Strong personal relationships are the lifeblood of any successful business, from generating sales and referrals to ensuring productive collaboration between team members. But in our increasingly busy digital age, are physical meetings still the best way to develop those connections? In the first of our series on building business relationships, we look at the case for face-to-face.

Ian Marshall, Sales Director at Macquarie Bank, believes it is more important than ever. "I'm still doing anywhere between 20 and 40 meetings a month with our clients. For what we do, it's critical in building rapport and establishing trust."

He says meeting in person gives him the opportunity to show genuine interest in a client's business and to actively listen to what they need – and for small and medium business owners, doing business means building relationships with people they know personally and trust as an adviser. "It's more challenging to build that sort of relationship by phone, email or social media alone," says Marshall.

There's plenty of research to support this position. A Forbes survey in 2009 found 84 per cent of executives prefer in-person contact more than virtual, saying face-to-face meetings build stronger, more meaningful relationships and 91 per cent said they are best for ‘persuasion'. More recently, CoreData's 2014 Keys to Growth Report emphasised the importance of face-to-face meetings in the financial advice sector, finding the biggest risk to client retention is not meeting within a 12-month period.

The benefits of meeting in person go beyond making it easier to ‘close the deal.' Social interaction – getting together for a coffee or drinks – can create a personal connection that cements a client relationship over the long term. 

Four good reasons to meet in person

1. Makes it possible to read body language

If you're trying to gauge a client's level of interest, reading their facial expression can make things a lot simpler.

"In those initial stages of a relationship, right from making a good first impression, reading visual cues is fundamental to understanding their general attitude and in handling any potential objections," says Marshall. "And you can build rapport and show your genuine interest through your own body language."

2. Handle complex decisions with multiple people

Often, the sales process can be long and involve many different parties. Marshall says if he's pitching for a new business he and his team will meet with individual decision makers face-to-face before the final presentation. "For example, we might have a coffee one-on-one with each of the executives or business partners to understand their different needs and what is important to them. Then we can adapt our final solution and pitch accordingly."

3. Make team meetings more accountable

Face-to-face isn't just for clients. Marshall says; "if you want to get the best out of team meetings, nothing beats face-to-face. You can measure and boost team engagement and more importantly you can drive accountability for action. In terms of motivating people and getting new ideas off the ground, you just need to get everyone in a room."

4. Meet and respect your client's preference

Marshall says that as a relationship develops, it's important to check in to see how clients prefer to be contacted. "It can be a very personal thing - some may want to meet every quarter, some may prefer every six moths but want to know you're available when they need you. Generally when you bring a new client on board, there's a period of intense activity post that period is a good time to ask how they want to manage the ongoing relationship."

A matter of time

Of course, the biggest concern for many small business owners is finding enough time for all these meetings. Marshall says that's a case of setting priorities. "It may depend on the size of the opportunity and the relationship, the location and whether the task really needs physical interaction." In some cases, a video call may be simpler for both parties and the technology now exists to make that relatively inexpensive and straightforward.

Ultimately, the most important thing you can do with your time is meet the expectations that follow that meeting. "If you want to build a relationship based on trust, you need to do what you say you will," Marshall says. "It's not enough to talk – you've got to be reliable and deliver on what you've promised." 

Five ways to make every meeting count

1. Do your research before a sales meeting

Take a look at the company's website and the individuals' LinkedIn profiles to understand what they might be looking for and where you can easily find a personal connection.

2. Set an agenda

Make sure everyone has the same expectations on what the outcomes of each meeting should be.

3. Ask open-ended questions

Demonstrate your interest in a prospective client and actively listen for opportunities or key issues through the conversation.

4. Paraphrase their answers

This shows you really understand and care what they're talking about.

5. Always confirm key actions

Make sure you're all clear on who will do the follow-up and what the next steps are. If it's an important meeting with several action items, follow-up with an email to put this in writing. 

Additional information

The information on this page has been prepared by Macquarie Bank Limited ABN 46 008 583 542 (AFSL and Australian Credit Licence 237502) and does not take into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. Before making any financial investment decision or a decision about whether to acquire a financial, credit or lending product, a person should obtain and review the terms and conditions relating to that product and also seek independent financial, legal and taxation advice. All applications are subject to Macquarie’s standard credit approval criteria. This information is intended for recipients in Australia only.