Ellen Moran never saw herself as a person who'd do business on a golf course. In fact, she never envisioned herself as a golfer, period. "I have no athletic abilities," she says. "I thought the game was stupid. And my husband thought the game was stupid."
That was three years ago, before she became executive vice president and general manager of Bozell Omaha, a $53 million advertising agency and part of the nationwide Bozell Group.
"My mentor and predecessor wanted me to play," she says. "Part of his pitch was that you could get to know the people with whom you're doing business."
Once she got hooked, she brought along her reluctant husband, with whom she took lessons and played nightly. Now they take their clubs everywhere they go.
What she likes about golf is that anyone who knows the rules, at any skill level, can play. "It's not like tennis, where a person won't play with someone who isn't as good. I have a high handicap, and I play with people who have a two handicap. And we both have a great time."
Typically Moran invites two people from a client's company and another person from Bozell who works on the account. "The problem we have with relationship management is that we don't have the same goal. But on the golf course, we can all relax together and have the same goal."
Why Play? Ask any golfer who is also in business if the golf course is an effective place to do business, and they'll end up sounding a lot like Moran.
"Golf provides you one-on-one contact," says Jeffrey Chabon, president of ZWorld Entertainment Inc., in West Palm Beach. "Not only do you learn a lot about a person on the golf course, you also show your own true colors."
"Golf clearly comes out on top as the best form of client entertainment," adds Bill Storer, president of Business Golf Strategies in Basking Ridge, N.J. Among his reasons: the discussion time; the opportunity to build rapport; and the level of personal discovery.
Storer, who's played golf for 35 years--at one time, in sales and marketing roles at AT&T--now teaches businesses how to make the most of their course time. "Other people do a good job of teaching how to deal with customers in a formal environment, across a desk," Storer says. "But we haven't found anyone who has trained their people well in a less formal environment, such as entertainment. Companies spend tens of thousands of dollars on client entertainment. But when you ask them what they are getting in return for it, they can't answer you."
Businesses should start by considering what they want to accomplish from the outing, Storer advises, and then approach the golf event as a six-hour sales call. This means building a sales plan for the whole day and inviting the right people. "All too often," Storer says, "salespeople invite day-to-day contacts, when they should be inviting that person's senior manager. ... You want the decision-maker, not just the decision influencer."
He also suggests looking at the day from your client's point of view. "You're asking the customer to take a day away from his or her business. What are they getting out of it?"
Business--Or Not? "Let me tell you a fallacy," says Mark Oman, the Carmel, Calif.based author, humorist, and speaker who founded Golfaholics Anonymous. "Everybody says deals are done on the course. But it's not where the deals are done. It's where you decide whether or not you want to do business at all with that individual.
Peter Cathey, chief executive officer of World Duty Free Inflight, Ridgefield, Conn., concurs. "There are suppliers who are always trying to close deals on the golf course. I just have not done it. "
How does he react? "Depending on the individual, I will steer away from it and focus on the golf. Or you have to use a velvet hammer and say, 'This afternoon or tomorrow, we'll have a business meeting.' "
Chabon, whose entertainment marketing consultant firm helps companies such as Heineken own their concerts and special events, also doesn't talk about his business when he's on a golf outing with clients. "When you go out to play, the person you invited knows why they're there. I may ask questions about their business, but I won't press."
He tells of the time his former boss pressured him to close a deal on the golf course. "It wasn't a very enjoyable experience for either of us. ... the deal didn't get done for another year," he says.
Both consultants and executives agree that if business must be discussed that day, it should wait until between the fifth and 15th holes. "Everybody is always uptight when you start the game, so first you want to get that period over," Moran says. "And you also don't want to do it over the last few holes because you're trying to get a good score, and so are they."
A Cheat in Golf, A Cheat in Business? It's as easy to win business as it is to lose it. Chabon, who has been playing golf for about eight years and has between an 18 and a 24 handicap, recalls one of his first outings, at The Breakers in Palm Beach, with a client from the then-unknown company Boston Chicken. "The night before, the news had a four-minute feature on golf and business. It said things like, 'If you cheat on your strokes or move the ball, it shows you probably cheat in business, too.'
"The next day," he continues, "this person and I played exactly the same way. We were very strict about playing by the rules and counting every stroke. Then we discovered that we both had seen the same report the night before--and we were acting like it said to act."
"When it comes to playing customer golf, your objective is different," says Connie Charles, founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based Strategic Solutions International Inc. (SSI). "Maybe you shouldn't be as rigid. Or maybe you should modify some etiquette in favor of the client. Do they want a more competitive game, or do they want to smell the flowers? Do they want to follow the rules or just have a good time?"
It also helps to find out where your partners stand on process and procedures. Are they casual or fanatical?
"I have clients who shoot two, three over par, and they're sticklers," Moran says. "I always try to go more formal than I would otherwise. I'll even tell my guests that if I'm going to take them to one of the clubs, 'Golf attire is required, and you must have soft spikes.' You don't want them to be embarrassed."
Most difficult is what to do when someone cheats. "Don't step in somebody's lie. Don't hit out of turn," says David Brisbee, corporate golf director at SSI. "More subtle are the things that drive someone's behavior. You can be thinking, 'I'm going to impress this client by showing how much I know about the rules,' but if the client is more relaxed, you could make a mistake." Even rushing a client sends subtle signals about the way you would treat them in a business relationship.
Or as Storer so perfectly puts it, "Nowhere else can you get to know the person behind the personality than during a game of golf."
New at Golf? Read This If you're a beginner at golf and your client is a decent golfer, don't extend an invitation to play--unless you do these four things:
* 1. Take lessons from a golf pro.
* 2. Know eight to 10 of the most important rules of golf.
* 3. Know something about golf etiquette.
* 4. Know how to play ready golf. "That means being ready to play when it's your turn," says Bill Storer, president of Business Golf Strategies, Basking Ridge, N.J. "You shouldn't be hearing, 'Okay, Charlie, it's your turn.' "
If you know you're not as strong a golfer as your client, on the first tee when they talk about handicap, make it clear your handicap is a 30 and you don't get enough time to play.
In other words, he says, be up front about your experience level and everyone will come out a winner.