I was recently reminded of the power of passion when a dinner in Sausalito, CA, unexpectedly evolved into an emotional culinary experience. Believe me, after 20-plus years in business, it’s rare for someone to startle me so completely. The intensity of that occasion left me thinking anew about business in general and specifically examining my own sales and marketing practices.

The Backstory

For nine months, my wife, three daughters and I had anticipated our weekend at the Marin Headlands Hostel. Reservations are hard to get, so hard that I rushed back from a three-day business trip to Bangalore, India, as not to miss our family getaway.

The Headlands are famous for the panoramic view that encompasses San Francisco Bay, the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. You can retreat to the forests and beaches of Golden Gate National Recreation Area and still be in downtown Sausalito in 15 minutes, which means no freeze-dried stew cooked over a Jetboil trail stove.

After we checked in, the girls searched for semi-precious stones on Rodeo Beach while Dad jumped on Yelp to find a restaurant. That’s when I stumbled on Avatar’s—an Indian-Mexican fusion—with 882 reviews, a 4.5/5 rating and mango smoothies. Perfect.

Perfect, until we pulled up to a strip mall; I cringed. Our daughters—11-year-old twins and a 9-year-old—are of an age to make their opinions known. “Where’s the restaurant?” one asked. “Oh, Dad, I’m not going in there,” moaned another. My wife said nothing.

“It’ll be great, kids. Mango smoothies.”  I opened the door and saw the cramped interior. While inwardly thinking brutal, I plotted to Jedi mind trick my kids into having a good time. There was one ray of hope: the place was packed.

Selling a Dream

A slight, 50ish, dark-haired man greeted us. He was a whirling dervish of activity—serving meals and talking to customers while pulling together two small tables to accommodate us. “I’ll be right with you,” our host said as he flashed a smile, dropped menus on the table and rushed off. With my chair blocking one of the aisles and the kids giving me dirty looks, discord was in the air. But within 60 seconds, everything changed.  The dervish returned, squatted down beside our table and welcomed us to Avatar’s.

“Have you eaten here before?” asked our host.

“No,” I replied.

“Fantastic. I love introducing people to my restaurant.” He scooped up the menus and said, “You don’t need these. This is going to be the most enjoyable meal you’ve ever had.”

“WTF just happened?” I asked myself.

Our host questioned each of us about our tastes and food preferences; the girls were captivated. “You’re not going to need doggie bags,” our host reassured. “If these aren’t the best meals you’ve ever had, you’re not going to pay anything.” Then he was gone, and I realized he hadn’t written down a thing.

Now I knew the magic was about to end because when the dishes hit the table my kids would refuse to eat. While they eat healthfully and enjoy foods like broccoli and tomatoes and pasta individually, they don’t like prepared dishes with foods and flavors combined. But when our food came, we unanimously tucked in as if Thomas Keller was our chef.

Sharing a Passion

As I ate, I watched our host making personal connections across the room, engaging in at least 15 conversations and occasionally putting a hand on someone’s shoulder as he maneuvered around tables. It was a combination of ballet and performance art, which he pulled off with the grace of a Baryshnikov. When he paused at our table, I pointed to the photos of India and asked, “What’s your story?”

Our host then formally introduced himself as Ashok and shared his classic, American success story. He left India seeking his fortune in the West and today co-owns five restaurants in Marin, bringing the world he left to those who would rather visit it on a plate than in a plane, as I had just done – travelling 40+ hours for a 120-minute meeting.

Noting the crowded space, I suggested he’d be better off with fewer tables. “Mark,” he said, “I don’t serve food. I’m sharing my love with all my patrons. I don’t have 10 tables because 20 tables allows me to serve 150 meals a night. I make love 150 times a night.” In that moment, I understood Ashok and admired him even more.

Applying the Lessons

When it came time to pay, I didn’t ask for a receipt. I handed Ashok my credit card. I didn’t care about price; I was buying an experience that had no equal. As we drove back to the hostel, I started dictating the experience into Evernote on my phone. I didn’t want any detail of the immersive event I had just experienced to fade. There were some lessons for me to apply to how I interacted with my customers:

  1. Passion Is Contagious: When you love what you do, there’s no such thing as work. People recognize your passion and pass it along to friends and colleagues in their words and emotions.
  2. Have an Owner Mentality: It’s a take-charge, get–it-done, customer-focused sense of responsibility. Ashok only opens restaurants in Marin because he works in each for at least a month—setting the stage and instilling an owner mentality in employees.  If you are as invested in the success of the organization as the CEO, you will be more effective at your work.
  3. Sell the Outcome (the Experience): The website URL says it all: EnjoyAvatars.com. The homepage displays dozens of candid shots of customers licking their plates. Ashok doesn’t recite the menu; he promises the best meals of your life. Avatar’s only dessert is described as an experience: “Close your eyes and picture the sweetest concoction of dessert flavors from around the world coming full circle on one plate of bliss.” The experience he is selling is overwhelming satisfaction. That’s a smart outcome to target.
  4. Word of Mouth Is Powerful: I selected the restaurant based on the quantity and quality of the Yelp reviews. Ashok cultivates this support by responding to almost every review.  If you can get people talking about how great your offering is, you’re converting people you haven’t even reached out to yet.
  5. Ask Questions; Don’t Just Talk: When we’re excited by what we do, we tend to launch into protracted discourse—telling why something’s exciting as opposed to instilling excitement based on a customer’s perspective, needs and outcomes. Asking questions opens a dialogue of discovery and invites input. Ashok starts with an open-ended question, “What do you like to eat?” then drills down to specifics: “Do you like mild or spicy sauces?” He squats down to make eye contact with kids, adjusting his style to match the stakeholder. Connecting with each customer on a personal level is powerful.
  6. Selling Is More than Driving Revenue: Selling is about helping customers buy, and more specifically, it’s about satisfying a need they currently have. Sometimes you may find that your product or service is not an ideal match, which is why I occasionally recommend a prospect to companies and products other than our own. Even if you don’t make a sale, you gain their respect and they are more likely to recommend your solution to contacts for whom your offering might be a better fit.

While some of these insights are Sales 101, we can all benefit from a refresher course. Ashok did that in the way he brought the whole package together. When you love what you do and are genuine with customers, trust and credibility become the building blocks for a relationship that can circumvent any concerns or objections.

Yes, we’ll be going back. I still haven’t had that mango smoothie.

This article was originally published on HG Data’s Blog.