When I was the President or Chief Executive, I was often told that I served as a good external “face of the company.” Although I was flattered, I have always felt that the true face of the company is the impression left from the “first human interaction” an outsider has with the company. Therefore, in my opinion, the most important faces of the company are the receptionists, secretaries, administrative assistants and executive assistants. And rather than getting less important in the digital age, the impression given by these people becomes more important. Let me expound.

As I watch the digital revolution solve communications gaps of the past—speed, mobility, compactness, software commonality, geography—I also see more people skipping the telephone, personal visit or handwritten note, and opting to rely on text and email for communication. How many handwritten thank you notes have you received from vendors, versus emails? Yet hand writing a personal note is fast, easy, and much, much more impactful.

In this digital era, companies have de-emphasized the role of the company administrative staff. In fact, there is a trend to skip it altogether, relying instead on digital voicemail directories. You know the drill: “If you know the name of the person, push ‘1’ for a company directory…”

I have also talked to people in the hallways and watched as ringing phones go un-answered because it was inconvenient for the receiver to be bothered at that moment. As a result, many times I have played phone tag with people in the voicemail loop. Each time, I get angry that I have to acquiesce to their convenience and not mine. I may be old fashioned, but I think this is a disaster for a company’s personal culture, especially in a consulting or product delivery business.

When I talk to the employees, they express doubt about the digital revolution replacing people. They claim artificial intelligence will never replace their “professional judgment and analytic capabilities.” These employees also claim the computer could never have the same soft judgments based on personal experience or corporate knowledge base. But then they push their clients to voicemail and email. I have even seen final reports to clients go out the door in digital form, instead of being presented with a personal face-to-face interaction.

Many younger technologists are not interested in learning the social skills of face-to-face interaction. Most technologists/engineers are prone to being introverts and the digital revolution feeds into their natural inclination to avoid in-person human interaction. It provides them a way out by using text, email, web portals and PowerPoint presentations. These avenues are much ‘safer’ than making conversation and reading body language. In PowerPoint presentations, you can even turn off the lights to avoid reactions from the audience. In my career development, I learned to be personable by necessity, not by genetics. People now think I am an extravert, but I am a natural introvert and my ability to deal with people was a learned compensation skill required by the company to get promoted in my early career days. In fact, through my career, my ability to communicate and relate to people was much more important than managerial skills, to becoming the company leader. But I see this skillset increasingly deemed unnecessary for client interaction. Personal connection has been so devalued that often, the first voice customers hear when they call belongs to automated voicemail.

I am amazed at how many companies are allowing this de-personalization to occur without push back, but herein lies the competitive advantage potential. If a company can be both digital as well as personal, it can differentiate itself through personality. It will be difficult to measure, but I assure you that the experience of hearing a competent human voice answer the phone, as opposed to a push-button-hell, is highly appreciated. Clients who receive their reports through face-to-face interaction with client representatives, who are both personable and can read body language, notice and appreciate the difference. Having a personal acquaintance or friend in a client is not only the best risk management, it will make you welcome and differentiate you in a sea of equally credentialed competitors. Clients hire people they know and trust far more than those who are the cheapest or even the best technically qualified.

To gain differentiation, a company must push back on cultural changes from the top. The phones have to be answered. Voicemail must be reigned in to include those situations when answering must be delayed. Receptionists and administrative staff should be top-drawer personalities and have repeated customer interaction to the point where they can recognize the voice on the other end of the line. The company’s training programs should focus more on personal interaction skills beyond the technical or digital skills. Mid-level managers, who are the principle on-the-job trainers, need to be vetted and measured on personality skills as much, or even more, than financial or managerial performance.

If you project your brand as the most personable company, you’ll beat the best technical company. If you can combine the two, you will grow fast and be a contender that will be very difficult to beat. My prediction is that some day in the digital revolution, having ‘old-fashioned’ personable characteristics will become a disruptive strategy.

© 2016 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP.  All rights reserved.