Since Costco has been peddling Christmas decorations since June, I don't feel like I'm jumping the gun by talking about entertaining clients around the holidays. I like playing Santa to our customers. A lunch, dinner, game of golf, a seat at the hockey game — those are great ways to thank customers and to grow the business. The fastest and cheapest way to build business is through existing customers, so a little appreciation can really pay off.
Before you start phoning scalpers for World Series tickets behind home plate — Go, Yankees! — consider some of the lessons I've learned about entertaining:
Many companies today have a "no entertainment" policy. Before you invite someone for a night on the town, make sure his company allows it. If it's against the rules, don't put your customer in a compromising position by forcing the issue. I remember what my mother told me before I went to the high school prom: "Son, no means no."
Don't eat alone
Invisibility is a fate worse than failure, or so the saying goes. When I worked full-time in sales, I planned every week by first filling out the breakfast and lunch spots in my calendar. I don't buy it when a sales rep tells me no one has time for lunch anymore. Everyone has to eat, and lunch no longer means a drawn-out event. Even a quick bite is an opportunity to make an impression.
Do what the client likes
Spend social time with every one of your best customers before the end of the year doing what they like to do. You may hate fishing, but you'll see the value in freezing your butt off in a drift boat the next time you make a sales call.
A couple of drinks is fine, but be responsible and stay in control. When you make your dinner reservation or head to a bar, ask which taxi service they recommend and phone ahead. Two beers can be enough to turn your holiday thank-you dinner into a night at the crowbar hotel. No drinking and driving, period.
For evening events, it's not a bad idea to invite spouses or significant others; it increases the chance that your customer will attend. Including two other people may help the customer feel at ease. When the talk the next day is positive, it was money well spent.
Two things about money
1) Your customer should never have to go into his pocket unless he offers. Bring enough cash for incidentals, including your customer's parking, babysitter, and taxi home if necessary. 2) Spending big won't get you the business. I have clients who would look at a $350 bottle of wine and wonder how it's affecting their rate. The strength of your relationship has a direct correlation on the quality and the quantity of freight you receive.
Don't talk business
Not unless your customer starts the conversation. Remember, the purpose of entertainment is to get to know each other as people, not as a buyer and seller.
Over the years, my wife and I have had a lot fun entertaining customers, especially around the holidays. We've met a lot of people who have become great personal friends in addition to being business associates. That's important. Your customer is your best asset, and you should protect and enhance that relationship. Get to know your clients better when you thank them for their business. If you don't thank your customers, someone else will.
Mike McCarron is managing partner at the MSM Group of Companies, which specializes in transportation and logistics service between Canada and the United States.