Much of my work as a consultant in improving the effectiveness of business relationships involves conducting, analysing and reporting on face-to-face interviews.

Some adopt a different approach. With the ubiquity of the internet, there are organisations, among both buyers and sellers of marketing services, who prefer formally to evaluate their key commercial alliances with a mostly quantitative, web-based methodology.

I don’t reject this technique (there are situations in which predominantly numerical data can provide useful information) but I do not believe, regardless of the cost differential, that I can add anything like as much value by reviewing a row of figures as I can from a structured 60-minute conversation.

In this regard, I tend to agree with comedian, actor and broadcaster Sanjeev Bhaskar whom I saw interviewed last weekend at the outstanding Byline Festival. In his capacity as Chancellor of the University of Sussex, Sanjeev has observed how enthusiastically, in this generation, the student cohort has adopted scoring mechanisms for grading many aspects of their lives.

This was brought home to him, literally, when his son returned from seeing a film and, upon being asked by Sanjeev ‘how was it?’ replied ‘seven out of ten’. His father immediately retorted ‘I don’t know what that means, tell me how you actually feel about it’. For subjects as nuanced, as personal as this, and relationships certainly qualify here, numbers provide flavour but not substance, some of the ‘what’ but without the ‘why’ and the ‘how’.

Also, and maybe I would say this, I am increasingly hearing from my senior management contacts that exclusively online feedback lacks the requisite detail and accuracy for comfort on the real state of important business relationships.

More broadly, this has led me to reflect on the extent to which online representations of our views can ever entirely be trusted, given that the web offers an unparalleled opportunity for each of us to present a variety of personas, constantly, at scale, that dial up or down what might become apparent over a coffee.

Indeed, it is now well established that we use the online environment to be more connected to the world than ever before, to share more of ourselves than was previously possible but also to present versions of ourselves that differ depending upon the selected audience and that are influenced by the responses of these audiences.

For a start, the self-promoting ‘idealised me’ seems to be everywhere, with a desired response along the lines of: ‘Don’t you wish you had my life? I’m just so excited (and yet so lucky) to be where I am today’. Thanks to social media, we can create this impression of our life that, while drawn from reality, will in effect portray an identity performance that, in a thoroughly modern covenant, will be validated by our admiring audiences who, in turn, will seek approbation for their elevated selves.

And then there’s ‘sensitive me’. This is a vulnerable, introspective, potentially kitten-loving persona that offsets what may appear to be the showy self. If the ‘here I am on another beach’ begins to wear thin, dig out some poetry or grab something fluffy.

Significantly, too, with the anonymity that the web can provide, there are darker possibilities. The so-called online disinhibition effect can, of course, be both positive and negative but it’s the latter that has created the headlines. Cowardly cyberbullying or obscene trolling are significant and chilling scourges of our time.

Unbelievably, a 2017 survey found that 40% of American adults had experienced online abuse. It’s clear then that, while we generally conduct our daily interactions with strangers politely and respectfully, online, given the weak institutions that exist there, we can be horrible.

With all this persona curation, imparting both hyperbole and understatement, what about the ‘real me’? This version of self exists online too. When we send emails, for example, in a business context where in effect we mirror analogue modes of communication, then we usually intend to communicate as the person who would turn up to the meeting.

And this will be the version of the individual from whom those who commission web-based relationship evaluation tools will be hoping to hear. At a topline level, I don’t doubt this is achievable but, setting aside the scope for presenting a materially different set of personality traits and accompanying opinions, there is a more practical issue with this methodology.

As we receive invitations to participate in surveys that appraise pretty much any product, service or experience we purchase nowadays, our (certainly my) inclination to give this exercise any kind of meaningful attention is dropping like a stone. Time poverty in the workplace doesn’t help either but it’s the sheer volume of requests for quantitative feedback that risks wearing us down to a point of non-compliance. This can be a recipe for poor quality responses with little thought and no depth, recorded quickly in ‘get this off my desk’ mode.

We’ve had thousands of years to hone our person-to person interactions but only 20 years of social media. In time, we may well develop subtle signals, digital equivalents of facial cues that get closer to the real thing.

Until then, there is no doubt in my mind that, for reliable, substantial, valuable intelligence on business relationships, beyond the ‘seven out of ten’, face-to-face is best.