Last weeks post How do Chemical Buyer’s Buy? Will it ever really change? discussed how chemical buyer’s buy and the trends they see moving forward. The focus was on personal relationships vs. ‘internet’ relationships and chemical exchange possibilities. Based on significant feedback (and over 200 replies/comments in various forums – thank-you everyone who took the time to read and comment!), the overriding consensus is that (at least for the chemical industry) the ‘old school’ way of working (personal meetings, anything face-to-face) will continue to rule the day. I admit that perhaps not many ‘twenty-something’s’ may have taken the the opportunity to weigh-in (perhaps they were too busy placing their chemical spend on-line), but it is reasonable to conclude that any Amazon.com type model will not be taking over the chemical industry any time in the immediate future.
So, this leads to a new question… ‘what exactly constitutes a ‘face-to-face’ meeting’?. As a business owner with 15 people in our commercial department (i.e., buying and/or selling), we spend tens (100’s?) of thousands of dollars per year on travel. We also have a conference room filled with the latest and greatest; a 120” drop down hi-definition screen, and Logitech ConferenceCam CC3000e ready and willing to take on all of our audio-visual needs). Can this travel expenditure be effectively replaced by the use of video-conferencing?
I know of a lot of companies using this technology ‘intra company’, but have not seen/heard many conversations (in the chemical industry anyway), where parties say – ‘let’s meet by video conference’, as opposed to ‘we’ll fly down to Houston and make a presentation’. It might not be such as coincidence that I am currently on Alaska Flt 730; Seattle – Houston, to go make such an in-person presentation, although I proudly will be wearing my #3 jersey of the recently crowned World Champion Seattle Seahawks! For the money (and perhaps more importantly, TIME) we are spending – is the physical handshake and view of body language in an in-person meeting worth the opportunity cost of staying in the office and working thru video-conference? As a proprietor of a small/medium sized business, I don’t have the same perspective as some of the big boys (Dow, Lyondell, Shell, Univar, Brenntag, etc..), I wonder if I am just missing something. And, how about conferences and trade-shows? I don’t think the ‘do not miss’ meetings in our industry (AFPM/NPRA, EPCA, APLA, ACE, ACI, ISSA, and the gambit of other acronyms…) are in much danger of extinction.
I have to think that with the wear and tear on the body of physical travel, the actual cost in dollars, the soft cost of ‘opportunity loss’ that could be gained working from our physical office, and the despair of leaving family and loved ones so often – there has to be a case for the entire business community to say ‘video-conference’ wins… Let’s stay off the airplanes (although for some sick reason I take some demented sense of pride in holding platinum status on two airlines)…
What do you think, is everyone ready for video-conference to be the norm??
Buyers, procurement and project managers are human beings. They want chemical companies to act like a local merchant and a citizen of the community. Products must reflect end-user’s understanding and experience and how do you achieve this as a supplier without interfacing with the end-users and buyers? How can you co-create and innovate with your customers through an impersonal video conference only? The summary is this: chemical companies must think locally and act globally and the most effective way to do this is by meeting the customers face-to-face. E-mails, video conferencing have their uses but they are no substitute for one-on-one discussion to forge long lasting business relationships. So, Tony, pack your travelling bags ready because I want you to visit Nigeria for business opportunities! Seriously.
Tony, I agree with your argument for broader use of videoconference technology and less time on airplanes. Makes sense, particularly in the post-recession (are we really post-? Not sure) world of VERY flat organizations, with fewer people who can jump on planes and be away for days, without really impacting other things our organizations can do. I think the fly in the ointment is that we humans have evolved to connect much more quickly, richly, deeply, memorably, etc. with another live human than with an image on a screen. So, the competitor who shows up in the customer’s office will trump another who arrives by video, other things equivalent. So, as long as our competitors are willing to fly to Houston, we need to as well. And of course, once we’re there, we reap the fringe benefits of seeing the customer’s facility, meeting his people, feeling his culture, drinking his coffee, etc., which are also valuable, and which rarely come to us via video. My 2¢.
I think the world is in a shift. While it is true that older and more established people in the industry still prefer face to gace meetings, it will be important for any company in the chemical industry embrace technology for the future. As the teens and twenty – somethings of today elevate within our supply chains and customer markets, they preference will likely shift to tech-centric communication. Evidence of this can be found in my 17 year old nephew’s cell phone bill each month. On his unlimited plan, he typically has between 100-200 minuts used, but 1500-2500 text messages. Not only does his generation reduce the need to be face to face, but they don’t even feel the need to speak to one another, so video conferences may even be in danger of extinction.
There will never be a tech replacement for face to face engagement and I believe it will always be a critical part of any relationship, but the frequency of these interactions will decrease significantly in years to come as the generations that grew up in a high tech world come in to our industry.
Regarding Luigi, a few years back, while i was on a business trip in northern Europe, my wife found my daughter, who was about 3 or 4 at the time, sitting on the floor with scissors shredding $100 worth of $20 bills. When asked why she was doing it, her response was “I’m making more money for daddy so he can come home.”
Marc, great comments. Thanks! Very funny about your daughter… While I agree with you for the most part, the chemical industry deals in transactions that are 5, 6, and 7 figure deals… not $20 book sales on Amazon. While a ‘tweener – I like to think of myself as a 53 year old tech savvy person, I have to think that with transactions so significant – people will always want to ‘know’ who they are dealing with. Great comments by you. Thanks again. Tony
I’ve been living and working in Korea since 2002 and I often get the feeling the US customers are very different than the rest of the world. Maybe part of it is that it feels like a lot of the players in the US are typically older (50’s) males and they still want to work the way they learned, which is face to face. I think younger people feel they can build trust with another person via technology where older generations can’t.
I think as younger people begin to move into this industry we will see a shift towards more and more technology. I also think as companies become even more cost conscious it is hard to ignore the price differences between flying and an e-mail.
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