Bill Storer, a former AT&T and Lucent Technologies sales manager, understands the power of golf in forging business relationships, but he's mystified about one thing. "Companies spend billions of dollars on sales training that helps people sell across the desk, but almost none is spent training people on how to build relationships and sell in informal client situations, such as during a round of golf. It's as if employees are expected to simply know the right approach."
Storer knows this isn't logical, and since 1994 his Basking Ridge, New Jersey–based firm, Business Golf Strategies, has trained thousands of competent salespeople who nonetheless had never planned a strategy for their client golf outings. "Too many people view a golf outing as a day off rather than a day on," he says. "You have to view it as a sales call that takes place over a few hours in a nice environment. That means you must think about who from an organization you want to invite, what you want to achieve in your time together, and how you can best go about doing that."
Being a polite and knowledgeable golfer is only part of the role you must fulfill when using golf for business purposes. "Most businesspeople don't realize that they are on stage at these events as much as their clients are," Storer says. And he has, on more than one occasion, cringed at the sight of club-throwing, blue-streak-swearing, sulking players—as well as slow-moving, cell-phone-toting, beer-swilling players—at business tournaments. Some people even resort to cheating.
Character comes out. While golfing with a client in Florida, Denise Qualls, market sales manager with Wells Fargo and Company, based in San Francisco, but who was then with Citibank Inc., realized "[the client] was out there playing for himself. He was completely oblivious [to everyone else]," Qualls says. He frequently forgot to coordinate with the foursome, leaving the golf cart behind. He wouldn't help anyone look for their lost golf balls and took forever trying to find his. His behavior that day lost him a business opportunity—Citibank was ready to put a proposal on the table before Qualls witnessed his conduct on the green.
"If this is how he is on the golf course, how is he with his employees?" she remembers thinking. "That was an awakening for me." At the end of the game, she told the client, discreetly, that a business relationship was not going to work.
Business and Play
With a new or prospective client, Storer recommends that you invite not only the decision maker, but also a support person from your own firm who would service that account. On the other hand, longtime clients feel valued if an executive from your firm comes along to play.
Knowing the personality of your guest is also critical to how you plan the day. "Based on the type of person you're hosting, you can talk a lot about business, or almost not at all," Storer says. "Some people want to talk business early on and return to it throughout the day, because they expect to accomplish something concrete and not waste time. Others simply want to build a friendly bond, a trust between the two of you. Still others are highly analytical and will choose to focus most of all on playing the game."
Regardless of the type of person you invite to play, Storer insists that you should never intentionally allow the customer to win. "I know that happens quite often," he says. But along with cheating, getting caught at it "is among the most embarrassing things that can happen to someone on the golf course." What's more, it's unnecessary. "If you understand the handicap system and some of the games that can be played within the larger game, you can set up the day so that everyone wins," he says. "Or you can simply say, "'Hey, let's not compete—let's just have fun.' That might suit your guest just fine."
Actually, you can take this noncompetitive notion a bit farther, especially if the client is not a good golfer or is hesitant to spend a full day on the links. For instance, meeting someone at the local driving range, or on a nearby club's practice green, allows golf to act as a medium for interaction that is more relaxed than at the office.
"If a client doesn't like to play, or if you don't like to play, don't play," says Suzanne Woo, founder of BizGolf Dynamics, a business golf consultancy in Berkeley, California. "You're going to blow up." Try taking the client to a charity golf tournament instead, she suggests.
"The bottom line is, it's about the customer," Storer says. "Your job as a salesperson is to make sure they're saying positive things about the company, the services—about you."
In the end, everything you do with client golf should be designed to give you an opportunity to finalize a business deal back in the office environment—a place that Storer calls "the 20th hole." So the next time you're set to play golf for business, don't wait until the last minute to mentally prepare. Treat the day just as you would any other business opportunity—because that's precisely what it is.
Actually, it's even more than that: "When golf is used correctly," Storer says, "there is no better cost-effective method of conducting business."
Golf Biz Tip: Hole in One
For real estate broker Kim Hastie, formerly a sales rep for Heublein Inc., a food and spirits distributor now owned by U.K. company Diageo PLC, knowing how to swing the club wasn't a problem. "I had a manager who encouraged me to play golf, so much so that he paid several thousand dollars out of the company budget to pay for it," she says. However, "I had never learned about developing a business relationship during the game," New York–based Hastie says.
After working with Suzanne Woo, founder of BizGolf Dynamics, a business golf consultancy in Berkeley, California, to develop her business golf etiquette, Hastie was ready to test her new knowledge. She took her client, who represented the Ritz-Carlton chain of hotels, out for a game of golf. Keeping business talk to a minimum, Hastie focused on enjoying the game and developing the relationship with the customer. It paid off. "The next day, he called me," she says. He agreed to stock the company's full line of products in Ritz-Carltons across the country. —Nathan Eddy
Golf Biz Tip: Links Lesson
Knowing the ins and outs of business golf can make the winning difference. Here are a few tips that can swing you into a successful sale.
• Ease into business talk. "It's knowing that balance between building a relationship and playing the game. It's all about networking," says Judy Anderson, founder of Business Golf Unlimited, based in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
• Limit your alcohol intake. "More deals are lost in the drink than golf balls lost in the water holes," Anderson says.
• Enjoy yourself. Keep the mood light and enjoyable, and leave your competitive streak at home. For many executives, the golf course is the only relaxed landscape they do business in. They'll appreciate a friendly game.
• Be patient. Try not to discuss business before the fifth hole or after the 15th. Give customers an opportunity to ease into their game and to finish strong, says Bill Storer, president of Business Golf Strategies, based in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
• Remember the "Butterfly Effect." Small actions can have lasting effects. Focus on the person behind the personality. Pay attention to the details of the day's conversation and use them in a future interaction. It won't go unnoticed.