I recently moved from comfortable surroundings in a New Jersey suburb to the hurly burly of New York City. While walking west on 55th Street this morning, I passed a storefront with the words “Between the Bread” stenciled on the window. This triggered a memory of how I once earned my own daily bread.

Executive Summary

In the second part of a series of articles on relationship management for carriers, InsurTechs and brokers, marketing executive Frank Salerno discusses the role hospitality has in forming bonds with customers and the need to connect with them to understand their preferences and to find common ground.

Before pursuing my dream to become an intrepid man in a gray flannel suit on Madison Avenue, I was a maître d’hotel in a restaurant situated on the south shore of Long Island. During my time spent leading customers to their tables, I learned a great deal about hospitality.

The lesson began with couples returning to celebrate their first anniversary after being married in one of the restaurant’s catering rooms. They would be sent over the moon when we treated them to a complimentary cordial at the end of their meal.

It was not lost on me the cordials cost the restaurant less than 50 cents. What counted was the fact we remembered the couple’s wedding day, which helped to make their anniversary even more special. To add to the celebration, I would say the owner of the restaurant had asked me to bring over the drinks. After all, it was a standing rule of the house. The fact the bride and groom had been remembered by the owner himself brightened a glow I hoped they would bring home.

During advertising’s golden age, George Lois was one of its brightest stars. In a television newsmagazine profile I watched a few years ago, this award-winning art director poured coffee for clients meeting in his office. He realized that while awards help win business, hospitality builds relationships.

This brings us back to Between the Bread.

Early in my career as an account executive at a now defunct Top 10 advertising agency, I was a frequent customer of Between the Bread, which is a catering company. Whenever we entertained clients at our office, I would place an order for coffee, muffins and brownies. The fact is while my clients drank the coffee, they barely picked at the baked goods. Yet, these same clients would ask if brownies would be served when I scheduled our next meeting. I recall being asked this question when scheduling an introductory meeting with someone who was not yet a client. The answer, of course, was yes. I am not saying brownies are the reason she became a client. What I am saying is they certainly helped.

I reference a study published in Science magazine when offering relationship management advice to my clients. “When [research subjects] walked into the laboratory, they were casually asked to hold a hot or cold cup of coffee for a moment. They were then given a brief fictional description of “Person A” and asked to rate 10 personality traits based on this summary. Those who held hot cups were more likely to assign positive traits such as “generous,” “caring” or “sociable” to Person A than those who held the cold cups.

Why have the editors of this publication, dedicated to the insurance industry, allowed me to share these wandering reminiscences about coffee and brownies?

The insurance business, like all businesses, is built on goodwill. Successful producers gain the trust of potential insureds, which helps turn them into insureds. Without insureds, both carriers and brokers would lose their businesses. It is that simple.

Once upon a time, I regretted the fact I seemed to win clients more for my hospitality than for my superior intellect. Over time, I realized that humans respond favorably to a hot cup of coffee and a muffin. It is how we are wired.

In the first article in this series—Have You Shined Your Shoes Lately?—Frank Salerno describes the importance of easy wins that get your foot in the doors of the offices of new clients, business partners and perspective employers.

It does not bode well that so much direct client contact has been replaced by overnight packages, email and texting. I visited clients several times a week when I was starting out, seizing every opportunity to build relationships. Today, unfortunately, I visit clients only several times a year.

We try to fill the gap with electronic tools. But LinkedIn, Skype, GoToMeeting and Facebook are workarounds, not substitutes.

The genie will resist being forced back into the bottle. However, we can push against what has been lost.

Here’s my advice: When meeting with insureds, strategic partners, colleagues and vendors, build in time for fellowship. Stay the night so you can go to dinner. Arrive early to eat breakfast together. Bring coffee if you are meeting in an office. Find common ground.

Build Relationships on Common Ground

About 10 years ago, I recommended a movie to one of my clients—Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night,” which revolves around a restaurant owner preparing for a visit from singer Louis Prima. When the client asked who Prima was, I replied he is the singer who recorded “Just a Gigolo.” She corrected me by saying it was actually recorded by David Lee Roth.

It was at that point I realized I was losing touch with my young client.

At the time, “The Sopranos” had become must-watch TV for a growing number of people, including my client. I added an HBO subscription to my cable package and began watching it on Sunday nights. Monday mornings, the client and I would spend a lovely few minutes together discussing Tony Soprano’s latest crimes. We remain friends today.

When forming and building relationships, seek common ground. What is important is to begin the search. Once you have done so, the next steps are easy.

Maybe you and I discover we both like baseball. Maybe we both root for The Yankees. If we do, expect a call or email from me following a big game. What if you root for The Red Sox and I root for the Yankees? That can be fine, too, when we engage each other on the subtlety of a well-turned double play. What is important is to look for common ground.

Electronic tools available to us have made it easier to find common ground. For example, I learned through LinkedIn that the editor of Carrier Management and I graduated from the same college.

Common ground is a place where two people can meet and build a relationship that can last a lifetime. It is the starting point of a rewarding journey.

How Do Your Insureds Take Their Coffee?

When the journey starts with coffee, find out whether your insureds take it black or with cream. Coffee knowledge is the canary in the coalmine. It is a stress test.

Knowing your insureds—knowing anyone whose goodwill can positively affect your personal situation—can be a tricky bit of business. I learned that from a client who steered clear of a box of assorted baked goods I would routinely bring with me to meetings at her office. Her reason for passing up pain au chocolat and croissants? “You should know I am a black and white cookie girl,” she told me.

As a relationship management expert, I should have known. I should have asked. I had made my purchases based on my own preferences and hadn’t made the effort to know my client’s wants and desires. Instead of building a relationship based on thoughtfulness and understanding, I had shown myself to be unmindful regarding someone who was generously helping to pay down my mortgage, put gas in my car and fund my daughters’ 529 account.

It was cookies from that point forward, and this relationship became the basis of our largest account.

Unplanned events can cause a disruption with an insured no matter how good any one of us is. Our best efforts notwithstanding, we may fail to detect a risk. It is possible a claim will someday exceed the amount of coverage. We may recommend a coverage that is not suited to the insured’s line of business or fail to recommend a coverage that would provide important protection. An account representative could have a bad day and forget the client is always right.

Stuff happens.

It is during times such as these that a solid, supportive relationship based on mindfulness can help you pass through dangerous terrain and arrive safely on the other side. It is money in the bank, an umbrella to be opened during a rainy day, a coat to wrap around yourself on a cold day.

Making the effort to build a relationship following an unplanned event makes as much sense, and is as effective, as unfurling that umbrella after a storm has passed. It may feel like the right thing to do, but you are simply going through the motions.

So, how does your insured take his or her coffee?

I once had a client who would say, “Good friends make good business.” He has since passed away. I wish we had time for one more cup of coffee.