The Physical Gap: personal interaction lagging behind digital development


8 March 2018

Today’s companies invest a great deal of time and effort in developing ever more sophisticated and higher value propositions. We no longer sell mere products but instead offer complete solutions or even more abstract concepts such as ‘lightening the load’ and in some cases even ‘happiness’. It’s an approach that can get you places: become the Coolblue of your own market segment and your ship has well and truly come in. Thanks to big data, liquid content and the integration of ever-smarter CRM systems, we are all set to take huge digital strides in our business interaction with the market. But how are things looking for the non-digital, physical sales power of companies?

Not so rosy, is our experience. In the business-to-business world especially, many companies are experiencing a widening gulf between digital development and developments in person-to-person business interaction: the Physical Gap. If we examine the quality of physical interaction in settings where this phenomenon has been observed, it is often as if time has stood still. Nowhere is this more clearly in evidence than at trade fairs, where people still have a tendency to treat the market like it’s their very own old boys network. A cup of coffee and a bit of banter with the clients still appears to be the ultimate goal for many exhibitors, and meanwhile promising prospects are passing them by in droves. In retail environments the situation is not much better; for quick comparisons and accurate advice, online sources are usually a safer bet. Sales meetings by appointment are more difficult to assess, but training agencies are currently working overtime to meet the demand for courses in consultative selling.

As outlined above, the sky’s the limit when it comes to the promises that companies are making: products are no longer sold separately but as part of total solutions, which means that you first have to discover the exact nature of your potential customer’s often complex needs. This implies that good old product vendors have to undergo a metamorphosis, transforming themselves into full-blown consultants, preferably with a gift for enhancing brand performance. For the lucky few this is a seamless transition, but most find themselves floundering in an increasingly complex world, at the mercy of customers who are asking increasingly challenging questions. 

If the pressures of the recent economic crisis have taught us one thing, it’s that purchasing can boost your earnings more effectively than sales. As a result, companies have shifted their focus from physical sales to purchasing and the deployment of new digital resources. We regularly see sales departments that have effectively become factories, churning out one quote after another. Customers invite quotes from several parties, and these are simply drawn up and sent out, no questions asked. As long as order intake figures are decent enough and the conversion rate continues to generate sufficient assignments and earnings, why panic? This allows the Physical Gap to go unnoticed for a while.

Perhaps by this stage you are thinking: sure, this sounds familiar but what difference does it make? Much more than you think, is the simple answer. At trade fairs, for example, we are already seeing companies adopting fresh strategies and generating far more business from the market than they ever have before. We are not just talking about enhancing customer experience but about achieving concrete results that affect the bottom line in ROI reports. That said, there is a qualitative element too: research shows that visitors are indeed experiencing a significant difference from how they were treated in the past. All of which begs the question: how?

Directorship, that’s how! Taking on a director’s role with regard to communication, interaction and experience can make a world of difference. It’s what separates successful interaction from off-the-cuff conversation. Determining the direction is a collaborative process, one which works best with the guidance of a moderator. The first step is a plenary alignment between the traditional silos in the company – sales, marketing, communication, business development, management – departments which, under normal circumstances, seldom meet to discuss current market demand and the most appropriate propositions. Alignment of this kind gives everyone the same focus and frame of reference. It is where the initial benefits are achieved.  

The next step is to create a theme and to customize resources, which further shape and reinforce the physical encounter. In the superlative phase it becomes an experience with the receiver at its heart, an experience that challenges and inspires people in different ways. In short, a process that is expertly directed. On the market, this makes for an experience that is professional, efficient and, above all, relevant. Meanwhile, your own sales team will also appreciate this professionalism and efficiency, and rediscover the genuine pleasure in their work. Everyone wins! And it’s goodbye to the Physical Gap!