If time really is money, even you never play golf before, the four or more hours spent with a customer on the golf course with the best golf clubs for beginners can be a better investment than an hour over lunch. That’s what local executives say about using golf to entertain customers and potential clients.
“Lunch is a formal, stiff setting,” explains Jim Janetz, managing director of Banc One Asset Management Corp. But the golf course is a natural, relaxing environment. It’s four or more hours of exercise and fresh air. Plus, whether talking about greenbacks or the greens, golfing is “probably one of the few places where you can get the client’s undivided attention” for that long, Janetz says.
An increasing interest in health, coupled with the nicer weather associated with the golfing season, also makes many clients more interested in getting outside than in sitting down to a meal, says Marty Hendrix, senior account executive with Sears Business Systems Center.
And golfing is less “confrontational” than either lunch or meeting in an office because you and the client aren’t starting at each other from across a table or desk, Janetz adds.
The Time was Purely Social
In fact, business golfers seem to agree that the real reason for teeing up is not always to get down to business – at least not right away. But just because no contracts were signed at the club house doesn’t mean the time was purely social.
Executives say they use a game of golf to get to know a potential customer better and to let the customer get to know them. Golf also helps them stay in touch with their industry or market, keep an existing relationship out of the rough or identify opportunities for new business.
Don McCue, the managing partner in the Columbus accounting office of Coopers & Lybrand, says a round of golf gives him a chance to discuss the client’s business and identify any problems where he can help. For instance, McCue says, he and a client could be walking down a fairway and talking casually about the client’s plans to purchase a new computer system.
McCue could then ask if the client has anyone to help with the decision, which could get the client thinking about using outside help. That gives McCue a chance to suggest that he’ll have a data processing consultant from Coopers & Lybrand contact the client the next day.
Golf also can chip away at hierarchical barriers, notes Robert M. Hance, a salesman of disposable surgical supplies. Hance, the local representative for North Carolina-based White Knight Healthcare, says calling on a top executive at the office can involve trying to get past lower-level executives first. But business golfing, especially at company-sponsored outings, can put him in close contact with the actual decision maker for an entire afternoon.
Business golfers know, though, that the links are not a boardroom. A hard-sell approach can be as much of a hazard on a golf course as water and sand.
“If you invite someone out for a round of golf, he doesn’t want to be hit over the head with a business pitch,” Janetz says. “Otherwise, he won’t want to come back.”
Some business golfers, like Hance, also pull out their clubs for a round with an out-of-town-boss. “It’s a good time to share information about personnel matters or policy changes coming up,” says Hance, whose supervisor is based in Atlanta.
And the golf course is even a good place for networking with the rest of your industry. Brian G. Conner, the terminal manager for Bridge Terminal Transport, recalls sharing safety program ideas with another manager at a golf outing sponsored by the Columbus Transportation Club.
In fact, executives find golf so useful to business that many take lessons to improve their game or to learn it for the first time.
That’s similar to the experience of John Hennessey, a pro and part owner of Ables Golf Center Ltd. Hennessey says most of the more than 300 students taking lessons each week from Ables’ five instructors are learning because they think it will help them in business.
One of Hennessey’s students is Mike Sheridan, a service sales consultant with Mechanical Services Inc., a heating and ventilation system contractor. Sheridan, who has had six lessons and plans to take three more, had golfed with clients before taking the lessons. But he didn’t enjoy it because he wasn’t playing well enough to stay up with his clients.
“It’s nice to stay with the group,” Sheridan explains. “If they all hit their shots down the fairway and you slice, you won’t be with the pack. You won’t be talking with them or socializing. So you might miss something.”
Playing golf well could also mean playing wisely. Some local business golfers only half-joke about “customer golf,” in which the executive tries not to outplay the client. But others say many clients prefer having a good game of golf regardless of the outcome.
Country club membership is a perquisite for certain top executives, such as Coopers & Lybrand’s McCue. He belongs to the Golf Club and the Country Club at Muirfield Village.
Roughly half of the chief executive officers at 525 corporations across the country have similar memberships.
Although golfing with clients or customers has long been a facet of American business, the game is no longer the exclusive sport of the old boy network. Women and minorities also are teeing up for business reasons nowadays.
Jayma Daniel, a sales representative at Nordstan Communications Inc., is taking lessons from Hennessey because she sees golf as a necessary skill to get ahead in her company. Many of the male sales reps at Nordstan take clients out golfing, and the company holds an annual golf outing, she says. Since she didn’t play golf, Daniel only attended the outing dinner last year. Now she’s taken six lessons, hopes to take another six and plans to eventually take out clients for a round.
When she does, though, her choice of courses could be limited. Many country clubs still restrict women’s membership or tee times, a long-standing tradition born out of two perceptions: that husbands usually pay a family’s dues and that women take too long to play 18 holes.
Sears’ Marty Hendrix, a microcomputer system consultant, takes clients out on the links about twice a week. A business golfer for the past five years, Hendrix says her business has increased by as much as 30 percent since she started golfing with clients.
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