ve been a little taken aback by how much everyone has missed the opportunities to see each other in person,” he says. “We almost forgot how crucial face-to-face interaction is to foster positive team dynamics, aid confidence building and effectively onboard new people.”
Michael O’Hara, group managing director at DataSolutions, says face-to-face meetings for meeting’s sake “have dramatically reduced and from a productivity and best use of time, that is no harm”. He adds: “We have all seen in the various lockdowns that we can successfully communicate and transact business via collaboration tools such as MS Teams and Zoom.”
More difficult to sell new technologies
But the drawback is how much more difficult it is to sell new technologies via Zoom or Teams, says O’Hara. “This is where the real value of face-to-face meetings comes into its own, because 80% of all communication is non-verbal and this can’t be picked up on a video call. The power of face-to-face meetings cannot be overstated here.”
On that subject, Steve Franklin, executive director at Cinos, makes an interesting point. While agreeing that there are likely to be fewer in-person meetings, he thinks they will be more productive. “When I’m buying something, I like to see the person and the product,” he says. “What we need to ensure is that all meetings are productive.”
Franklin says there is “a trend” to fill as many spaces as possible in a diary with virtual meetings. “As a result, there isn’t enough ‘breathing space’ between the meetings, meaning that actions and outputs get pushed later and later into the day and, as a result, you end up working a longer day than if you had met in-person initially.”
Charles Aylwin, channel sales director at Babble, acknowledges that virtual meetings and sales pitches “can often be successful, depending on the demographic of the audience” but notes: “Reading the room in meetings is no doubt easier in a face-to-face environment – and this is where channel partners must maximise their face-to-face time to build rapport and trust.”
Aylwin adds that virtual relationships “are likely to be more transactional and weaker” than in-person. Remote or hybrid work can be easier for established teams and established relationships, but it is important not to “lose sight of the importance of face-to-face meetings to build new relationships, which is vital to the role of channel partners”, he says.
Charles Aylwin, Babble
He points out: “In-person meetings require a different skillset, meaning partners must consider the implications for staff hired during the pandemic who may not have been exposed to this way of work before. There is no hiding place in face-to-face meetings.”
Bob Bailkoski, CEO of Logicalis Group, says one drawback of virtual meetings is that they “can lend themselves to distraction”. He adds: “You can still attend the meeting while checking emails and editing documents. On the other hand, face-to-face meetings force participants to remain present and allow for a better reading of others’ body language. In-person meetings guarantee eye contact, whereas a laptop webcam and screen placements do not.”
That being said, Bailkoski accepts that face-to-face meetings “don’t have to be events that happen all the time”, adding: “In the hybrid working world, they are treated more as an exception rather than the rule. Hybrid and remote working doesn’t mark the end of face-to-face meetings – they’ve just redefined their need.”
For her part, Hayley Mooney, UK general manager at Crayon, says the company is finding that face-to-face meetings “are more crucial than ever for channel partners in the post-Covid world”.
It’s not purely about social interaction, it’s also about productivity, she says. “We find that we can divert conversations in a more natural way and that the fixed start and end time is more relaxed, which allows for us to ‘get to know’ our customers. Small talk makes the mood easier and helps build stronger foundations for the long-term relationship, which is beneficial for our work with channel partners.”
Taking advantage of virtual events
But that is very different from the perspective of David Friend, co-founder and CEO of Wasabi Technologies, who acknowledges that in-person meetings and events are popping up again, but believes many companies are still taking advantage of virtual events and selling environments. “In fact, in our experience at Wasabi, the adaptation to virtual has increased productivity and sales cycles have become shorter, less expensive and more efficient, which is overall vastly different from pre-pandemic life,” he says.
Many will be eager to return to pre-pandemic face-to-face meetings, says Friend, “but now that we’ve seen how efficient we can be over Zoom, Teams and other platforms and how much easier it is to get in touch with one another, we must also accept the need to effectively manage both”.
The pandemic helped bring into focus the value of face-to-face meetings, according to Rob Mackle, director and co-founder of Assured Data Protection. “Before Covid, the standard process was to automatically book a meeting face-to-face,” he says. “It is what was drilled into me when I was a young salesperson, and it’s what we trained our team to do.”
If prospects or partners asked for a remote meeting instead, that was often a surprise and “almost as if it wasn’t a worthwhile meeting to do it in person”, says Mackle. “How times have changed, where a face-to-face meeting is the surprise, and all the more welcome for it.”
Covid has forced a process change, but Mackle is one of those who believes “there is still nothing like a face-to-face meeting, visiting the customer or partner in their own office, getting a feel for the culture and environment, shaking hands and conversing with people about the project and how you can succeed together”.
He accepts that a large amount of work can be done remotely, but describes face-to-face meetings as “vital to building a trustworthy and sustainable relationship”.
Arun Kumar J, ManageEngine
Arun Kumar J, regional director sales at ManageEngine, argues that something is definitely lost when face-to-face meetings are reduced. “Before the pandemic, we saw channel partners from a strategic standpoint,” he says. “Through face-to-face interactions, there was two-way communication taking place. The engagement was strategic, as they act as the bridge between a vendor and a customer.”
Channel partners provided insights into a customer’s pain points, the latest trends in the industry and the competitive landscape, he says. They also ensured that the right products were pitched to address the customer’s challenges and expectations. “That was the value proposition that channel partners were bringing to the table. Once you remove the face-to-face angle, the relationship with channel partners becomes extremely transactional. The business continues, but the strategic part has been missing in the last two years.”
Sean Sears, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) vice-president of channel sales at Park Place Technologies, notes that many partner organisations are updating their vendor visit guidelines, which include vaccination requirements and “invite only” measures. “This is a striking difference compared to the previously enjoyed unfettered on-site access to partner sales teams,” he says. “We welcome the opportunity to attend face-to-face meetings off-site with partner contacts that are comfortable doing so. However, it has to be acknowledged that this isn’t as efficient as being able to meet with whole sales teams – which is historically how we’ve approached partner development.”
This means adapting to a more strategic and prescriptive approach to partner relationships, says Sears. “Where vendors are limited to engaging with one or two partner contacts at a time as part of off-site meetings, they must now ensure they’re spending that time efficiently, maintaining contact with the most influential individuals able to deliver the highest impact on business outcomes.”
Crucial role for face-to-face
Guillaume Crapart, senior director for channel sales at Quantum, insists: “You can’t put a price on the value of face-to-face meetings, especially as they’ve always played such a crucial role in the management of the channel, building new relations, as well as developing existing ones.”
Now the world is opening back up and Quantum can meet partners again, Crapart is encouraging channel managers “to interact as much as possible to strengthen these relationships”.
People are learning how to get the most out of face-to-face meetings, especially when it comes to achieving specific targets, he says. For example, if Quantum wants to train partners in the latest solutions on the market, a virtual meeting works well because it can use virtual conferencing and collaboration tools, making in-person meetings redundant.
But if the vendor needs to discuss more technical projects, physical meetings are the better option, says Crapart. “Choosing the right format, depending on the topic and expected outcomes of the meeting, is key to creating value for those in attendance.”
Jeff McCullough, vice-president for global partner sales at SolarWinds, has noticed that it has been “harder for vendors to get into partners’ offices for discussions – and it will continue to be this way for some time as companies limit the number of people in offices to prioritise health and safety”.
Jeff McCullough, SolarWinds
One trend he has seen is a steady increase in off-site partner meetings over the past year. “A major shift we’ve seen is that for many partners, in-person meetings are happening not in their office or the customer’s office, but off-site at conferences, restaurants and events,” says McCullough. “These can provide the more personalised experiences that are helping to build longer-term partner relationships.”
James Pickering, sales director at Jigsaw24, says in-person meetings are particularly important for bringing on new talent and integrating new team members into an organisation. Although there are clear benefits to virtual meetings, which are often perceived as more efficient and less time-consuming, “rigid timings, structured agenda and unavoidable lack of non-verbal cues can, at times, result in a stale and uninspiring environment”, he says.
Christina Walker, global director of channel at Blancco, says there has been a focus on quality when it comes to in-person meetings. “Quarterly business reviews, for example, are ideal in person,” she says. “We have only just re-engaged in the process with our partners and I can attest that the partners and Blancco felt we accomplished a lot more in person as we had 100% focus plus sidebar conversations you would not normally achieve in a structured Teams call. Also, it minimises the chance of distractions because you don’t get an opportunity to turn off your video and multitask.”
Cinos’s Franklin doesn’t believe technology will replace in-person meetings. “I have been on many conference calls where most, if not all, participants don’t even have their camera on,” he says. “You enter a ‘virtual room’ that is often full of ‘faceless tiles’ with name badges, many of whom don’t even speak. Face-to-face meetings are more likely to promote positive outcomes as it’s easier to be negative while on the phone and not in the same room as attendees.”
It is interesting how many people engaged in the technology industry are arguing quite passionately in favour of reviving personal meetings after the pandemic. Despite the huge role tech played in ensuring people could remain in contact remotely and maintain business relationships virtually, there is still no substitute for the human factor.