Brokerage

That's Entertainment!

Learn How to Mix Business and Pleasure to Foster Client Relationships.

Donald Eaton, CCIM, CPM, entertains clients in a bucolic setting — on his boat on a New Hampshire lake. Eaton, vice president of Eaton Partners in Manchester, N.H., takes groups of five or six on his 24-foot boat several times each summer. He can pull into one of the lake's many coves where guests can swim or barbecue, or they may stop for a meal at a local marina. If the temperature turns cool, Eaton pulls out sweatshirts imprinted with the company logo.

Like Eaton, many commercial real estate professionals find that it's important to entertain existing clients to develop or cement relationships as well as to help generate potential new clients. The ways in which they do so vary widely, from basics like going out to dinner or golfing to special outings such as sporting events or hunting trips.

Business entertaining is an art and, like all art forms, is a matter of highly individualized approaches. “I see entertaining as a form of courtship,” says Ann Marie Sabath, founder and president of Cincinnati-based At Ease, a company specializing in the business of corporate etiquette. “Entertaining should be done according to what the client likes.”

The Personal Touch Business entertaining “should not be perceived as a form of bribery,” says Sabath, who has written six books on business entertaining and columns for several publications. “The whole goal in entertaining is to show that you defer to the client rather than yourself. Sometimes less is more. It doesn't mean that entertaining a lot is essential as much as when you [do] entertain, you make it an unforgettable experience.”

Mickey Griffin, CCIM, director of corporate services at Aronov Realty Co. in Montgomery, Ala., says he always aims for unforgettable experiences when entertaining clients. “We've found that a lot of people do entertaining that hasn't been thought through,” he says. “To me it's almost like TV advertising. You can spend a lot of money on it, but it has to be good or it can have a negative effect.”

Griffin, for example, occasionally takes clients to the infield at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway. From the comfort of a roomy refreshment-stocked RV, guests get close-up views of the race's intense pit stops as well as a chance to spot well-known NASCAR drivers like Darrell Waltrip. “We've found that people go back and talk about that for six months,” Griffin says.

One of Griffin's favorite forms of business entertaining is taking guests to country lodges for quail and duck hunting on horseback. It can be particularly memorable, he says, for clients stepping out of concrete canyons into the autumn countryside in Alabama and Georgia. “If you get someone outdoors, there's just something about it — whether it's just sitting on a porch in the afternoon in a rocking chair, watching the sun go down and having a drink, and taking it easy and telling stories and laughing. That's the type of activity that we find very, very effective.”

In fact, sometimes the actual hunting is almost secondary, says Griffin, particularly if those being entertained have reservations about the sport. “We don't necessarily have to shoot birds,” he says, “We're there for the fellowship.”

The solitary nature of the excursions also can make the experience successful at cementing business relationships, he says. Guests are urged to turn off their cell phones. When riding side by side with their hosts, “where there's not much noise, you're able to effectively communicate,” Griffin adds.

Entertainment doesn't have to be exotic to be impressive, says Letty Bierschenk, CCIM, partner in the Bierschenk Group in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “It really depends on the client,” she says. “Some are very close to us.” She may take clients out to brunch or dinner, “simply to make sure they know we're interested in them as people, even if we don't have ongoing business.”

What does impress, she says, is gearing activities toward clients' particular interests. “You have to think about what their interests are, and get on a more personal level, doing something they would enjoy,” she says. “You want them to feel you made an effort.”

Bierschenk, for example, closed one deal where the buyers had not seen the property, which was about 250 miles from her office. So she rented a private jet to fly them up to see their purchase. Were they impressed? “More importantly, I think they were just pleased that we made that extra effort to save them a trip, impressed by our caring to do something a little bit different,” Bierschenk says.

A glance at Bierschenk's own company shows how different entertainment styles can be. She's in business with her two sons, William and Kurt, both CCIMs. One son prefers taking people to shows or jazz concerts, while the other takes clients rock climbing or sailing.

Another entertainment option is inviting clients home, an approach that gets mixed reviews. Bierschenk, for example, reserves home entertaining only for clients she's very close to and keeps the events simple: perhaps champagne before or after a dinner out.

Griffin, on the other hand, is unabashedly enthusiastic about inviting clients home for dinner. “I'd rather do that than to take someone out to a restaurant — I figure a lot of these people go to restaurants all the time,” he says. “We take the attitude of, ‘Come on in and sit down and take your shoes off,' and people like that.”

Entertaining clients at home depends on people's comfort level, Sabath says. “I might invite a client to my home if they've invited me to their home,” she says. “Then you're mirroring; you're not trying to look like you're getting too chummy.”

Entertaining a Group While some forms of entertainment can promote one-on-one bonding with clients, group activities can be effective as well. W. Darrow Fiedler, CCIM, regional director of Keller Williams Realty in Redondo Beach, Calif., has hosted large-scale — 100 to 150 people — luncheons for entire departments of corporate or legal accounts. He sees the events as great ways to recognize everyone, from the company president to the administrative staff. It's also an innovative way to thank clients whose companies may not permit individual gifts.

Typically, he'll have a catered gourmet lunch brought into the client's workplace. Fiedler works with his company contacts to develop the guest list, emphasizing the team-building aspects of the occasion. He greets attendees individually and says he sees the lunch as “a good opportunity to talk to people face to face.” At the same time, the event is kept “low-key and social, without any type of active promotional or sales business allowed,” he says.

The benefits are twofold, he says. Not only is the whole department rewarded for its work, but the particular client “becomes a hero, both to support staff and to those above him or her.”

Bill Michael, CCIM, an associate broker with MacKenzie Commercial/Oncor International in Baltimore, hosts groups in a skybox for Baltimore Orioles baseball games at Camden Yards. He invites a mix of potential and established clients, other real estate professionals, and their spouses.

The fundamental theme of his outings is to “make it social, non-business, and let the group momentum work for all parties there,” he says. The casual atmosphere appeals to Michael; people can eat and chat inside, he says, or go out and watch the game on the box's covered deck.

While he tries hard not to initiate business conversations, Michael says that the events have made some business transactions run a little more smoothly. Last summer, for example, Michael invited a buyer and a seller who were under contract with each other on a transaction but never had met. The personal contact made things easier during contract negotiations because “they could associate a name with a face,” he says.

Sandy Shindleman, CCIM, president of Shindico Realty in Winnipeg, Manitoba, also extends his group entertaining to include people outside his client list. Shindico shares space with a large apartment building that the company owns and throws a barbecue every year for the building's residents. “It started out with us wanting to be good neighbors” Shindleman says. “Now, we've started to add friends and clients as well, and reserve a few tables for them close to our office door.”

Shindleman is an ardent advocate of business entertainment — even if it's very casual. “People should look at the amount of entertaining they're doing and consider doing more,” he says. When Shindico relocates its offices, he adds, he hopes to have more space for a living-room-type setting, so the company can have open houses on Fridays. “People we know can drop by on the way home for sandwiches, wine, cheese, with no invitation. I could see business percolate there,” Shindleman says.

Tackling Business Talk The wide variety of entertainment options sometimes can make it difficult to know how to separate the business from the fun. Is there a good way to bring up business — if it's brought up at all?

“The customer is always right,” Sabath advises. The purpose of a social outing with a client is to have “that person see you as an individual who can be trusted, as a professional friend as well as a potential business colleague. So for that reason, if the client wants to talk business the whole time — fine. Let them take the lead,” she says.

“Business comes up,” Eaton says. “But you get that out of the way early on, and while you may come back to it, the lasting impression is really the relaxation of the afternoon without the business.”

Shindleman says that most of his entertaining leaves little room for business talk. He doesn't want his clients to feel forced to discuss deals with him simply because he is entertaining them. “I respond to any questions,” he says, but he rarely initiates business talk.

In fact, say those who entertain frequently, it's not necessary to steer the conversation in any particular direction. “I've never tried to quash discussions,” Michael says. “You can learn more about people that way and where they're coming from, and in the end, that's really helpful. The better you know people, the better you're able to understand their needs.”

At the same time, it's important not to plan events that leave no room for conversation. While winter sports, for example, could extend the entertainment possibilities in Eaton's New Hampshire location, activities such snowmobiling or skiing simply can be too noisy or difficult for a business approach.

While Griffin, like many people, takes clients golfing, he generally avoids using major golf tournaments as a form of entertainment because of the silence required at events such as the Masters in Augusta, Ga. “You can't talk, you can't see — there are just too many distractions,” says Griffin, who has taken clients to practice rounds at the Masters.

In the same vein, he adds, avoid anything that seems too much like work. For instance, a fishing trip could involve renting a party boat and taking clients deep-sea fishing — but the host runs the risk of having them return sunburned, tired, and cranky after six hours on the open seas. Instead, Griffin prefers a 50-foot powerboat, where they can set the lines out, “sit in an easy chair in the air-conditioning” and tend to lines when the pole strikes.

Whatever the approach, what's most important about business entertaining, say those skilled in the art, are the relationships forged. “The idea is letting people see you in a more relaxed setting so that they will see that this is how [they] will continue to be treated when you're doing business with them,” Sabath says. “People want to do business with people first and then with organizations.”

Sarah Hoban

Sarah Hoban is a business writer based in Chicago.

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