Why The All-Virtual World Won’t Work

By: Philip Palaveev

As originally published by Financial Advisor magazine.

In my years of consulting, I have been in many meetings where people cry with frustration and sadness, where they laugh and hug with the joy of success, where they rage with the anger of failed partnerships and laugh while being surrounded by close friends.

None of those meetings were virtual. They were often held in conference rooms or offices. They were sometimes held in hotel lobbies or bars, perhaps even in elevators or airports. But never on a screen.

Since people have continued to be productive online in the last six months during the pandemic, there is a strong temptation to conclude that we don’t need in-person interactions anymore. Why pay for offices and conference rooms when online interactions are productive, efficient and convenient … and when clients seem to accept them? Also, frankly, it’s too early to hug. We can only return to in-person meetings when it becomes safe. Right now, it is not.

But when things go back to normal, we can’t forget that in-person meetings have always been fundamental to our client relationships. They allow us to show emotion, give us opportunities to build trust, to experience and express empathy, to better understand a person in full and get context for a full range of unscripted emotions that are integral to a deep relationship.

Online meetings, on the other hand, are like an air kiss—a nice gesture, but hardly the stuff of emotional connection.

Without the ability to build the deeper bonds that face-to-face meetings allow us, we won’t be as effective in helping. We’ll also be more easily replaceable—we are, in fact, in danger of irreversibly diminishing the depth of our client relationships and ultimately commoditizing our work in a flurry of computer-generated results and scripted conversations.

After all, if we can’t hug a client when they cry or celebrate, we may have willingly erased one of the very few lasting advantages independent advisory firms have—their ability to relate to the client. (Again, I stress, please do not hug until it’s safe.)

Research shows that we fail to build trust and convey emotion in online meetings. We have a harder time understanding one another. Much of the time, the information we get speaking to someone right in front of us is non-verbal. When we’re online we miss those vital things, such as seeing a person react with their entire body rather than just their faces (we don’t see the posture cues). Frankly, I find it hard to communicate without my hands to begin with. An article released by National Geographic in April documented the fatigue caused by online calls. The magazine explains that our brains are constantly searching for the missing information and cues from another person’s body language.

It is also more difficult to communicate online with multiple participants. If you are talking with a couple, for example, you want to be able to gauge the reaction of one spouse when the other speaks, and that’s harder to see in a video. You definitely need to hear the gasp or sigh or that whispered reaction from the children when Mom says something they disagree with. You can’t with virtual technology, which often trims off all the helpful visual cues. The incomplete information leads to incomplete and inaccurate conclusions.

Another reason to appreciate in-person contact is that our powers of empathy may be very closely related to our ability to mirror one another—something that becomes more difficult to do online. A 2018 Psychology Today article cited researchers who found that people who’d had Botox injections were less able to interpret emotions in others because they couldn’t fully mimic their facial expressions. We can’t really mirror others well online because we don’t see them with the same clarity. The same article also argues that hearing plays a big role in our understanding of emotions—and once again, no voice sounds fully the same online as it does in person.

Even touch is critical (though rarer). An experiment done at the University of Chicago showed that negotiators who shook hands were more open and honest with each other.

The science of our relationships is still very imprecise and nascent, but it is very clear that we rely on a lot of non-verbal, contextual and even physical cues to determine what kind of relationships we’re in.

In a brilliantly titled paper, “How To Relate To People: The Extraterrestrial’s Guide To Homo Sapiens,” scientists Alan Fiske and Lisa Schubert argue that there are four fundamental ways in which we relate to one another: through communal sharing (in our families, communities and close-knit teams); through authority ranking (by following things like org charts and army ranks); through equality matching (when we take turns or wait in line); and through market pricing (I am buying; you are selling—we will haggle). We behave very differently depending on what kind of relationships we perceive to have with other parties and observe very different rules of engaging with them.

In the market pricing relationship, we negotiate, we rigorously pursue our own best interest, we take advantage of mispriced items, we seek competing offers and we look for lower prices. Even though financial advisors follow this model in a way, offering counsel in exchange for compensation, it’s not really the relationship we want to have. Consider community sharing instead—the way we treat our friends. In that model, we are reciprocal, kind, caring, empathetic and willing to help.

Here is where I am going with this. Fiske and Schubert argue that even kids understand these concepts very intuitively, and we all decide what our relationships are about by observing these cues and signals. If there are dollar signs and prices around, it must be that we’re in a market pricing relationship. If there are hugs and smiles, it must be communal. The efficient nature of online calls tends to over-communicate the pricing signals (we’re sharing the screens with the performance charts) and under-communicate the equality and community signals—emotions, postures, mirroring, etc.

Even if our client engagements are inherently commercial, we can still be effective and helpful and economically valuable if the interactions are framed as communities and not as Turkish bazaars.

Economists don’t like to deal with emotions because they don’t lend themselves to calculus and you can’t analyze them statistically very well, which is why Michael Porter does not include “relationships” in his five forces that shape a market. Porter talks about the ease of entry and exit, the ease of substitution, the power of buyers and suppliers. But he never mentions the other thing that’s important in markets—the fact that many people do business simply because they do have these relationships.

This is particularly true for professional services. We want to work with people who understand us, who relate to us (and whom we relate to) and who, because of this understanding, can deliver better experiences and better results. Note that even if the result is essentially the same, the experience is not, which is why I drive 30 minutes to get to the same hairdresser I’ve had for the last 15 years and get a buzz cut for $100 when I could get it around the corner for $25. I love the conversation and catching up, and the person cutting my hair also goes to my boxing gym. All the market forces Porter lists suggest I should be going the other way, but as Sheldon Cooper from the The Big Bang Theory says: “They have my hair records.”

Harvard professor David Maister, whom I find myself quoting in every article, understands that well. He argues in the book The Trusted Advisor that the trust placed in you is a function of your credibility (your knowledge and reputation), your reliability (past experiences) plus intimacy (emotions) divided by how much you are focused on yourself (if you are self-oriented, it detracts from your trustworthiness). In my mind, we can convey credibility and reliability online, but not so much intimacy.

Maister says some client engagements are based on need. Take, for example, a gas station. You need gas, they have it. Then there are service engagements. Your clients need an answer or a tax return. You can provide it. Finally, there are relationship engagements where the exchange of information and trust results in something beyond services and needs being met. It’s when the advisor delivers insights and new ideas. Maister uses “advisor” as a generic term for anything from a tax advisor to a financial advisor to a legal advisor to a consultant.

His point is that while the businesses of meeting needs and offering service engagements are easily commoditized, relationship engagements endure and actually deepen.

So back to online meetings. This is not to suggest that online interactions cannot build trust or community. Talk to your kids and they will tell you with passion about their gaming clan and their online friends. Even I am not ashamed to admit that I have spent hours on a site called ChessNinja (OK—make fun of me—I deserve it) and I would tell you that I have friends there (and one archnemesis). Relationships are not only possible online but common.

Still, when we cry, we mostly want to hold someone’s real hand. When we laugh, we like to laugh with others. When we worry, misery likes company.

If you have a good professional relationship with someone, you should eventually build enough trust that you can discuss the things you laugh and cry about. If we never enter that realm, the things we offer are replicable elsewhere. If we choose efficiency, we will paint ourselves into that corner.

Fiske and Schubert say the ancient Sumerians invented writing as a way to do business remotely (and to collect taxes). A lot of innovation has gone into facilitating trade between people who don’t shake hands. Yet advice is a special business and perhaps abides by special rules. So I look forward to client meetings (not the airports and hotels). Not all the time, not every time. But there are times when it is really important to be there, and if we miss those times we might eventually miss the clients.