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Gifts are old news: Experiences are the key to winning deals

Showing appreciation in a professional environment isn’t easy. Gifts are difficult to get right and highly regulated. Face time is increasingly scarce with senior executives who seem to be buried under mountains of emails. Despite the challenges, company leaders and salespeople must cultivate strong personal relationships to help their organizations succeed.

During my days at Deloitte Consulting, I once watched a fleet of limousines pull up for a meeting with the CEO of a client company. The well-dressed guests were ushered into the office, each carrying bags of gifts for the CEO and other executives. Watching this display made me wonder: Would any of those executives use or remember those gifts a week from now? Was this generosity or a thinly veiled, ineffective bribe?

For executives and important clients who can often afford to buy themselves whatever material possessions they desire, experiences are far more valuable than gifts. By organizing unique experiences, leaders can develop stronger personal relationships and form lasting impressions that will pay dividends to their companies for years.

Building relationships through experiences

There are few professions where relationships matter more than for a stockbroker. When I was in college, I landed a summer internship with Salomon Smith Barney (now Morgan Stanley) and was paired with an ambitious financial advisor looking to add more high-net-worth individuals to his client list. His approach left an impression on me that I will never forget.

Instead of using the traditional tactic of cold-calling a large but unqualified list, the advisor got his hands on a list of the top 100 CEO golfers in America and sent a letter to each person on the list inviting them to play golf with him at his club. He then tasked me with calling each CEO on the list to convince them to join him for the round of golf. After 100 calls, I got six to say yes. And two of those six CEOs ended up becoming clients. The lesson? Don't follow the herd when it comes to marketing your services; find ways to spend time with clients and prospects in their own element. 

How does the "experiences over things" push apply to the younger generations?According to some experts, social media is a key driver in the push for unique and rare experiences. People of all generations — but particularly young people — feel pressured to put their best selves on social media to highlight the cool things they do for all to see, which transforms experiences into social currency.

For businesses, though, dollars matter more than likes, which is why corporate entertainment experiences make more financial sense than other avenues of engagement. Even during the poor economic climate of 2009, Bank of America continued to spend heavily on corporate entertainment and sports sponsorship, releasing data that showed $10 in revenue and $3 in net income earned for every dollar spent.

Statistics like these demonstrate that even with a great product at an appropriate price, companies must still nurture relationships with high-value clients and partners to set up a foundation for lasting success. But how? Fancy dinners and cocktail parties are great, but they don't exactly get the heart racing in today's corporate entertainment arms race. Executives and relationship managers must think outside the box to provide their most valued audiences with experiences they will remember.

Creating better memories

Courting clients through experiences is an expensive venture, but with the right approach, it can provide an enormous return on investment.

To maximize ROI, companies must scale their spending in relation to the potential value of the invitees. For example, a regional utility provider signed a deal with an NFL team that allows them to give each new customer two tickets to an NFL game, which is a way to kickstart the relationship and demonstrate appreciation to the client without spending an excessive amount of money.

Larger B2B clients and prospects, on the other hand, must be wooed with more impactful experiences. Two tickets to a football game are one thing, but a private dinner with Bobby Flay is another beast entirely. Some companies might find it difficult to justify the cost of providing an extravagant experience to a couple dozen prospects, but if just one of those prospects converts, the expense will have been worth it.

How to provide top-notch experiences

Spending a lot on an experience doesn’t necessarily mean the experience will be impactful. Companies must pay attention to the likes and needs of their prospects and then design experiences to maximize the window of opportunity. To create high-quality experiences that drive ROI, follow these strategies:

1. Get to know the clients

Great hosts understand what their guests want. Clients who are afraid of heights don’t want to go skydiving, while clients who don’t care about sports won’t feel moved by an invitation to a game.

Research prospects’ personal tastes to discover what kind of experiences would resonate with them. If someone is a Billy Joel fan, book a luxury suite at a Billy Joel concert to deliver a 'bucket list' experience the prospect will love. The recipient of the experience will remember the event for a lifetime — and remember the company that provided the experience favorably.

2. Splurge for the good seats

Just because an executive likes baseball doesn’t mean she wants to sit in the nosebleeds above right field for a game between two losing teams. Try to provide iconic experiences in new venues, at sold-out reunion tours, or at a hotly contested rivalry game.

No one can know exactly how an event will turn out before going, but by focusing on luxury, experience providers can differentiate themselves and up the chances that prospects will remember the event fondly. You'd be amazed by how far small, unexpected add-ons can go — clients often rave as much about the VIP parking just steps away from the stadium as they do about the amenities in the suites.

3. Establish a personal connection and finish strong

In their recent book The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath point out that the moments we remember best — such as weddings, vacations, and sporting events — tend to be social experiences. Memories are made by events but magnified by the people who share the moments together.

Give full attention and presence to events with big prospects in attendance. Don’t send a relationship manager and follow up with an email hoping the prospect had a good time. Go in person yourself, and make a personal connection stronger through the power of shared experience.

To seal the deal, follow the 'peak-end rule' outlined by Doctor Daniel Kahneman: People remember the best moment of the event and the end of the event. The big play of the game or the performance of a favorite song and then the handshakes and farewells that follow. You can't always control the peak moment, but you can usually control the end, so make sure to depart on a high note.

As I think back to my Deloitte client, I don’t know whether that parade of people with gift bags landed the deal they wanted to, but I doubt those executives remember that day as well as I do. Unique experiences — not presents — are the best way to make a strong impression. To make your next prospect event special, follow these tips and provide an experience attendees will never forget. Here's to your next peak moment.