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Is Business Class Worth It? How to Get New Clients by Talking to Strangers on the Plane

November 4th, 2016 /

I just arrived home from a short business trip. The first thing out of my bag? A pile of business cards. Many I’ll never use, but one belonged to a small business owner with whom I had a fantastic conversation on my flight to New York. She shared my appreciation of good Scotch (always Lagavulin) and had a lot of interesting insights about recruiting. Bingo.

You never know who will sit next to you on a business flight, but I can give you one guarantee: your seatmate is frequently a potential client or partner. Understanding this fact (and knowing how to take advantage of it) is the true value of business class.

How to get new clients? Spring for business class

Image by Flickr user gino sta.maria (CC BY 2.0)

Worth the Money

Flying coach seems unreasonable to most execs, but they still want to save as much of their limited travel budget as possible. Enter business class: the section of the plane where you’re most likely to meet entrepreneurs, executives, and salespeople—decision-makers all, and all with the potential to help you out.

My experience is that maybe one out of five times, the person sitting next to me will become a valuable connection. That means a client, referral source, or partner. One out of ten times, I’m sitting next to a big future client. And while ten percent might not sound like great odds, if you fly four times a month, this could potentially mean a new customer every six weeks, just from striking up a conversation.

The Nitty-Gritty

You obviously can’t just throw your business card at everyone you meet, though. Getting to know your seatmate requires a little more finesse:

  • No pressure. Don’t get on the plane assuming you’ll make a connection. Just plan to have an enjoyable flight. Most people are quick to pick up on (and avoid) a sense of desperation.
  • Treat it like dating. I’ve found there’s no point in stressing about conversation starters or witty one-liners. It doesn’t matter how you begin. As long as you’re not saying something outright crazy, conversation will blossom naturally.
  • Be observant. Did you both order the same cocktail? Does the flight attendant seem stressed? Use the activities around you as a starting point.
  • Ask questions. Be interested in your seatmate as a person. Ask, “Is this home for you? What’s your favorite memory of New York? Where are you headed next?” Learn about their life before gauging whether you should steer the conversation toward business.
how to get new clients through the right small talk

Image by Flickr user Faruk Ateş (CC BY 2.0)

The Disclaimer

We should, of course, note that there’s a threshold between spending money needlessly on expensive plane tickets and growing your business from new connections. For business class to make sense as a marketing tool, you must already have financial flexibility. The price of your ticket must be insignificant enough that it won’t bother you if you come away empty-handed. In practical terms, I’d recommend not investing in business class tickets for the purpose of biz dev until your company has more than 25 or so employees.

But the bottom line is that, as your business grows, you need to experiment with interesting marketing strategies. Maybe talking to strangers on the plane isn’t for you—maybe you have wild success with sidewalk chalk advertisements or with a company blog that promotes thought leadership. And that’s fine. Even if just two or three strategies out of twenty or thirty end up succeeding, you’ve still learned valuable information about the way your business works.

Playing the Long Game

You also shouldn’t expect immediate results. You might get a business card or a LinkedIn connection that you don’t use for a year—or two. But if the person who gave you that card stood out, you’ll remember them when there’s a need. And they’ll likely do the same for you. Everyone wants to be the one who can provide a personal referral.

Nor does this strategy have to stop when you disembark. There are plenty of other places where you can use small talk to your advantage, from bars to hotel lobbies. If you’re looking for a great place to stay that will give you the chance to meet fellow business-savvy entrepreneurs, check out JetLux. Your company will save money, you will save booking stress, and you never know who you’ll meet.

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