Entertaining clients –– it’s a tradition that has been in practice as long as businesses have existed. Working to keep a client happy has long extended outside the four walls of the business. From meals at fancy restaurants to memorable trips, businesses continually strive to differentiate themselves from the competition, to remain top of mind with the customer — bottom line, to keep them as a client. What better way to do that then to take their minds off of the business altogether and simply entertain.
As times have changed, so too have the means and methods for entertaining. While large, formal events were customary and almost expected years ago, today’s events are more personal, more casual. While money used to be no object, budgets are tighter today and businesses must do more with less — while hoping for the same outcome. It’s all about cultivating the relationship and connecting on a personal level.
For Dot Ryall, an art consultant in Columbia and long-time devotee to the advancement of the arts in the Midlands, entertaining clients and world-renowned artists is second nature. “I think what we did in the past was a little more elaborate than what we do today, for better or for worse,” she says. “As long as you’re communicating and having fun, it doesn’t matter how you do it.”
For Dot, who is now retired but still consults for clients and community leaders, the entertaining environment is much more casual, as is the dress, which Dot believes dictates the atmosphere. She recently entertained a former Columbia native who has returned to live in the city. She invited many young professionals from diverse backgrounds to the get-together. The group started on the porch for cocktails and conversation and eventually moved to the dining room, where Dot combined the formal and the festive, creating a lovely inviting environment that demonstrated professionalism and personality. She even invited a guest who is adept at magic tricks. “Everyone was laughing and involved, and all of my guests, who were strangers when they arrived, were friends when they left. Camaraderie develops quicker in a casual environment.”
Casual doesn’t mean cheap. Many business relationships have been enhanced over fancy dinners and fabulous cocktails. For Michael Oana, retirement planning specialist, the large events in hotel banquet rooms have evolved into much more intimate dinners. It’s important to Michael and his team to customize their events, ensuring the event is tailored to each client. He also prefers to stick to restaurants in the Forest Acres and surrounding areas so that he can support local businesses. While some businesses prefer sports venues, golf outings or a tennis match, Michael prefers to go straight to the stomach. “During meals, you spend more time together and don’t have to worry about the weather,” he says. “Most people enjoy that and enjoy building the relationship outside of the traditional business environment.” It’s also a good way for Michael to meet his clients’ spouses and family, another avenue for enhancing the relationship and better understanding the personal needs of his clients.
To be sure, the dynamics of entertaining have changed over the years. From tax implications and budgetary limitations, but even more so to the time constraints that are placed on businesses and clients. Everyone is busy, too busy. The first thing to go is dinner with a client or business associate. Jill Moylan, with Home Advantage Realty, tends to work through lunch and into the evening, but finds that impromptu invitations often work best for her clients. Whenever possible, she makes a concerted effort to have lunch, dinner or grab cocktails with clients at nearby Il Giorgione or Craft and Draft, making the most of the convenient location of her business.
“We are sometimes limited in how often we can take out a client, but if we are looking to extend or create a relationship, we look forward to the opportunity to get to know them better on a more personal level,” says Darrin Thomas, president of Thomas Media Group. When Darrin and his team do have the opportunity to entertain, they don’t disappoint. Whether it’s taking a client to lunch or dinner, sharing a suite at a University of South Carolina basketball game or introducing them to … the president of the United States. President Obama was looking to meet with minority-owned businesses on his trip to Columbia in May 2015. An acquaintance of Darrin’s called from Washington, D.C. and asked if he would be able to meet with the president. “Our clients didn’t believe us,” says Darrin. “But now they are clients for life!”
While not all events can include the president at their next function, many can leave equally indelible memories. So it was for Dot and two representatives from the University of South Carolina, who recently made a trip to Mexico City to meet with a world-renowned artist with whom Dot has a relationship. The three were looking to secure public art for the USC campus. Through Dot’s associations, she and the team from USC were able to connect with the artist and ended up with an exquisite sculpture for the school. The artist and the members of the USC staff became fast friends, and it all started with an introduction of a client. “If you have someone that you can share with someone else, it can cultivate a relationship that helps them or helps you. It’s all about making contacts and staying in touch,” says Dot.
Cultivating relationships is important to any business, and it’s a critical component in how Michael and his team strengthen their client relationships. Michael takes great care in learning about his clients on a personal level — from birthdays to anniversaries to retirements. He is quick to put together a special dinner for his clients and their friends, making it fun and memorable, while also conveying to the client that he is a trusted advisor who cares for his clients’ needs. “To celebrate special events, we try to go above and beyond the normal dinner, and it all hinges upon what the client likes,” says Michael. He will go to great lengths to make the event exceptional. In one case, Michael had a client who was celebrating an anniversary. The couple met and had become engaged on a dinner cruise. Michael was able to secure a picture of the ticket, which he had framed and presented to the clients at a dinner party. In another instance, Michael had a large number of clients going to Alaska, so he brought together all of his clients that were going and all of his clients that had already been to Alaska and held a dinner party so that the two groups could meet to share stories and ask questions.
For Jill, her clients often become her friends, so it’s not unusual for her to open up her office and her home to entertain. At least twice a year, Jill and her team host events for their clients, an oyster roast at the office and a Christmas party at her home.
“I can think of no better way to honor my clients than by having them as my guests,” she says. Jill’s parties have been known to include snow machines and Christmas elves, ensuring her clients get in the spirit, while also feeling appreciated by the extra efforts made.
Knowing what the client’s expectations are and working to exceed them can make all of the difference. Those expectations will be just as varied as the clients. “It all depends on the person,” says Dot. “What are you trying to develop or nurture? I want to know the people I am working with. And for me, it is over food that you develop lasting relationships. It starts and ends with that. It makes it personal and it gets attention.”
Seeing and being with people face-to-face could one day become a lost art with the influx of electronic communications. It’s an integral part of the business and, in many cases, may be the only way a businessperson can communicate with a client on a regular basis. With information so readily available from a countless number of sources and new business pitches arriving in the inbox throughout the day, it’s even more important for a client to hear from the business associate on a more personal level. “Because of the overwhelming amount of data that is available to our clients, having a relationship or friendship with them is even more important and helps the relationship over time,” says Michael. “A change of environment is fun for all of us and allows us to find out what drives them and what their passion is.”
Darrin agrees that technology is a great asset but he also understands it can make things very detached. Because of that, every sales rep at his company is charged with sending handwritten thank you notes to their clients as opposed to an e-mail. “Anyone can send a note electronically, but if we are going to differentiate ourselves from the competition, we have to take the time to show them that we care,” he says. It doesn’t just take a dinner to entertain and impress a client. That personal touch can make all of the difference, and today, much of it all comes from the same entertainment budget.
To be sure, bringing in speakers at conferences, holding events at clubs and attending large dinners will likely never go out of style, but today’s world begs for a more personal approach, where the individual is appreciated and understood –– where time can stand still for but an hour and people can talk face-to-face, no phone, no texting, no Twitter or LinkedIn, just pure, good old-fashioned conversation. Imagine the possibilities.