Lunch is NOT for Wimps

We all know the quotation. It’s from Wall Street. Gordon Gekko is on the phone: Bud Fox stands nervously waiting to meet him. “Lunch?” Gekko is saying. “Aw, you gotta be kidding me. Lunch is for wimps.”

Later in the same film Gekko says, ‘The most valuable commodity I know of … is information.’ Not in my business. The most valuable commodity I know of is other people. To paraphrase Tony Blair my top priority in building my business was, is and always will be, other people, other people, other people.

And that’s why lunch is important.

When I left university in 1995 and realised I now had to work for a living the traditional business lunch was still very much on the agenda – not quite on the scale of The Wolf of Wall Street – but liquid certainly played its part. Nearly twenty years on I am now utterly baffled as to how anyone can drink two pints of beer and then do any remotely useful work in the afternoon.

Those twenty years have seen the increasing – and seemingly unstoppable – movement towards eating at your desk. As innumerable surveys confirm, the lunch hour is now a lunch half-hour, if you’re lucky. What we all do is sit at our desks, eat a healthy mixed leaf salad and read something useful, informative and life-enhancing on the internet.

In theory.

What we all actually do is eat the same damn sandwich we ate yesterday, wonder how there can be a gazillion new pages of web copy since the last time we opened Google and every single one of them boring – and think, ‘I’ve really got to stop this and get some exercise.’

So in the interests of your health, your sanity and the success of your business, may I now paraphrase Gordon Gekko as well as Tony Blair?

‘Lunch? Great idea. Let me check my diary – and I’ve got some really interesting things to talk to you about…’

I have lunch with friends, clients or potential clients maybe two or three times a week. I see it as an integral part of my working week. It breaks up the day and makes me more – not less – productive in the afternoon. And if I don’t come away from the lunch with one new idea or piece of information I’m surprised and disappointed.

Having lunch builds and strengthens my relationships with the raw material of my business – other people. But it only does that because I make having lunch work for me. I was surprised when I wrote these down, but I seem to have ‘rules’ for a successful lunchtime meeting:

  1. I walk there. Wherever I’m having lunch, I try and leave my car somewhere else. If sitting is the new smoking, then I want to give myself chance to walk during the day
  2. I have an ‘agenda’ – but only in inverted commas. I’m not going to have lunch with you and work my way steadily down a sheet of A4 – but I have spent five minutes thinking about the subjects I’d like to cover and what we can both gain from our meeting
  3. Lunch is great for getting people to think differently. If I meet someone across their desk I know they’re going to think about a problem or an opportunity in the same way they’ve always thought about it. If I take them to lunch – and make it special – then I’m almost guaranteed that they’ll be open to new ideas and a fresh way of looking at things
  4. I want to finish lunch with some progress – we’ve agreed to meet again, we’ve decided how we’re going to move forward, you’ve (incredibly wisely) agreed to join The Alternative Board.
  5. Finally, the meeting has to finish at a defined time. Yes, having lunch with you is enjoyable, but it’s part of the working day for both of us – and because it’s part of the working day the meeting needs to finish at an agreed time.

So lunch really works for me: it’s another key part of developing my relationships with existing and potential Board members. Next week I’ve a couple of meetings with Board members at the David Lloyd club in York – I recommend it to you: although maybe not the Quinoa Salad, which was a veggie step too far for me…

Stories, Simplicity and Parties

I am indebted to my wife for many things – this week, it’s the idea for the blog. Dav sent me a link to a speech by Michael Acton Smith – one of the rock star entrepreneurs of the web.

The speech was reported as ‘10 top killer tips for start-ups’ and they’ll take you less than a minute to read. But let me comment on three of the tips in a little more depth – because I think they apply to established businesses every bit as much as start-ups. What’s more, I absolutely guarantee that you’ll agree with the last one I’ve chosen!

Tell your story

We do business with people we know, like and trust. But increasingly, business and relationships are online. How do we like someone we’ve never met?

As I’ve said previously, tell your story. Whether it’s on your website, through social media or in your company brochure, don’t ever be afraid to open up and tell potential customers and clients why you do what you do and what drives you.

But don’t say ‘we’re passionate about widgets.’ Being ‘passionate’ about something is fast becoming the biggest cliché in business. Tell the story of how you got into the widget business; of how something you did made a real difference to a customer.

Human beings react to and relate to stories. For most of human history, stories were how we shared knowledge and taught our children. So don’t be afraid to tell yours: clients and customers want to hear it and – increasingly – so does the Google algorithm.

Keep it simple

This may seem like the most unoriginal advice I’ve ever put in this blog. We all learn KISS within about five seconds of getting our first job: but it still bears repeating. In fact, there seems to be an increasing trend towards simplification: simple websites with simple messages and – especially online – businesses opting to concentrate on their core range and products. My old pal, the fitness coach for pregnant women in Knightsbridge, is in his element.

Business owners used to worry that a simple message and an equally simple product range might mean their business wasn’t viable. ‘Are there really enough people in York who want what I’m offering?’

But today your market doesn’t stop at York. It doesn’t even stop at New York. One of the most exciting trends for me this year has been the way so many Board members have started to develop their businesses internationally. The market out there is huge – which in turn means you can afford to keep it simple. To return to Make Good Art and the speech by Neil Gaiman – increasingly you can afford to concentrate on what it is that only you do best.

Say yes to parties

What more sensible advice could there be with December less than a weekend away? But the point that Michael Acton Smith makes is simple: you never meet anyone new sitting at your desk. By and large, your office is not the place where you’re exposed to new ideas or where your way of looking at the world is challenged.

So get out there and meet some new people. Expose yourself to the risk of someone saying, ‘Why not…’

It’s too easy to say, ‘there’s no point going because it’ll just be the same old people saying the same old things.’ Fifty percent of the time it will be: but the other fifty per cent of the time it won’t; there’ll be a potential new client, a new idea or a new business opportunity. The trouble is that you don’t know which fifty per cent it will be: the only way to find out is to go.

But hey – it’s December! If you can’t go to a party now, when can you go? And if that’s what you’re doing this weekend, have a brilliant time. And if you’re marching round Monks Cross instead with your children’s Christmas list in your pocket – that makes two of us…

Only 114 Planning Days to Christmas!

Well, this’ll depress you. Sixteen weeks today it’s the day before Christmas Eve – which means that the readership of this blog has immediately divided into three camps:

Those thinking “Fantastic. 15½ weeks before I need to be even remotely bothered.”

The “Damn, this year I meant to do it all in August but…” camp – of which I’m a life member.

And the smug so-and-so’s who bought and wrapped the last present at the weekend. (Don’t worry. Beelzebub has a special place reserved for you.)

So, having admitted that Davnet’s Christmas present hasn’t yet crossed my radar I’m going to risk further wrath (should she chance across this blog) by suggesting that you start to think about your business now, and maybe leave your family until later. Because there are certain customers, clients or suppliers you’ll need to thank at Christmas – as you have done for the last four or five Christmases. So what’s it going to be? A last minute dash to Tesco for however many bottles of red wine you think you need? Or are you going to do something different, something proactive and something that might – gulp – just generate some business?

You can give people two types of present. You can give them a ‘thing,’ or you can give them an ‘event.’ (Or as my wife pointed out recently, you can give them both…)

So suggestion number one for Christmas – as people grow older, they value events over things. A bottle of red wine is a bottle of red wine and will join the others on the wine rack. An event is a memory and for you, the chance to meet your best clients away from work. And we all know what can flow from that. So here are five suggestions in and around York:

• Hire a box at Wetherby races
• Take your clients on a cookery course
• The fans may be unhappy with the chairman, but a box at Elland Road is still a good day out
• Don’t neglect the arts – the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough, York Theatre Royal or the West Yorkshire Playhouse are all top venues
• Finally, if you want to get your clients dirty, take them quad biking.

I’ve stopped short of suggesting zorbing (Google image if you’re not sure), but a little bit of thought and a bit of planning can produce a truly memorable day. Yes, it costs more than a bottle of red wine, but isn’t it worth it to cement a relationship?

And now for your Christmas card…

Many of you will have watched the JK Wedding Video on YouTube. Last time I checked it had 68 million views. (That compares to 20m for Eric Clapton playing Layla, 5m for Obama’s inauguration speech and 300,000 for JFK’s assassination.)

Something really good, really original or really different now has the chance to catch the public imagination like never before – to go viral. Never mind 68m views – if your company created something that got 1% of that number, what might it do for your sales pipeline?

We all contact our clients in December – even if it’s just a card saying ‘Have a great time, talk in January.’ Supposing you created an e-card? Supposing you had a Christmas carol re-written featuring your business? Supposing you self-mockingly adapted Scrooge? This Christmas, more than any previous Christmas, people will re-tweet; they’ll like something on Facebook; they’ll forward e-mails. Create something good enough and your company’s name may well end up in front of far more people than just your client bank.

Yes, it will mean work and time, but there are four months to go before Christmas. Have a think now. You’ve chance to come up with a gift, an event or a message that’s radically different – that your clients will remember long after they’ve forgotten a bottle of wine. And that might put a nice, fat plus in the P&L account…

Corporate Hospitality – 10 rules to guarantee success

In the olden days they used to say, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

You might argue that with the frenzied growth of networking events – and sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn – that’s more true than ever. I happen to disagree – I think we’re in an era where competence and delivering what you promise is vital – but business always has been and always will be built on personal relationships.  

So where does that leave corporate hospitality? At a time when you can build a very solid ‘virtual’ relationship with someone, is there any point taking your clients to Wetherby races? Shouldn’t you just re-tweet something useful?

In my PLC days (especially with Diageo) I did my fair share of entertaining and hopefully I learned a few lessons along the way – how to get it right and (once) how to get it spectacularly wrong. So if you have decided to spend a few quid entertaining clients, here are my 10 rules to guarantee success.

  1. Know what you’re trying to achieve – entertaining, sponsorship and hospitality is no different to any other aspect of business. If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve you haven’t a hope of achieving it. So are you trying to build relationships, cement relationships, find some new clients, or just say ‘thanks’ to your existing clients?
  2. Set financial targets – I won’t tell you which company I was working for but we had some strict parameters. If we spent £1,000 on a client then we wanted to see £5,000 back. Some companies go even higher, looking for a 10 or 20-fold return. That may seem excessive, but financial targets keep you focused on the return from an event: otherwise you can end up spending a lot of money and getting back…not much.
  3. Keep records – these days there are some brilliant CRM (Client Relationship Management) systems, and keeping track of what clients like and don’t like is easy. There are even systems that let you keep track of recent tweets. It’s very easy to assume that everyone likes football, racing or golf and that simply isn’t the case. The spectacular successes I had with corporate hospitality were when I really took the trouble to find out what a client liked and delivered something ‘out of the ordinary.’
  4. Keep it flexible – and fresh. I’d be against repeating the same event year after year: even the most fanatical golfer eventually gets fed up with playing Fulford. And signing the lease on that ten year box at Elland Road might have been a great idea when they were playing Barcelona. It didn’t look so hot when they started playing Brentford…
  5. Try new things – in my experience, we got the best response from something a client had always wanted to try but could never quite justify. (Or thought they wouldn’t be able to do.) I’m not suggesting you invite overweight, middle-aged men in suits to go kayaking, but how many of them would love to drive a 4×4 off-road?  And don’t forget the theatre or the opera – hospitality doesn’t automatically equal sport.
  6. These days, knowledge is hospitality – I would absolutely turn down a day at Wetherby races in favour of a client inviting me to a really good workshop on social media. Half a dozen of us there, the undivided attention of a real expert? Yes, please.
  7. Mix existing and potential clients – your existing clients will always be the best advocates for your business, so it’s a good idea to mix them with potential clients.
  8. Don’t bring the subs on – if one of your target clients or potential clients can’t make it, don’t be tempted to bring someone in at the last minute. Especially if you don’t know them that well. One event at Diageo was spectacularly ruined by a last minute substitute. He used the day as an excuse to try and drink his way through the entire product range and almost cost us our best client
  9. No shop talk – if you’re playing golf, you’re playing golf (unless you’re playing with me, in which case you’re looking for the ball). There’s plenty of time to talk business afterwards.
  10. Say thank you – it may seem bizarre to say ‘thank you’ to someone you’ve just entertained but there’s nothing wrong with a quick note: “Thanks for coming to the golf day. Glad you enjoyed it and terrific shot on the 16th. We’ll chat soon.” Actually, saying ‘thank you’ is one the best – and cheapest – sales techniques there is.

So there you have it. And if anyone’s now thinking, “Blimey, Ed’s a top bloke. How can I say thank you?” the answer’s obvious. Executive box. Wembley, May 2012. Newcastle will be there…