The Accidental dinner party

The 1805 Pullman Service to Penzance in Cornwall departs every weekday evening from platform four at London’s Paddington Station. It is the last remaining dining car on the British railway system. If you have a reservation then you have a first-class ticket. But if, like most of us, you are too mean to pay for a first class ticket but want to be fed in convivial company for the marathon journey to the most South Westerly corner of England, then you arrive on the concourse twenty minutes before departure and wait in line chatting to your potential fellow diners hoping for a seat at table. Once the tables are laid up the staff open the door and invite on board anyone who has a reservation. Then they seat the savvy customers who have waited – there is always space to accommodate the line. The accidental dinner party has begun.

The accidental dinner party is the finest school for business development in the land. It doesn’t call itself a school, nor will you get a diploma or any other qualification. But several hours after embarking you will emerge at your destination older, wiser, replete and having experienced a master class in the art. Although you won’t have noticed that you just sat through a master class because it has all been so effortlessly enjoyable. It has been fun. Interesting. Engaging. Life affirming. A game (as all the very best business development always is). You will not have noticed it – because it has been disguised simply as good conversation.

Once on board, you will be shown to a table either for two people or four people. A table for four is best because then there are three strangers dining with you and not just the one opposite you, as there is on a table for two. If you are on a table for two and your dining companion is a bore, you have a long journey ahead of you. So, you are on a table for four. Seated with you are three other random diners. There is no rhyme or reason to it, it is just first come first serve and you end up seated with whoever the chief steward has put you next to and opposite. That’s the genius of it. So much of our lives we try to control every aspect of who we are with – to choose for ourselves our companions. But the 1805 takes away that pre-determinism and any element of choice; you should let it. It needs to be accidental. It is an accidental dinner party. These people are your companions for the duration of the trip. 

There is one man who I remember above all others. Mike. He was a regular on this service and although I sat with him only once, I had the joy and privilege to hear him in action from across the aisle several times. He was a solicitor, a partner at a practice in the City of London. He was semi-retired and he came up to London from his home in Torquay several times a month. He was also a mediator – a qualified intermediary used to solve disputes between warring parties so they didn’t go to the trouble and expense of going to Court. He was an interesting man. A bon viveur and a raconteur. He was also  the finest new business developer in the world.

This man was a walking Zen Master in how to prospect for new clients. He almost couldn’t help himself. So practised was he that it had become part of who he was, it had become second nature to him. The remarkable thing was he never closed a deal or attempted to hustle, he never spouted about what he did or how he could help or bang on that he had this product or that service. He never proffered his business card. But whenever one of his dining companions moved to get their coats and cases from the luggage rack readying to disembark after dinner, without fail, every one of them would ask him for his business card, usually with a statement like:

 “Thank you so much for a wonderful couple of hours. I’ve really enjoyed your company. I hope you don’t mind me asking but I would love to get your business card. What we discussed has made me think and I would like to follow up on our conversation. Would that be alright?”

 The secret of this man’s brilliance was that he never went after his fellow diners for their business. They always chased after him. How did he get them to do that? Simple. He helped them. He put information that was relevant to each of them into their heads and then just left it there. He let them fill in the gap; he let them identify their own needs.

Whoever he was sitting with, he would find out what they did and who they were. It wasn’t difficult – all those sharing a table swapped information by way of an introduction at the start of the journey. And wine, shared, did the rest. But this man really listened. And over the course of the dinner – usually it lasts at least a couple of hours or more – he would share a little of himself and how he spent his time and maybe tell the odd funny or interesting story but then he would listen to everyone else and what they did. And for each person he would casually mention that there was a piece of legislation or a new White Paper going through the EU or Parliament which might have some repercussions for that person’s business.  It might be worth their while to look it up and just check it out. That was it. Then he would return to the general conversation or tell another story. Without exception they would all get off and want to follow up the conversation with him. He had piqued their curiosity by posing them a potential problem and, by implication, positioned himself as a potential provider of a solution. But it was all implied and never stated. It didn’t need to be.

If you pick apart the elements that make this an exemplary story of sales technique or of how to network or of how to prospect for new business, they are phenomenally simple. But for all their simplicity, they were borne out of massive experience, a tremendous grasp of human nature, supreme command of his field of competence (the law and how it was applied to numerous industries) and a love of company. I don’t think he was cynical. I do think he genuinely shared his knowledge and expertise out of a real desire to be of service. But his generosity repaid him generously – every time.

He understood the maxim – if you wish to prosper, first learn to please.

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