Step One of your business plan
Find The Human Moment In Every Transaction
Mark H. McCormack
The power of the personal touch is what ultimately seals a business deal. Technology is an inadequate, and sometimes counterproductive, substitute.
excerpt from Never Wrestle with a Pig, Penguin Books, 2000
There is no doubt that the ease of communication the Internet provides has changed the way people conduct business. But I wonder if that's a good thing. Is it possible that our slavish connection to the world via a computer screen is eroding our people skills?
This occurred to me the other day when one of our executives reported on her meeting at a major Internet company. I had asked her to call on the company because they had just sponsored their first sports event. I wanted to know if our company could fit into their plans.
Her report was not encouraging - and it all centered on people skills. "The sponsorship director, a woman in her early thirties, met me in the lobby. I thought that was nice," she said. "But then she led me down about a quarter-mile of hallways without saying a word. That was awkward. When we sat down in her office, the first thing she said was that she would have to end the meeting in twenty minutes because something else had come up. That didn't bother me. Twenty minutes was enough for a first meeting. But I wasn't sure I would get the full twenty. I certainly didn't have her full attention. She had a computer on her desk that beeped to signal incoming e-mail. It beeped several times during the meeting, and each time she turned to the computer to check the message while I was talking. That was rude (though I suspect she couldn't help herself).
"Even worse, she didn't know anything about our company, even though I had sent materials the week before. I outlined the kinds of events we had produced for other sponsors. She had no follow-up questions. I asked her the most basic questions about their budgets, their timetables, the consumer they were trying to reach, and what sports interested them the most. She ignored each of these questions, saying she was not at liberty to divulge that information. I wasn't asking her to share nuclear secrets with China. I just wanted to know if her CEO liked golf!
"It was the strangest, most hostile sales call - and it was going nowhere. I politely told her I had taken enough of her time. The coup de grace, though, came as I showed myself to the door. I turned around to say good-bye, but she was already glued to her computer screen."
I was disappointed for our executive. No one should have to bear such oafish behavior. But a part of me wasn't surprised. I've always worried that as people rely more on technology for communicating, particularly e-mail and voice mail, they rely less and less on their face-to-face personal skills. And slowly but steadily, those everyday skills - the common decencies like politeness and sensitivity to other people's feelings - erode away.
At some point, people may be so reliant on technology, they won't even feel the need for human contact. After all, if you can get your message across via e-mail, who needs face-to-face contact?
I'm seeing this in its infant stages at our company. I had to resolve a dispute between two executives the other day. They each came to my office armed with an e-mail history of their communication. Seventeen e-mails went back and forth, each stating their author's position. It was interesting to see how each successive message was written. As the dispute continued, the messages became shorter and testier, with the net effect of escalating the disagreement rather than resolving it. They were torturing each other with e-mail.
I tossed the e-mails in the wastebasket and said, "You both work in the same building. Why didn't one of you visit the other's office and talk this over?"
They looked at me as if the thought had never entered their mind.
I guess that's another thing you can't learn on the Internet: the value of human contact.
It's a factor that will only increase in importance as we become more dependent on technology for communicating. The people who remember that something meaningful and constructive happens when two people are in the same room having a face-to-face conversation - and conversely, that something destructive happens when people hide behind technology to communicate - will be happiest and most successful in the new environment.
E-mail is certainly a major culprit in this new environment. It shields people, so they gradually become coarser, blunter, more aggressive in their communications. They say things in e-mail that they would never say to someone's face.
In 1999, like many people, I was mesmerized by the U.S. government's antitrust case against Microsoft. The trial went on for months in a federal court in Washington, DC, and received daily coverage in the business press.
I wasn't interested in the legal issues. I didn't have a strong opinion about whether Microsoft had abused its monopolistic power in the software industry (as the government contended and the judge ultimately agreed) or whether Microsoft was simply a very aggressive competitor in an ultra-dynamic industry (as Microsoft argued).
What fascinated me was the evidence the government prosecutors were using. It was all e-mail.
It seemed as if the government attorneys had combed through every memo and e-mail ever written by Microsoft executives and made their findings the center of their prosecution. The government strategy was simple: Whatever Microsoft's executives say on the witness stand, don't believe them. They have no credibility - and we have their e-mails to prove it.
Thus, during weeks of endless testimony, whenever a Microsoft witness made a statement favorable to the defense, there was a government attorney brandishing an e-mail that clearly contradicted the testimony.
That's what fascinates me. U.S. v. Microsoft is the most significant corporate trial of the decade, and it may be the first ever to hinge in large part on e-mail.
The media feasted on this sort of thing. Producing proof that someone is not telling the truth makes great courtroom theater — and the media e-reported every scene where the prosecution cornered a witness into saying something contradicted by an e-mail he had written. I can't blame them. Such a scene is clear-cut. It's dramatic. It has a hero and a villain. It provides glory for the prosecutor and shame for the trapped witness.
It was also incredibly unfair. The problem with e-mail is that it only reveals a fraction of the message: the terse, blunt just-the-facts side. What's missing is the nuance, the tone of voice, the irony or humor underlying the same message that comes when you say it aloud to someone else. Depending on the tone of voice, a conversation using the same words from an e-mail exchange can sound conciliatory, skeptical, even innocent.
Unfortunately for Microsoft, everyone at the company, from the chairman on down, communicates via e-mail. They should have had more face-to-face meetings.
The lesson is no different for the rest of us. Technology is wonderful and seductive. But it's also insidious, especially if it chips away at our appreciation of the value of constant human contact-because without these moments of face-to-face exchanges, we lose a vital regulator in our lives. Human contact controls our behavior. Remove it and people's baser instincts appear. It's the reason an executive can walk into my office and complain in the most vicious way about a colleague. But if I invite that colleague into our meeting, the complaining executive will totally change his tune. He may not back down completely, but his tone and choice of words will become more civil. He won't repeat to the colleague's face what he was willing to say behind his back.
Remember this as you march into the future with your laptops, PalmPilots, and digital communicators. No matter how tempting it is to hide behind technology, there's more to be gained by looking into another person's face than staring at a screen.
______________________________________________________________________________Mark H. McCormack founded and was the CEO of International Management Group (IMG), the world's dominant sport and celebrity management organization. Mr. McCormack died in May, 2003.