How much time should I spend entertaining my customers?
Good question. The world of the field salesperson is changing rapidly these days, and everything is in question. The practice of entertaining customers is one of those issues that needs to be rethought.
First, let's consider whether or not you should entertain your customers. In these days of e-commerce and Internet communication, is there a place for this age-old practice?
Consider this experience of mine. I had a high-potential account that did not respond to my efforts. Months went by, and I could get nowhere in this huge account.
My company owned four season tickets to the University of Michigan football games, and it was my turn to use them. I invited the head of the purchasing department from that account and her spouse to join my wife and I. We spent the afternoon together, first enjoying a traditional tail-gate meal, then a great college football game.
Immediately thereafter, however, I began to do business in that account. Business grew continually until it eventually became my largest account. The football game was the turning point in the relationship.
It was not that I gained "inside" information. We did not even talk about business. But, my customer came to know me better, and, in so doing, became more comfortable with me as a person. And that made all the difference.
That was not the first, nor the last, time for that experience. I regularly treated two of my customers with their spouses to join my wife and I for a dinner at Greek town in Detroit, followed by a Tiger's game. We never talked business, but afterward, business always grew. Again, it was not that we exchanged business information, cut deals, or anything of that nature. What did happen, every time, was that my customers came to know me better and differently. We became friends instead of just buyers and sellers.
There is an important truth illustrated by these examples. People like to do business with people they know. The better they know you, the more likely it is that they'll do business with you. When they spend time with you out side of the business setting, they come to know you better. It really is that simple.
Now, this does not mean that you can charge 20% more than your competitors, nor does it mean that you can sell an inferior product, or that your company can get away with second-class service. But, when many of these things are viewed by the customer as about the same as what your competition offers, you are more likely to get to the business if you are the one who has the greater relationship with the customer. The relationship does not stand in place of quality, price and service, but it can provide a competitive edge.
In my seminars, I liken the role of the relationship in selling to an oil can that is used to lubricate the gears of a sophisticated machine. It is possible to sell without good relationships with your customers; it is just much harder. Building powerful personal relationships with your customers is like oiling the gears. It just makes everything move that much smoother and easier.
In this time of high-tech communication, powerful personal relationships provide the high-touch that many people are subconsciously hungering for. Robert Putnam, in his landmark book, Bowling Alone, quoted a study by an MIT researcher that concludes:
"Though some unimportant business relationships and casual social relationships will be established and maintained on a purely virtual basis, physical proximity will be needed to cement and reinforce the more important professional and social encounters."
Later, more directly to our point, the research concludes:
"Widespread use of computer-mediated communication will actually require more frequent face-to-face encounters, 'and extensive deep, robust, social infrastructure of relationships must exist so that those using the electronic media will truly understand what others are communicating to them. "
In other words, even in this high-tech world characterized by voice mail, e-commerce and instant messaging, face-to-face relationships are necessary.
Is there, then, a place for entertaining your customers in this high tech sales environment? Absolutely! The question becomes not whether or not you ought to, but how to do it in such a way as to gain the greatest benefit. Here are some thoughts on how to entertain effectively.
Having lunch every Tuesday with your buddy who happens to work for one of your customers is not entertaining strategically. That's a waste of time. Instead, do this. Make a list of all the individuals who could be instrumental in buying your products and services. Rank them in order of importance using criteria like how important they are to the sale, and how much business they control.
Then, start at the top and methodically work down through the list. Try to spend social time – not business time – with each. I have found evening or Saturday afternoon events work best. Sports events, concerts, and plays are excellent because they are attractive and appealing to a lot of people. To sit at the 40-yard line of a University of Michigan football game, for example, is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people.
Remember, the purpose is to get to know one another better as people – not as buyer and seller. So, do not talk business unless your customer brings it up. And no sales pitches, please. When you do that, you harden the buyer / seller roles that each of you play. That's exactly the opposite of what you want to have happen. Instead, search for personal common ground – things that you have in common with your customer. You are trying to get to know each other as people, not as role-players.
I've found it to always be more effective to invite the customer and his / her spouse or boyfriend / girlfriend to join my wife and me. Having the other two people makes the customer feel more at ease, and increases the likelihood that it will be a pleasant social evening.
When you are entertaining, remember that you are host and that you should attend to all the details. That means that you make the dinner reservations, you see to the parking and transportation. If you are at a sporting event, you have cash to pay for beer and hot dogs, etc. Think the evening through in detail, and prepare for all the contingencies.
While a beer or two is OK, be careful with your use, and provision, of alcohol. Too much alcohol can leave a literal as well as figurative bad taste in your customer's mouth. Finally, do not allow the evening to go to extremes in any way. Do not be the loudest fan, nor the last to leave. Do not order the most nor the least expensive item on the menu. Be gracious and moderate in everything you do. Strategic entertaining can be one of your most powerful strategies. It is a way to build relationships which provide you with a competitive edge, while, at the same time, meets the customer's preference to do business with people he / she knows.