Oct. 07--Hugh Anderson isn't very good at golf.
The managing director of HighTower Advisors readily admits his lack of talent on the golf course but rarely used to pass up an opportunity to hit the links.
Why? Because tradition says golfing with clients is a great way to land new business deals.
But Anderson realized a long time ago he doesn't need to play golf to wrangle customers. Instead, he takes them to dinner.
Anderson is a foodie at heart and considers his appetite for discovering new restaurants a passion and hobby.
More notable, his dinner destinations aren't always big name restaurants like Joel Robuchon or Guy Savoy. Sometimes, he woos clients at McDonald's.
In a recovering economy governed by companies' flatlined budgets and conservative spending, the art of wining and dining clients has changed dramatically over the past several years. Gone are the days of over-the-top gift baskets and $100 bottles of wine. Comfort has replaced caviar.
To be sure, different companies favor different techniques, but most executives say they focus today on one: making clients feel at ease. And the easiest way to do that, experts say, is for businesspeople to offer customers a glimpse of who they are and what they are passionate about.
Anderson has found that his clients respond well to eating good food in interesting settings. His favorite dinner spots include Todd's Unique Dining in Henderson and Jose Andres' Jaleo on the Strip. Both offer unique experiences for out-of-town clients, he said.
But Anderson also remains cautious when choosing where to dine. Research is imperative when planning a client outing, he said. Know what your customers like.
If you don't, it can be disastrous. Anderson learned that the hard way when he made reservations at a Mexican restaurant only to find out at the dinner table that his client hated Mexican food.
There's also always a chance that a client will surprise you. One of Anderson's customers, for instance -- a man with almost a billion dollars to his name -- prefers fast food to fancy cuisine. So Anderson takes him to restaurants with drive-thrus.
Anderson wouldn't normally eat at such places, but the visits aren't about him. The focus is -- and should be -- on what the client likes.
Nathan Emens, a local political consultant and owner of Campaign Data Solutions, has cut back on wining and dining because of the economy. He keeps outings basic.
"We don't have a lot of disposable dollars," he said.
But Emens still sets aside a budget for the occasional lunch or golf trip.
The activity isn't important. What matters is the conversation around the table or in between holes.
It's during those conversations that a client decides whether he feels comfortable doing business with you, Anderson said.
"When you're outside of the normal business environment, it gives you a chance to look at them in the eye," Anderson said. "People want to do business with people they know and people they like."
Meetings outside the office offer clients a glimpse into the personalities of the people they're working with.
Accountant Dianna Russo tries to show customers that she values their relationships with simple but meaningful gestures.
"We need to look independent and like we're not too friendly, but I believe in recognizing clients," she said.
Cost also is a factor. As the owner of Houldsworth, Russo & Co., Russo has to work within a budget.
She favors treating clients to random lunches or unexpected deliveries of doughnuts or bagels. In winter, her firm rents a coffee and hot chocolate truck to greet people in their parking lot. In summer, it's an ice cream truck.
Russo times the appearances to coincide with her staff's audits, so she can show appreciation for her clients and her staff at the same time.
Companies with fewer clients often can afford to be more elaborate.
Alice Heiman, a sales expert in Reno, takes clients sailing on Lake Tahoe. She has only about 10 clients thoug