October 07 2009
“We do a fair number of events for our owners, and last year we gave a dinner for about 100 people in Versailles in the Grand Trianon. And before we all started to eat, I stood up and made a toast, as I do at most of these things, and I said the same thing I always say: “Thank you for coming. This is just another way we have been thinking about you, because we think about your well-being and safety from the time we get up to the end of every day.” It’s a toast I am re-telling not because I want to show my salesman credentials, but because that’s what I think the purpose of a meal is in my business: to demonstrate our values. A $5m-$10m deal can be clinched by your ability to build a connection over a meal.
So certain things are important. First, given that most of our owners are people at the epicentre of human activity, there are few places I can take them to that they can’t get to themselves. In fact, for me the trick is to be unsensational. Hotness is the easiest thing to backfire, and provides the least added value. What you want is an environment that provides no risk. To trust the environment to do the work for you is a mistake. It’s not the trimmings that matter, it’s the dynamic between people.
I learned this partly from the man who started our business, Richard Santulli. Whenever he comes to London, we always end up going to dinner at a place in Chelsea called Ziani (pictured); there could be about 16 of us, often from the office. It’s a simple Italian restaurant, and we get some chianti and pasta and sit around and talk about our families, and laugh. You end up feeling you’ve had a real mano a mano communication, and you are part of some broader spectrum. It’s incredibly effective.
I saw this when I was invited by a businessman, the former chairman of a bank, for a shooting weekend in Scotland. Now, I don’t think he ever had any intention of becoming a NetJets owner, but he said he would bring some friends who might be interested. So I said OK, kitted myself out and acquitted myself pretty well. Then we had a very traditional dinner and, after the port had been served and everyone was in their corner, they called me over and said, “OK, young fella, give us your pitch.” So I told some stories. And within three weeks all five were NetJets owners.
I have a team of 111 people and I always tell them: when you take a client out, or a potential client, do not talk about aeroplanes. Find out what’s most important to them, whatever it is, and then find the point of connection. This is one of the largest discretionary expenditures most people will make in their lifetime, and you’re normally nowhere near an aircraft when you’re selling, so what you’re selling is trust, service, experience. And you can telescope all that in a meal. Places I think do it are L’Ami Louis and Ledoyen in Paris, The Waverly Inn and Il Molino in New York, Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica and Chaya in Venice.
Of course, sometimes all the best intentions in the world are foiled if you get the person wrong. Once, for example, I took a Russian potential client I had been trying to woo to a private club in London where cell phones are not allowed. He came with a mutual friend who was already a client and who had put us in touch. I handed in my cell at the door and the current client turned his off. But as soon as we sat down, the other guy’s phone rang, he answered it, and talked very loudly. The waiter walked by and drew his finger across his throat, and I firmly put my hand on the new guy’s arm and said, “If you don’t turn that off I will be kicked out of this club.” And he looked at me. And looked. And then he turned it off. But he did not become a client. I don’t regret it. But I think next time I would choose a different place for that particular person.”