In the fast-paced business world, it can be hard to get quality conversation time with colleagues and prospective clients. Even dedicated networking events can be dizzying and all too fleeting. In a world where your phone, email, and LinkedIn can find you anywhere, even on “off” time, how do you slow down, focus, and build trust with someone whose time is limited?
If you’ve ever tried to schedule a three-hour meeting with a prospective client or a colleague, you know how hard it can be to get to “yes.” Golf is a way to marry valuable “getting to know you” time with a relaxing sport in a beautiful environment.
It’s good exercise, and it can be played for a lifetime. There’s always something new to learn, and it can be an effective way to get comfortable with someone outside of a harried office setting.
But if you’re new to the game, where do you start?
Fight the Fear
Golf takes preparation and a long-term commitment to learn the rules and improve your game. Start with research into the best equipment from reputable purveyors who have built up trust with serious players. No, you don’t have to deck yourself out in the latest pro fashion, but the investment in equipment and ancillaries is worth it. It will let your golf partners know you’re thorough and serious.
Spring for some lessons with a pro at the course you will be playing at. He or she can give you the lay of that particular green, along with teaching you the basics of the game and steering you away from bad habits. For practice, you can show up as a single player and get grouped with others for a round. This will give you a chance to practice without worrying that your playing partners are judging you.
For conversation starters, keep up on golf news. Even if watching golf isn’t your thing, it’s good to know who the hot golfers are at the moment and who won the latest major tournament.
Plan the Outing
The most important aspect of putting together a foursome for a day out is making everyone feel comfortable. There’s no hard and fast rule for the mix, but it’s often a good idea to invite a colleague along with a prospective client. In addition, a current, non-competitive client could be an effective way to demonstrate that people trust you and your firm. It also lets them know that your business takes a personal interest in their clients.
Bring along plenty of business cards and consider investing in branded balls, tees, or other accessories to help remind your prospective client about the great time they had with you. Cruise the greens in a sleekly customized golf cart to really make an impression.
Aside from supporting worthy local causes, charity tournaments offer opportunities to start conversations without making things too serious. Make small talk at the prize tables and discuss the charity at the center of the benefit. Find out what charities your golfing companions support.
Once you’ve assembled your group, make sure everyone is aware of each other’s skill level. If you’re new to the game, be honest. If you try to play beyond your skill set, there could be frustration on the greens!
Follow the Rules
Golf is predicated on knowing the rules, adhering to good etiquette, and being familiar with the lingo of the sport. Study the game as you would any unfamiliar business terrain. Demonstrating a respect for the game and its traditions will indicate to your fellow golfers that you will respect them and the rules of the business world as well.
Be a good sport. Losing your temper because of a bad lie or a missed putt is a shortcut to ruining everyone’s good time. Conduct yourself with respect for the game, other players, and the course. Betting is a traditional part of golf but keep the stakes reasonable and always settle at the end of the round.
Don’t talk about your recent trip to the Bahamas while someone else is lining up a shot, slow down the group behind you by taking too long to set up, or leave your divots in the green to ruin someone else’s shot. Conduct yourself in a professional manner and never cheat. If you can’t be trusted on the golf course, you probably can’t be trusted in the boardroom, either.
Do make sure your companions are comfortable with any match rules or stakes. You wouldn’t want to miss out on a potential deal over a squabble over who owes whom a drink in the clubhouse. Do mark your ball and familiarize yourself with any local rules the course may have. To prepare for the game, warm up on the practice green. Preparation is key to all successes in life.
As tempting as it may be, the heat of the game is not the time to break out your ideas for your potential new headquarters or tout your fabulous accounting department. The course is a place to enjoy the game, as well as a chance to get to know one another. Learn about your potential clients’ likes and dislikes, their professional histories, and their future aspirations another time. The game should remain the focus so that everyone has a good time.
This is also a chance for you to demonstrate your best qualities—patience, a sense of humor, and good sportsmanship. Your prospective client can observe how you deal with adversity and overcome obstacles on the green.
Business talk is best reserved for when you’re getting ready to hit the course or for drinks and a meal after the game is over. Enjoy the view, recap everyone’s favorite hole or shot, and use the information gleaned from fairway small talk to expand your points of connection with the client’s needs. Let the networking aspect of the outing flow naturally out of the events of the day.
People like to do business with someone they know and like. Take the information you learned from your fellow golfers—like their hobbies, business bottlenecks, or new product ideas—and offer some of your own brainstorms and solutions. They are more likely to listen because they have spent time with you.
Schedule a follow-up lunch to further discussions or offer a rematch on the golf course. Once you’re a pro at the perfect networking golf outing, get a membership at your favorite club and stay involved. The next time you get invited to play, you’ll have a solid base to not only build stronger business relationships but to have a great time while you’re doing it.
A familiar golf adage applies here: “In golf as in life, it is the follow-through that makes the difference.”
About the author:
Bobo is a New Yorker at heart but has found his forever home in the South. He loves golf, writing, and a good plate of barbecue.