Comfort over caviar: How to wine and dine clients in a recovering economy

Nathan Emens, owner of Campaign Data Solutions, a political consulting company, takes client Amy Groves out to lunch at Panevino Restaurant. Emens has cut back on wining and dining clients because of the struggling economy but still sets aside a budget for occasional lunches or golf trips.

Hugh Anderson isn’t very good at golf.

The managing director of HighTower Advisors readily admits his lack of talent on the golf course but rarely used to pass up an opportunity to hit the links.

Why? Because tradition says golfing with clients is a great way to land new business deals.

But Anderson realized a long time ago he doesn’t need to play golf to wrangle customers. Instead, he takes them to dinner.

Anderson is a foodie at heart and considers his appetite for discovering new restaurants a passion and hobby.

More notable, his dinner destinations aren’t always big name restaurants like Joel Robuchon or Guy Savoy. Sometimes, he woos clients at McDonald’s.

In a recovering economy governed by companies’ flatlined budgets and conservative spending, the art of wining and dining clients has changed dramatically over the past several years. Gone are the days of over-the-top gift baskets and $100 bottles of wine. Comfort has replaced caviar.

To be sure, different companies favor different techniques, but most executives say they focus today on one: making clients feel at ease. And the easiest way to do that, experts say, is for businesspeople to offer customers a glimpse of who they are and what they are passionate about.

Anderson has found that his clients respond well to eating good food in interesting settings. His favorite dinner spots include Todd’s Unique Dining in Henderson and Jose Andres’ Jaleo on the Strip. Both offer unique experiences for out-of-town clients, he said.

But Anderson also remains cautious when choosing where to dine. Research is imperative when planning a client outing, he said. Know what your customers like.

If you don’t, it can be disastrous. Anderson learned that the hard way when he made reservations at a Mexican restaurant only to find out at the dinner table that his client hated Mexican food.

There’s also always a chance that a client will surprise you. One of Anderson’s customers, for instance – a man with almost a billion dollars to his name – prefers fast food to fancy cuisine. So Anderson takes him to restaurants with drive-thrus.

Anderson wouldn’t normally eat at such places, but the visits aren’t about him. The focus is – and should be – on what the client likes.

Nathan Emens, a local political consultant and owner of Campaign Data Solutions, has cut back on wining and dining because of the economy. He keeps outings basic.

“We don’t have a lot of disposable dollars,” he said.

But Emens still sets aside a budget for the occasional lunch or golf trip.

The activity isn’t important. What matters is the conversation around the table or in between holes.

It’s during those conversations that a client decides whether he feels comfortable doing business with you, Anderson said.

“When you’re outside of the normal business environment, it gives you a chance to look at them in the eye,” Anderson said. “People want to do business with people they know and people they like.”

Meetings outside the office offer clients a glimpse into the personalities of the people they’re working with.

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Jennifer Schwartz, a senior accountant at Houldsworth, Russo & Co., arrives with Krispy Kreme doughnuts at Help of Southern Nevada. Schwartz conducted an annual audit of the organization the same day. Firm owner Dianna Russo said she often provides treats for clients on the same day her staff will be performing audits of the companies so she can reward both her clients and employees with a single gesture.

Accountant Dianna Russo tries to show customers that she values their relationships with simple but meaningful gestures.

“We need to look independent and like we’re not too friendly, but I believe in recognizing clients,” she said.

Cost also is a factor. As the owner of Houldsworth, Russo & Co., Russo has to work within a budget.

She favors treating clients to random lunches or unexpected deliveries of doughnuts or bagels. In winter, her firm rents a coffee and hot chocolate truck to greet people in their parking lot. In summer, it’s an ice cream truck.

Russo times the appearances to coincide with her staff’s audits, so she can show appreciation for her clients and her staff at the same time.

Companies with fewer clients often can afford to be more elaborate.

Alice Heiman, a sales expert in Reno, takes clients sailing on Lake Tahoe. She has only about 10 clients though, making it easier to plan such trips.

“Of course, no one ever says no,” Heiman said. “We usually have a picnic.”

The picnics have paid off. Because of the downtime she spends with them, Heiman knows whether her clients are married or engaged and the names of their children. That familiarity has helped her land deals.

Heiman’s business philosophy centers on the idea, “Never eat alone,” a phrase based on the title of a book by Keith Ferrazzi.

“If you’re a golfer, you might as well ask a client to golf with you,” Heiman said. “You’re going to golf anyway.”

But there’s also a line businesspeople should be wary to cross. There’s a difference between making deals and becoming too friendly.

“You don’t want to be buying their business,” Emens said. “There are firms out there who will do anything to buy friendship. If there’s a client who wants me to buy their relationship, I’ll tell them it’s not worth it. My integrity is not worth it.”

Emens’ company led the political campaign of Las Vegas Republican Assemblyman Wes Duncan, who beat former Assemblyman Marcus Conklin in the past election. He credits the success of the campaign to his relationship with Duncan.

“They saw our integrity,” Emens said.

Heiman contends that high integrity attracts integrity. It was a lesson she learned early in her career.

“I got a lot of offers I didn’t take,” she said. “I’m a young, good-looking woman. I’m smart. I got propositioned all the time. You have to be professional and maintain yourself.”

And wooing clients is about more than wowing them with food or outings. It’s about being available all the time.

Anderson calls that part of the bus­iness relationship “multidimensional communication.” It requires texting, talking on the phone, and using Skype and Facetime at all hours of the day. Clients want to have access to the people they deal with.

The experts also recommend that businesspeople embed themselves in their community to network and make connections.

“Roll up your sleeves and get involved,” Anderson said. “That’s not going to cost any money. You’re going to have name recognition. It will lead to business.”

It also will make you a more well-rounded person, Heiman said.

“Wake up in the morning and do the very best you can to be a good person,” Heiman said. “Give back to your community. People will want to do business with people like that.”

Tags: Business