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'Face to face' won't soon bow to technology

Despite all the high-tech ways to communicate now, the not-so-secret weapon in the business world turns out to be a smile and a handshake.

Not a satellite-broadcast smile or an e-mail symbol - :-) - that represents one, but the old-fashioned kind, exchanged live, in-person, with a clasp of hands.

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Companies used to think that videoconferencing and online meetings would save them time and slash their travel budget. But now the opposite is true: The more ways there are to communicate long distance, the more businesspeople insist on face-to-face meetings.

"Communication across all media is increasing. Videoconferencing is doubling year to year, and we're seeing an explosion of dataconferencing," says Michael Begeman, manager of the 3M Meeting Network in Austin, Texas. "At the same time, people are spending more time than ever in face-to-face meetings and say they don't plan on that changing."

Technology hasn't changed the fact that relationships are built on trust. People still prefer to see whom they are dealing with, especially at the beginning of an acquaintance, says Terry Neese, former president of the National Association of Women Business Owners. "The eye contact develops the integrity, sincerity, and relationship- building process, and you can't do that via phone, fax, or e-mail," she says.

Hotels report they are building more meeting space than ever, and corporate offices designed today include at least three times more conference rooms and collaborative space than 15 years ago, according to Facility Performance Group in Ann Arbor, Mich. The group does space research, consulting, and design.

All of this is good news for employees who may worry they're hurtling toward a day when they'll be stuck on their phones and computers all of the time.

Businesswomen, especially, value personal business contacts, according to research by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners.

"When you're e-mailing or having a group meeting online, you can't judge what someone's saying when you can't see their face or hear the inflection in their voice," says Joan Eisenstodt, a meetings consultant in Washington. "People need that direct interaction. You get more immediate results when you can be together with people."

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To look a client in the eye and be able to shake hands, however, can cost thousands of dollars in travel expenses.

Americans spent $175 billion on business travel in 1997, according to most recent figures from the Institute of Business Travel Management, which reports that travel expense is often the second- or third-largest expenditure for businesses.

"It's absolutely more expensive," Ms. Neese says. "But being able to sit across the table from a potential customer, in my opinion, raises the possibility of putting any kind of business deal together around 70 percent." Telephones and e-mail are great tools for pre-meeting plans and follow-up discussions, Neese and others agree, but they are no replacement for the real thing.

"It's difficult to break away from everything else you're working on to fly off for a week of negotiations, but that's when key decisions are made," says Roya Babanoury, a project-finance attorney in New York. "And it also makes you feel part of the team. That's when you really feel that, when you're in face-to-face meetings."

How can job-seekers tell if a company makes personal interaction a priority?

"For starters, look at how they contact you," says Jim Borland, a career counselor in New York. One of his clients posted a rsum on an online job board and a company then called him, rather than e-mailed, for an interview. "I thought that was a good sign, and he did too," Mr. Borland says.

But another client, recently interviewed for the chief financial officer position at an Internet company, was put off by the multimedia approach to the initial meeting. At the interview, he simultaneously faced one interviewer in person, two on speakerphones, and one on videoconference.

"He wasn't comfortable with the [lack] of human interaction," Borland says. "He felt that, 'If this is how they relate to people, I'm not impressed.' "

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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