There was a time when most enterprise sales reps had liberal expense accounts to take C-level execs to expensive dinners accompanied by the costliest wine offered.  I’m not suggesting that “breaking bread” with customers is a bad thing, because it can be a really positive way to open up the relationship and learn more about each other as opposed to the constraints of office only interactions. Having said that, there is still a breed of sales person out there who believes that you have to take the high level execs out to expensive dinners to build a strong relationship with them and that simply isn’t true anymore. In fact, in many ways you can undermine your own credibility by trying to set up dinners with customer execs that you don’t know yet and haven’t built any business credibility with yet. It can be perceived that you are trying to buy or at least influence their decision by picking up an expensive dinner tab. More and more large companies have formal policies expressly prohibiting employees from accepting expensive dinners, gifts or golf outings at Pebble Beach from any vendors. Certainly US government agencies have had long standing policies to prevent vendor influence from finanical gifts. I worked an enterprise deal with Intel back in the 1990’s and they would not let us pay for dinner even at a joint project team kick-off meeting. The executive sponsor said that they would pay for the entire tab rather than have any appearance of impropriety occur. My policy was never to take customers to dinner unless you had earned the right to do so. And I would make it worthwhile for their execs to attend by having their executive counterparts or industry pundits in attendence.

One anecdote that sums it up best involves a CIO that I’ll call Jim Dayton for anonymity purposes. Jim worked for a F100 company that had lots of projects that could leverage the software that my company was selling. I inherited a legacy sales rep as part of a promotion that I received to build a North American Strategic Named Accounts team. The legacy sales rep that had been working the account for two years and had no revenue to show for it yet. I sat down with him and asked what was going on with the account, what progress had he made and what was his plan of attack. He had held countless meetings with various low level people and done several proof of concepts without yielding any revenue. His plan of attack was to get to Jim Dayton and take Jim to an expensive steak restaurant and order lots of costly wine. I inquired as to how he had arrived at this as his strategy for penetrating this rich account and he replied that this was the intelligence that he had gathered from the various low level folks that he had worked with at the account over the last two years. The irony is that this “strategy” was now being bandied about in our company as we need to get the steak dinner with Jim Dayton, as if that would result in a seven figure deal.

Needless to say, this legacy sales rep lasted 90 days on my strategic named accounts sales team because he was anything but strategic. I then assigned the account to one of my strategic sales reps who was an excellent strategic enterprise sales rep. His favorite expression when discussing this account and opportunity was “gathering up all of the bits and pieces” to develop an effective sales strategy. And that is exactly what he did. He dug deep and learned what their business pain was and how our technology could provide unique value. He earned the right to get sponsored higher up in the organization by bringing strategic insight to the business discussions. And it culminated in a $1M+ initial deal after about 6 months of work, with a lot more follow on business. The punch line of the entire thing was when he called me and was laughing hysterically. He went on to share with me that he just had dinner with Jim Dayton and that Jim doesn’t drink wine or eat steak anymore after having a heart attack two years earlier. I’m certainly not making light of the heart attack, rather just how far off base the legacy sales rep was. You want to talk about being disconnected from reality, how embarrassing!

Earn credibility by adding business insight to customers and their senior execs, I trust that you’ll find that to be a much more effective way of selling in 2009 and beyond rather than trying to take people out to expensive dinners:-)