How I’ve adapted to the changes in professional networking
In my 42 years in the eye care industry, I’ve seen a lot of changes.
As a founder of OfficeMate, I’ve done my share of disruption and instigating change too! As technology improves and business models become both more global and more specific, things are prone to shift very quickly, and – as a general rule – that pace continues to accelerate. The landscape of eye care health today barely resembles the business environment I entered as a contact lens salesman in 1979. One thing has been consistent, though: business owners, managers, and executives are most successful anticipating changes and adapting their routines, skill sets, and mindsets to embrace changes.
However, I don’t think there’s anything that could have prepared us for the spectacular rate of change driven by COVID in 2020. Suddenly all the rules are different, many of the assumptions we previously relied on are invalid, and most of us have been literally just “making it up as we go.” Working from home is a mandate, management has been decentralized, entirely new communication skills are required, and many “mission critical” events (or at least we thought they were!) have been reimagined, or just plain canceled. All that leaves me wondering, “What do future business relationships look like? Will there again be one-on-one, in-person meetings, will there be the ‘after-meeting bar scene’ in the evenings where connections are made and so much business is confirmed? What’s the new world look like post-COVID?”
Relationships Drive Business
I’ve seen firsthand and personally enjoyed how profoundly relationships can change business. Many of the milestones of my own career would never have come about without vital connections built on trust and integrity often developed over dinners, casual meetings, a round of golf, trade shows, or a bourbon or two. Those connections were critical to me as I launched an industry-leading, optometry-based software platform. They enabled my company to overcome many obstacles and challenges that might have kept us from reaching the level of success we enjoyed.
In our current climate, much of that relationship-building activity cannot take place, at least not by traditional means. “Social distancing” is keeping most of us isolated and forcing a reliance on technology to connect, rather than personal contact. That got me thinking about how much networking, which is how relationships are built in business, has changed. More than that, I’m wondering how much is necessary based on the old models?
Innovative New Options
It’s no surprise that younger folks tend to be most comfortable and adaptable with regards to new technologies. However, the tools available for electronic communications have just exploded in recent years. The COVID lockdowns pushed their delivery capabilities and quality even further and faster than before, and forced the rest of us to learn, quickly, how to use them effectively. At GPN Technologies, we’ve always been a virtual organization with Zoom and Slack as our primary meeting and communications tools. So this wasn’t a huge shift for us, but I’ve spoken to many business associates who’ve struggled to adapt to this new business world order. I’ve also seen some of them work through the challenges in online meetings, video chat, and other platforms.
There have also been some stellar examples of ECPs leveraging high-tech platforms to engage in extremely successful brand-building. Smart, innovative use of social media to promote products, professional credibility, and even opinion, has allowed a number of optometrists, consultants, and others throughout the eye care industry to step into a brand-new role, “Influencer.” These creative, forward-thinking people have created a culture of “on-demand” networking. Their posts, interviews, reviews, and ideas are available online, where people can “connect” when they are able. Users can focus only on the topics that interest them, and filter out less relevant information easily. The platform you’re viewing now is a prime example of this new marketplace of ideas, where ECPs can connect with these leaders and get much of the information they need to enhance their own practices or careers.
As we move through this uncertain time, many of us are becoming more comfortable seeking out relationships in digital communities. Many practitioners and even executives are gathering virtually in small groups to share information, support, and experiences. It’s not the same as meeting a colleague for dinner, but I don’t know that it really needs to be. Peer-to-peer relationships may even be enhanced by this forum, which allows for more frequent meetings and eliminates the need for travel. After all, even if it’s just across town, there’s extra time and resources required for physically meeting face-to-face.
Keeping the Value in Business Relationships
The value of professional relationships may not reside in the social aspect of them, as important as that has seemed at times. The real value lies where it always has, in gathering information, connecting with resources, and building trust and credibility. Ultimately, engaging with online communities and meetings may even help free up time and emotional energy that can be better leveraged for family and close friends.
COVID has created a shift in the way we relate to others – personally and professionally – that we have only just begun to understand. There’s no way to tell whether we’ll see much of the “old way” come back into fashion. However, the “new networking” model, online, virtual, social media, video interfaces is clearly here to stay. As always, those who adopt and adapt will flourish. If you are in a position of leadership at your practice, in your company, or in the field, I encourage you to face these changes head-on and make the most of the new tools that are available. You may find yourself surprised by some of the benefits.
I’m adopting and adapting!