The party season is upon us once again and a business beano or two is unavoidable. But don't complain, says Winston Fletcher, a knees-up needn't be unproductive.
Christmas is coming and British business is grinding to its annual festive standstill. For most of us, it means a jamboree of gluttony: eating and drinking, followed by yet more eating and drinking - noon, evening and night. (But not, I hope, morning.) I am quite sure that we, in Britain, do more entertaining and less work in December than other nations, though I have never seen any statistics to prove it. (Maybe the researchers are all too busy getting sloshed to collect the data.)
Not that we go in for entertaining only at Christmas. We go in for it all the year round - in spite of the fact that most entertaining isn't all that entertaining. At first sight, this might seem like time-wasting. And the man-hours spent each year by managers guzzling and gossiping at lunchtimes must have a notably deleterious effect on national productivity.
If you can't beat 'em.
It would be ostrich-like, however, to pretend that readers of Management Today can shun the occasional midday beano or, indeed, that they'd want to. Moreover, there is no doubt that some transactions can be handled more effectively over a meal than over an office desk. Breaking bread together has, since biblical times, if not earlier, been a traditional way to forge friendships. Nor is it solely a business phenomenon: priests and politicians, commissars and civil servants, academics and aristocrats all nosh away happily together in mealtime gestures of goodwill. Since communal gorging is unavoidable, you might as well do it as wisely as possible. Here are a few tips to help you minimise the damage and maximise the gain.
'There's no such thing as a free lunch' - Milton Friedman's famous aphorism is even truer of lunches than it is of economics. People who buy you lunch always want something in return. So.
Never accept a meal from someone you've never met. Blind Date may have made Cilla Black a small fortune but, in business, blind dates result, more often than not, in embarrassment.
Don't accept meals from suppliers you know you'll never use. This is just teasing someone and it's certain to end in anguish.
Avoid aperitifs and post-lunch libations. Nowadays, it is widely acceptable to stick to designer water at lunch. But if you must indulge, stick to a couple of glasses of wine or beer, with your meal. You may feel slightly woozy but you'll soon recover. Any more and the wooziness turns to snooziness.
Don't compete with champion tipplers. If you know you've got a master boozer in tow, a neat trick is to brief the waiter beforehand to bring you Virgin Marys each time you order Bloody ones. Another is to sip your wine by the millilitre, while the tippler gulps down each glassful. As long as his glass is regularly refilled, he'll never notice yours. I've employed both tricks, when needed, and they always work.
Eat, drink, but don't be merry
Don't aim to make customers happy by making them drunk. This is the reverse side of the previous coin. Let those who wish to, quaff as much as they like but, if they aren't great drinkers, don't press them.
Don't assume they'll buy anything you offer them after a few noggins.
Many people get more aggressive after they've had a few and can be even more difficult to sell to, especially if they suspect your motives. It is also important, if you're the host, to consider carefully how much to spend. If you spend too lavishly you might convince customers you are making too much profit from them. If you're too stingy, you might make them feel under valued and resentful.
Take some exercise to dispel the after-effects. Even a brief walk after a heavy lunch can aid digestion and clear your head.
Having listed the pitfalls, it is worth identifying the benefits that can be derived from successful entertaining. Above all, entertaining allows both sides to glean more about the other's business than could possibly be picked up in more formal meetings. Both sides, if they keep their wits about them, can pick up subtleties and innuendos, information about company politics and family problems - insights that can make future collaboration run more efficiently.
Moreover, while purists (and economists) believe that all purchase decisions derive from the interaction between quality and price, the reality is that we all prefer to do business with people we like. And when things go wrong - as they do in even the best-run organisations - it is easier to explain what happened and to apologise to people with whom you have a relaxed, and friendly, relationship.
Not all entertaining is done over a meal, of course. Today, there are many companies who specialise in organising sophisticated (and expensive) forms of entertainment, from dog-racing to complex war games. But the objectives never vary. Clients and advisors, customers and suppliers, who play together are more likely to stay together.
So have an entertaining, and profitable, Christmas.
Winston Fletcher is chairman of advertising group Bozell UK and a visiting professor at Lancaster University.