MAY 20, 2020

Covid-19 didn’t kill the business lunch–it just pushed it online. Here’s how Inc. 5000 companies are entertaining prospects and customers remotely.

The latest sales technique at AVIO Consulting grew out of hunger. Mike Slack, vice president of sales and marketing at the Dallas-based software consulting company, was scheduling a Zoom call with a former colleague around lunchtime. Both men had a hankering for pizza, so they decided to order delivery at the same time and turn the call into a virtual lunch.

The meeting was a revelation. Slack realized he didn’t have to leave home to share in the ritual of breaking bread for business meet-ups. AVIO (No. 3,231 on the 2019 Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies) is now developing guidelines for how its sales and marketing teams can entertain clients without leaving home. It’s not alone. Companies in a variety of industries are putting similar techniques to work, using Zoom as a way to schmooze.
Slack’s first rule is to order the same kind of food–if not from the same restaurant, then at least the same cuisine. He also suggests dressing as you would if you were actually dining out–a respectful move that subconsciously makes the experience feel familiar.

“Even though we’re in unusual times, I try to have at least button-down shirt or at least a polo on,” Slack says.
Here are four other lessons from Inc. 5000 companies that are wining and dining clients virtually.

1. Send care packages in advance.
Before the age of Covid-19, client meetings were generally casual affairs for Stefanie Hill, who runs the San Francisco office of IT management consulting firm Pariveda, an 11-time Inc. 5000 company (No. 4,791 in 2019). “As in ‘Let’s go grab a cup of coffee,’ or ‘Let’s go grab a glass of wine,'” she says.
Hill is still picking up the wine tab–only now she plans ahead. For two recent client meetings, she headed to the post office in advance and shipped wine to the clients’ homes, along with wine glasses etched with the Pariveda logo. This touch created a way for her to match what they were drinking and leave them with a Covid-era keepsake. For a recent morning discussion with counterparts from Microsoft and Amazon Web Services, she mailed fresh coffee from Brandywine Coffee Roasters and Pariveda mugs. “We actually found a blend called ‘Social Distancing,'” Hill says.

2. Add the element of surprise.
For many remote workers, the Zoom window has become a constant presence on computer desktops. To liven up video calls, Kristen Liggett, group account director at Agency EA, an experiential marketing agency based in Chicago (No. 2,127 on the Inc. 5000), is telling clients to expect a delivery one hour before their meeting–but won’t say what. En route: a bottle of rosé and assorted cheeses and snacks from a nearby gourmet market.

“Who doesn’t love a surprise?” says Liggett. “And it adds a layer of fun rather than expectation,” she adds.

3. Partner with big vendors.
Major corporate partners have marketing budgets that normally go toward producing live events and in-person meetings. In the age of Covid-19, they’re finding ways to create VIP experiences online.

With space and travel limitations gone, Zilker Technology, an Austin-based IT consultant (No. 1,396 on the Inc. 5000) is piggybacking on the efforts of longtime partner Red Hat, the open-source software giant, to offer their clients access to cooking classes with celebrity chefs. Avionos (No. 739), a Chicago-based company that implements websites and e-commerce technology for clients, is working with Adobe to offer a series of wine tasting classes. In both cases, groceries and wine arrive at clients’ doors, complements of the bigger company.
“When you deliver results for these vendors, they’ll throw a lot of marketing money at you,” says Rob Thomas, Zilker’s CEO.

4. Give the VIP treatment.
Let’s face it: A big part of in-person meetings has less to do with the usefulness of sitting physically nearby as it does with the gesture of paying respect. “It’s about just showing the deference,” says Todd McKinnon, CEO of Okta, which makes login and authentication software for corporate clients and is based in San Francisco. “As in, how important can I be if you wouldn’t get on a plane and sleep in a hotel?”

In the past month, Okta has ramped up its efforts to entertain clients remotely–and demonstrate his high regard for his clients in doing so. The company has arranged private Zoom calls with celebrity athletes such as Scottie Pippen and Jerry Rice, offered bartending classes, and recently hosted a private cooking lesson in which Dominique Crenn, the Michelin-rated chef, taught 13 attendees how to make roasted salmon with a beurre blanc sauce. McKinnon made sure that he didn’t just attend and cook himself but that his whole family did as well.
“I couldn’t get on a plane, but I brought my family,” says McKinnon. Clients know he values them and, at a time when everyone is stuck at home, happily welcomes them into his fold.