How far can you go without going anywhere?

Consulting always meant travel. That was the fun of it, at least when I was getting started in the profession. Trains, planes, taxis, hotels, dinners, drinks, gyms in the hotel basement, pools that look bigger on the website, exotic locations and new people to work for every few days.


But times have changed. Often you don’t need to go anywhere these days. Four years ago I was astonished to discover that we could sell, install, implement and support our expense management software in Istanbul without leaving our company’s premises.  And  since then it’s happened more and more frequently. It’s wonderful in many ways. Our company’s reach is extended, without our projects costing any more than if they were on the other side of the road.  I’ve been in Turkey, Peru, Chile, Bangalore without moving an inch.

This is how the business works nowadays:

We start with someone sitting in an office somewhere musing on the need for new software and then trying out a few searches on the internet. Our ‘targets’ – financial directors and controllers – find us by entering search terms into Google. Our Google Adwords campaigns lie in wait, as alert as GCHQ is to terms such as ‘Semtex’, ready to ambush our potential customers with three-line ‘Ads’ as soon as they type  words such as ‘online expenses’, or ‘expense management’ and click Search..

If their musings and the sparse words of the ‘Ad’ coincide then we hope they’ll click on the ‘Ad’. If they do, then they find themselves on our website, or a specially-designed ‘landing page’ that’s aligned with the words they’ve used.

We pay Google more than a Euro or two for each click, and, sadly, most of them go to waste (in the terms of the trade there’s a high ‘bounce rate’ when visitors recoil immediately from what they see) but if it’s a good day, a financial director or controller might read a page or two of our website, and if it’s a very good day indeed, he or she will fill in our Contact Form and send us an email address or phone number. The sales process is thereby launched.

Some years ago we’d polish our shoes, at this point, buy a bus ticket, and arrange a meeting at the potential customer’s office. Which is what made selling software to someone more than a few miles away so expensive. But now that’s all replaced with a phone call, or a Skype call, or a Webex demonstration, where someone sitting a mile away, or even two oceans away, can see what you see on your computer and talk to you whilst you show the features of your software.

A call or two later and your computer’s screen is being projected onto a wall in a room full of people and you’re possibly on the home stretch.. It takes a while to get used to the idea of talking for minutes on end to people you’ve never seen, but you get used to it and you develop some tricks to find out if they’re still there. I suppose radio presenters feel like this.

If all goes well, you’ll negotiate a price by email or phone and the project will begin. And, certainly, until recently this is the moment when you really would be polishing your shoes. But no longer.

Most of our projects begin with ‘requirements analysis’ during which we ask people what they want our software system to do.  You talk to people like a trained barrister, weaselling out the details and the inconsistencies, eventually arriving at a very definite ‘scope’. And then you work out how your software can achieve what’s wanted, you configure the system to do it, you install it on their computer network, you copy their data from their old system into the new one, you train them, and then you press the button and send them the bill.

Nowadays, you can do all of that from afar, using Skype, Webex, GoToMeeting, Remote Desktop, and other clever tools.  You save the client the cost of travel, and you save yourself the time it takes to get there and back (time you can’t usually charge the client for). You miss out on the glamour of travel, but that doesn’t bother anyone really.

But how far can you really go?

What I’ve just described is possible but is it wise? Not all of it. I don’t think you’ll always get such good results as you would if you were there.

True, you can be digitally delivered, at a moment’s notice to one person, or several, and as with the radio, distant delivery works well if what you’re doing is a performance, but if you’ve got to persuade, cajole, or be alert to the differences between collaborating or competing individuals then it’s insufficient.

Our first remote-everything project succeeded because we were doing something simple for just one individual. Another, more recent, more complex project involved working for several interrelated groups of people in New York remotely from Prague. Achieving consensus through compromise, establishing personal authority, persuading through a more substantial actually-present personality, and simply making a mark and gaining the thinking-time and trust of everyone involved, just isn’t easy without being there. The cost saved  by eliminating all those flights, and hotels, and taxis and drinks, is lost again if the end result isn’t as good, or takes longer to produce.

Think about it. Could Parliament work by Webex? Is Poker as good if you’re not sitting at the same table?

You can go a long way without going anywhere but it’s not always where you want to be.

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