Well, it was only a matter of time before I wrote about food… it is, after all, a major part of my life. Yeah, I know it’s a part of everyone’s life, but for me, food is much deeper than the necessary sustenance a body needs to survive. For me, food is at a whole different level. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a religious experience when I eat, but it definitely has meaning and thought behind it. It all stems from my family and being Italian. Throughout my entire life, eating was always an event and an experience. Sitting around the table for three hours for Sunday dinner was the norm growing up. All major family discussions occurred while we ate. My parents and grandparents were naturals at entertaining guests and extending over-the-top hospitality. The great music, and amounts of food and drink were always perfect and welcoming. I know this is why I have always been right at home when entertaining as well. At our lake house, we can have 20 to 30 people over for drinks or dinner at any time. We are completely set up to handle these numbers at a moment’s notice.
I believe this is why the hospitality aspect of business has always come easy to me. Entertaining clients is something that is essential in building relationships and closing business; many folks are good at it, but I’d like to think that my group (regardless of which of the companies I have worked for) has always made entertaining clients and potential clients an art form. The best way to get to know people is to cut through any awkwardness and get to a place where everyone is comfortable together. In the practice of Relationship Architecture, you want to accelerate getting to a position of trust. In order to do that, establishing a level of comfort with one another is essential. Breaking bread together is a great way to accomplish that.
Now, I realize most business folks take prospects out to dinner at one point or another, but here is a story that depicts what I am talking about. On this occasion, I was with the Patriots, and we took about a dozen folks to Denver for a game.
In general, prior to getting together with folks, my group does a bit of recon to find out everyone’s likes and dislikes. So when it comes to ordering dinner, I have an edge in knowing preferences. I always look at it as if you are inviting people into your home and you want them to feel welcome and comfortable.
The first thing we typically do is to explain to the restaurant that we are hosting the dinner and want everyone to get exactly what they want. I tip the maitre d and the waiters a little something up front so that they know we mean business. This ensures they are always paying attention to us and running around to make us happy.
Once everyone settles in with a drink, I always kick things off by saying, “If it’s ok with everyone, I would love to order appetizers. I’ve been here before and I want to make sure folks get to taste a variety of dishes.” Everyone always agrees, and then the show begins. I always order wine for the table as well. I have found that folks like when the decision is out of their hands and enjoy just being part of the ride. If, however, we find out that someone is a wine buff or has a culinary specialty, then we always make them part of the decision and credit them with selections. Making folks feel special is the key. I typically order a wide variety of dishes, but remember, I already know everyone’s preferences.
This particular time, in Denver, there were a portion of folks who were partial to lobster. So, I went to the waiters to find out the selection available, and learned they had a 12 pounder on site. I told them to cook it up and give everyone a taste (fortunately, there were no shellfish allergies or kosher diners at the table, because if so, ordering the lobster would’ve been nixed). I ordered a bunch of other apps as well, all family style; while folks were digging in, the waiters formed a little parade with the 12 pounder in a wagon and marched their way around us with the enormous crustacean on display. It was quite a show; everyone was thrilled with the surprise and the special nature of it.
This is an example of taking the ordinary necessity of eating and making it ultra-special, while accelerating the timeline for getting to know folks. I’d bet that moment (and my group) is still in the memory of everyone who was at the table, and I would guarantee that the fondness they have for us was built on that first positive experience. So, you have to view every encounter with folks as a moment to build upon a relationship and set yourself apart from everyone else. When it comes to entertaining folks, here are a few tips I recommend:
1) Know your guests. Understand their likes and dislikes. Don’t be afraid to ask questions in advance. It shows that you’re paying attention and that you care. It also prevents you from making a mistake that could stick in someone’s mind forever.
2) Take control of the experience. Make sure nothing is left to chance. This ensures that things go as planned. Most people like when things are done for them and they can just sit back and enjoy. One side note to this – if someone likes to get involved, make them part of the process.
3) Have a solid understanding of the playing field. Know the establishment you are taking people to, get the menu in advance, and win over the staffers and management so that things run smoothly. Obtain that home field advantage, even though it’s not your home.
4) Make people feel special. Nothing you do is about you. Everything you order and say is to make folks feel comfortable and important. Always go to folks and ask them if everything is ok, or can you get anything for them. Anticipate when they want something, but are being too polite to ask, and get it for them. Your job is to lead the establishment and its employees to perform in a manner such that your guests feel like no one else is there.
5) When appropriate, take photos of yourself and your group with your guests and send them to them, capturing the moment and the spectacular time you spent together. It’s a great reference point for them to reminisce and talk about from time to time.
If you take these few steps, you will establish a great foundation for building a business relationship in a much shorter time, while accomplishing the trust and credibility that it takes others years to establish. Let folks see who you are and what you are all about. I’m not telling you to act or to be phony, not at all; it’s just the opposite. You have to show them the real you. Food, and enjoying a three-hour meal together, is what I am all about. But know that the principles above are essential, regardless of how you engage or entertain. For me, getting to know someone means – Let’s Eat!