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Virtual Schmoozing: How The Pandemic Changed Ways Businesses Seal The Deal

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Deals aren't being sealed over drinks these days or with handshakes for that matter. Coronavirus has made the business lunch a thing of the past, which led reporter Ryan Kailath to wonder, what happens to all those expense accounts?

RYAN KAILATH, BYLINE: In the before times, Rob Thomas was on the road three weeks out of four, treating clients to high-end restaurants and fancy dinners. One of his favorite schmoozing events - a private box at a San Francisco Giants game at field level.

ROB THOMAS: It was basically, like, a second dugout. The players were tossing balls to us. They came over and signed a few balls for our clients. It was amazing. I felt like we were, like, the first base coach.

KAILATH: Thomas is CEO of Zilker Technology, by the way, a tech consulting firm. And he says stuff like this - building relationships outside the office, getting to know clients on a personal level - it's invaluable. Or actually...

THOMAS: In the before times, our entertainment budget was three quarters of a million dollars per year.

KAILATH: Almost 2% of annual revenue. He says it's hard to put a dollar figure on the return for that investment. It's intangible.

THOMAS: It's critical, when people are spending a lot of money and making big, risky investments together, to understand each other and build a foundation of trust with each other.

KAILATH: Starting in March, that got a lot harder. Events, meetings, conferences, every chance to meet in person and press the flesh disappeared.

KRISTEN LIGGETT: The first big one was South By Southwest.

KAILATH: In Chicago, Kristen Liggett's marketing agency was going through the same thing. Everything froze for a couple of months, and then sometime in May...

LIGGETT: And it went from, oh, my gosh; the sky is falling, to, what kind of new things can we do? How can we think differently?

KAILATH: Like a lot of us, Liggett was getting tired of video calls. They all blended together. It was hard to make clients feel special until she had the idea to send care packages full of wine and snacks and cheese timed to arrive during a meeting.

LIGGETT: We surprised them with that on our virtual happy hour. So that was one of the first things we did.

KAILATH: Since then, Liggett's had magic shows, trivia, art classes, yoga classes. The tech company Okta brought in celebrity chef Marc Forgione for a Zoom cooking class with clients.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARC FORGIONE: So we're doing pesto, we're doing a red sauce, and then I'm going to show you how to make carbonara.

KAILATH: They also hired Scottie Pippen, Jerry Rice and other sports stars to come do Q&A's with clients. Rob Thomas at Zilker Technology says it's not like being in person at a Giants game, but seeing people in their homes is great for building relationships, much more casual than a client dinner or office meeting.

THOMAS: It's a heck of a lot cheaper than taking them to a baseball game (laughter).

KAILATH: Zilker's entertainment spending is on track to be less than 5% of a normal year.

THOMAS: We had our most profitable quarter this quarter. What put it over the top was no travel, and marketing spend went to virtually nothing.

KAILATH: Like a few CEOs I spoke with, Thomas thinks work from home is here to stay. Still, he is looking forward to the day when he can high-five a client after a home run. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Kailath. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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