Just A Little Of That Human Touch

You’ve probably heard the old “Acres of Diamonds” fable:

A farmer, unhappy with what he has, sells his land and goes off “in search of diamonds.” He spends the rest of his life traveling the world, searching in vain, until finally dying a poor and disappointed man.

One day, the man who bought his farm is working in the fields. He sees something shiny, bends down to pick it up, and sure enough, it’s a diamond. In fact, it turns out the farm is sitting atop a huge diamond deposit.

Moral of the story: Everything you want in life is right there in front of you, if only you’ll take the time to look.

Well, you’ll be happy to learn, I lived the 21st century, Internet version of that fable just last week.

Here’s what happened…

I attended the Inbound Marketing Summit here in Boston. It promised several excellent speakers, offered lots of interesting topics, and the entire thing was blogged, twittered, flickred and videoed from start to finish. So I put on a suit (yes, I own several) and headed on down to the Cambridge Marriott.

That’s when things got interesting. The keynote speaker addressed a packed room of about 300 people. He spoke for 40 minutes or so, after which they opened it up for questions from the audience. Sort of.

Because as it turns out, the only way you were allowed to ask a question was by emailing it or Tweeting it to the front of the room. The conference leader then selected the questions he liked and read them to the speaker.

Huh? I’m sitting ten feet from the stage, but if I want to ask a question, I have to mail it in? If you ask me, this makes about as much sense as telling restaurant customers that the only way to eat in the dining room is to first have your meal delivered to your home and then drive it back to the restaurant.

And so as someone who’s been trying to follow in his wife Linda’s example of making the world a better place, I figured I ought to say something. So immediately after the session, I walked up to the conference leader and politely offered my feedback:

Me: “You know, it struck me as kind of odd that with a roomful of real, live, people, the only way to ask a question of the speaker is to send an email.”

Conference Leader: “You can also Tweet it.”

Me: “Wouldn’t it make sense, particularly at a conference whose central theme is “community,” to let people interact directly with the speaker?”

Conference Leader: “Do you have an iPhone? You could use that.”

Anyway, realizing I was getting nowhere, I thanked him for his time and promised to email him a hearty handshake.

Here’s the point. Technology, for all the wonderful things it brings (particularly to us small business owners), can lull us into missing the bigger picture. The Acres of Diamonds, if you will.

My conference leader friend, for example, was so taken by the Internet’s ability to help people connect instantly across time and space, that when offered the real thing, he chose the simulation.

That’s big. But it’s not just him, we all do it:

…We attend conferences and meetings with our laptops open, listening with one ear and typing emails with the other (not that I think you type with your ear).

…We let the phone go to voicemail every time instead of picking it up when it rings, because it’s more efficient to only return the calls that “really matter.”

…We love our E-Newsletter for the way it lets us stay top of mind with our list of contacts, but when one of those contacts emails with a question, we don’t bother replying.

You get the picture: Technology is great, but it’s no substitute for human interaction. And every time we use it to cut the people out of the equation – whether in the name of efficiency, a desire to appear bigger, or some other “too busy for business” rationalization – we miss out on a golden marketing opportunity.

Because in a world filled with unanswered emails, unreturned phone calls and unreachable corporations, sometimes just looking someone in the eye and listening to what they have to say puts you and your company at the front of the line.

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