Technology vs. Relationships

Lee A. Miller Comments
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Where have the gas-station attendant, bank teller and corporate receptionist gone? While they’re not completely extinct, they are shrinking in number. Like it or not, we’re all changing the way we do business. In the past, we built relationships and often made buying decisions based on them. These days, we deal more with e-mails, the Internet and self-service kiosks than we do with people.

You used to visit your clients personally. Remember the big corporate parking lot with the 25 spaces reserved for visitors? Remember the palatial lobby and the receptionist who knew your name? And, of course, the boss, George, always welcomed you—after all, that was his way of staying apprised of new products and services. When George made a buying decision, your relationship was part of his motivation.

Today, George’s company operates out of the same building; but there are only three visitor spots, a lonely phone on the counter, one or two empty chairs, and a sign reading “Salespeople by Appointment Only.” George now spends much of his time researching new products and suppliers on the World Wide Web.

Hard Negotiations

A good friend of mine is the sales and marketing manager of a small company whose mission is to invent new retail products, find a manufacturing source, and secure distribution through mass retailers such as Wal-Mart. He has a huge challenge, as these retailers typically won’t see or welcome a salesperson.

Instead, they find what they need on the Internet, maybe make a phone call to ask specifics, establish several acceptable vendors whose product is sufficient, and ask for a price. Two or three suppliers are selected to negotiate final cost in a face-to-face meeting. Salespeople are not welcome. Negotiators are instructed to bring their profit-and-loss statements and be sure those in attendance are authorized to negotiate price changes.

A buyer like our client George might ask, “What percentage of your cost does the accounts-receivable department represent?” If your response is 1.5 percent, George will likely say, “Please reduce your price by 1.5 percent, as we will pay you by wire transfer on the exact day and time stated in your terms and conditions of sale. And we have no intention of paying your accounts-receivable expenses for those who don’t pay on time.”

It’s hard to imagine having to lay down your profit-and-loss statement in front of a customer. But undeniably, one of the side effects of technology is the reduction or elimination of relationships in the sales process and exchange of information. The bottom line these days is it’s all facts, figures and technology, while relationships are virtually (and literally) missing.

The Y (Young) Generation

So where does that leave us? It seems we’re caught in the middle of an overhaul in the way we do business. Relationship-based buying still exists for those who graduated from college before the Internet and PC explosion. I once attended a seminar in which the speaker asked all members of the audience over the age of 36 with an MBA to raise their hands. After they did so, he proceeded to say he was sorry for them because the icons they studied in school were the likes of IBM, Kodak, Sears and Xerox—all of which had lost or were losing their market positions.

One might conclude those older than 36 are comfortable in the world of relationship selling and uncomfortable filling out an Internet RFQ (request for quotation). Conversely, people in their early twenties not only have a greater understanding of and comfort with technology, they depend on it. Relationships almost don’t matter to them. In fact, some would say that while these young people are technologically at ease, they struggle with personal relationships.

Last week, while doing volunteer work for my college fraternity, I walked into the president’s room to discuss events of the previous week. He was communicating with no less than five people on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger), plus one on his cell phone whom he was telling to get onto AIM. The TV was going, his favorite music was playing in the background and, last but not least, he was doing his homework. “Be with you in a minute,” he said and pointed to an empty chair.

Some would suggest this is just the beginning of a trend that will ultimately find us having to re-learn basic human communication. Colleges will have to offer classes on interpersonal skills: “So, Jon, what’s your major at Harvard?” “Well, Bob, I’m studying the lost art of relationship-building.”

From the self-storage industry to mining engineering, all of us will be affected by these changes. Younger leaders and the competitive demands created by the likes of Wal-Mart will push technology faster than ever. So we either need to get on the wagon or out of the way. At the bare minimum, be sure your software vendor is keeping you current. In addition, you might consider hiring a sub-30-year-old to make sure potential customers can find you on the web and you can quickly reply to their Internet inquiries.

Lee A. Miller is president and CEO of Andrews Software Inc., which provides software services and products to the records and information-management, confidential-destruction, and corporate markets. For more information, visit www.andrewssoftware.com.

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