Thursday, 10 September 2009

Business Travel - Statistics vs Facts

You can always rely on that impartial magazine, Business:life, the business section of BA's Highlife magazine to give you some impartial comment. This month, they extol how business travel is rising again and how statistical surveys show clearly that face to face meetings beat technologically aided ones.

Of course, nothing beats a good face to face meeting. Then again, this month, I will spend precisely 3 working days at home and only 6 nights. I can tell you, I yearn to use more technology whenever possible as the drudge of excessive international travel outshines the popular perception of its glamour. I can also tell you that despite technological advances like webmail or universal Exchange accounts, mobile phones and Blackberry-style devices, you are not as productive on the road as you are in an office.

The article starts by saying that business travel has dropped off as companies have reined back expenses in the face of the recession - no astounding news there. They also find in their surveys that many firms have specifically cut back on the class of travel allowed, the hotel classifications and the frequency of travel - again, no rocket science here. However, only 28% of companies have promoted more technologically orientated meetings such as audio, video or webconferencing. In fact, as an industry veteran, I can attest that the more companies have used such technology and saved vast amounts of money on travel, the more they have got aggresssive on driving down costs of the technologically driven conferences. I found that really frustrating, as flying to Dusseldorf to sell more automated conferencing to Vodafone who rebuffed me on my price, I found that the entire Business Class section was full of their employees all on single day's meetings from the UK.

To give an idea, today and tomorrow's meetings for me with flights, trains, taxis, hotels and meals will cost in total over £1,500. If I had done all of them via technology, they would have cost no more than a few pounds using Skype at one end of the spectrum and maybe one or two hundred pounds using something more advanced. Plus I would not have spent so many hours unproductively sitting on a plane or in a taxi.

The research in business:life asserts that face to face meetings yield greater profits than those deals done digitally. I think this is a vast generalisation biased towards the travel industry. This month, no amount of profit I earn for my clients will pay for the time lost at home - that is a simple fact. I begrudge every penny I earn this way. I have also tried to group together as much travel in a single month as I can to get it over and done with - the rest of the relationships will be driven digitally. In my eyes, the face to face is there to build trust and get key points across but the reality is that the details will be solved by digital communication. One of the greatest drivers in this is the audit trail - written word or recordable conferences are vital to create the reviewable evidence of what has been discussed between all parties and decrease the time to deals. And that is the key factor this research has missed - digital communication has collapsed the time required to make a deal happen because if details could only be discussed and agreed at face to face meetings, then they would drag on forever.

I will give a classic example of this. In all my dealings with the US West Coast, I fly for 12 hours and we would have fantastic face to face meetings where casual executives would energetically and enthusiastically agree actions and commitments at 'internet speeds'. You would shake hands, fly 6,000 miles home and when you next pick up the phone they either deny agreeing something or factors have changed. I cannot tell you how frustrating that could be - and it taught me that you either sit in front of them for as long as it takes to legally get everything agreed and incur the corresponding travel expense or you use digital communication to record all the commitments and then fly out for the contract signing. As I grow older, I get proportionally nore frugal with sharing my time out and, even when selling, I make sure that someone is absolutely on the same page as me before incurring the travel expense.

Here is the rub. Long after the shine of international business travel has worn off and you become more crotchety about the airconditioning in hotels or the delays on airlines or the crappiness of paying for check in then having a free-for-all to get a seat, you realise that time is the most costly commodity you waste not money. I begrudge every minute I miss at home. Today, I have attended two excellent meetings in Milan and then flown to Rome - I have then spent the rest of the day catching up on emails, eating quickly round the corner and then pestering you with my thoughts. The fact is, the more time you spend on travel, the more you time you spend at the back end of every day catching up on your commitments.

I also assert that mobile managers see their immediate staff less regularly - which means that more problems brew due to lack of direct personal communication. Hah! The more time you are in an aeroplane, train or taxi, the less time you can spend in front of the people who mean most to you - your staff. I will tell you something else - I think the more mobile the manager you are the more decisions you make on the fly without proper conferring or access to key data as you are on the go. Either that or you delay more in order to buy yourself time to access the same data or cobfer. Either way, the more mobile you are as a manager, the less robust or speedy are your decisions.

I will also say, from personal experience, the more I travel the less I sleep. I have travelled all my life, since a kid. It isn't just about the comfort of the bed but when I am on the move, I have more worries about whether I am in control or not or making sure I am hitting my commitments or that uncreatianty of being away from your family - I have never shaken it off and last night was a classic case of interrupted sleep prior to two key meetings that if I had done them via conference call I wouldn't have missed a beat. It means that if you are like me, over a period like this month of constant travel, there will be a time when I arrive at a meeting 'off my game' and I don't get exactly what I want out of it. Worse still, I might underperform. It happens, we like to deny it but it's a fact.

When I have been engaged in contracts demanding high visibility in an office, I have got into a routine which allows me to exercise more vigorously and regularly while I can control my eating habits more easily. During periods of prolonged travel, as I have experienced in the last 2 years, I have excercised far less and more sporadically while my eating habits have been driven by eating out constantly which inevitably means bigger meals and less healthy eating.

It is true, you need to see people face to face to build rapport and trust - sometimes to steamroller those little or large issues which get in the way of a deal. But don't kid yourself that at the slightest drop of a hat that you need to get on a plane. It isn't worth it, you are kidding yourself and, more often the not, your client doesn't appreciate it. Think about it - if a client succumbed to every request to a face to face meeting, they too would have no time to get their jobs done. It is far more respectful that you get things done by buying short snatches of their time when you need it using technology that does not drag them away from the desks and homes rather than waiting for the window to get face time.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard executives or salespeople say to me that they will get the latest information on a deal when they meet with a client at some point in the future. God knows, I do it too. But just imagine if you simply call or email a customer for an update there and then or prior to your meeting with your manager - then you have the latest information at your fingertips rather than using the face time meeting as the stake in the ground. The clever manager or salesperson is the one who uses technology to drive a deal rather than to wait for face time to keep the momentum. Face time should be given out frugally and for key objectives only. Those who are hellbent on building their airmiles or impressing their mates in the pub are the ones who spend their lives hunched over Blackberries at take off or moaning about the delays they had at the hands of Iberia Airways (like me earlier this month).

Personally, no matter what the statistics say, you can drive more sales, and hence greater profits, by using technology to your advantage and making face to face meetings really pay. It's no longer about the actual travel cost but the lost opportunity cost of not looking after your staff or being available for more clients, the quality of your decision making and the quality of your life. My simple philosophy as I grow older and wiser is that I begrudge the time I spend in pokey hotel rooms, even those close to the most holy city in the world, but away from my home and loved ones.

I leave you with just one stupid statistic from the article I read - 52% of those surveyed by BA said that by taking fewer flights they harm their business. Just how stupid is that for a business whose market is in their home country, for example, but it just shows to me that the modern businessperson is more at home with old technology rather than the new.

It makes us older sages the cool dudes for just once because we know how to utilise technology to our best advantage simply because we value our time more. We have proven that you can teach old dogs new tricks simply because they know it gets them more treats.

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