THE BLOG
12/10/2015 04:30 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2016

The High Cost of Casual Coffee Meetings

Somebody along the way probably told you that going to coffee with people is an inexpensive business development activity. They lied to you or perhaps they never did the math because casual coffees are anything but inexpensive. Let's say that no one gets a venti anything and you both get your standard black coffee. After you calculate the real cost, you could fly to Paris for a cup of coffee - even if you live on the west coast. Coffee meetings are not ten-dollar affairs for a couple of cups of coffee. Coffee meetings cost time, gas, parking and the hourly rate of everyone at the table sipping java. How much do they cost? Well, if no one gets fancy and just orders a regular cup of Joe, the two hot beverages will probably run about five or six bucks, add another ten for gas and parking and then there's the time. If both people have an average hourly rate of say $250, a one hour coffee meeting plus travel time is costing closer to a thousand dollars. That's what I said, $1,000, not $10 but $1,000! Because let's be honest, the meeting plus the travel time of both attendees is easily a couple of hours. That is an expensive business development activity and for reasons I'm about to outline - very possibly a total waste of time. Now, you're hourly rate may be substantially lower but even if that's the case, maybe you couldn't go to Paris, but for sure you could buy yourself a nice pair of shoes with that money or good bottle of champagne or better yet stick it in your retirement account like a responsible human.

When someone asks me to coffee I know that it's costing me the same price as a flight to Paris. I happen to love Paris very much. I am unlikely to ever love this person as much as I love Paris. Which means this coffee better be freaking DELICIOUS and this meeting better be worth my time. I was once invited to lunch by a woman who pitched me her services and handed me eight pounds of marketing material that I would never read. Marketing material is pretty. Expensive marketing material is really pretty but generally it's not a thing I study as if I'll be taking a test that will determine my future. Nor is beautiful marketing material a thing I will cozy up with at night with a glass of wine. The point is marketing material cannot and doe not replace human engagement. I asked her what I could do for her. More specifically I said, "On a scale of one to ten, if you could make this meeting an eleven, what would you need from me?" She looked at me blankly and said, "I have no idea. No one has ever asked me that."

I looked at the jagged flat bread in the basket on the table and briefly contemplated stabbing my eyes out. Are you kidding me? She asked for this meeting with no objective in mind? She handed me a forest of marketing material and then she never bothered to follow up with me.
Someone call 911 because I was robbed! My hourly rate is $350 an hour. The lunch meeting plus travel time was about two and half hours plus her hourly rate and marketing material and the cost of the lunch - more than $1500 and time I can never get back - ever. These meetings make me feel as though I've been victimized.

I have no idea why we spend our time as if we have an endless supply we can tap into. There is no reserve or bank of time to draw from. Time is a precious, diminishing asset and no matter who you are or how much you're worth, you cannot buy, beg, borrow, steal or negotiate for more time. Time is far more precious than money. You can make more money but you can't create more time. If you can please contact me immediately because we are going to get REALLY stinking rich together!

Coffee seems like a low stakes, low cost way of developing business but in fact, coffee meetings are time vampires that are more likely to give you ulcers than clients. I once calculated that if I went to coffee with everyone who asked I would consume about seventy-five gallons of coffee a week. While this is a rough estimate, it's pretty accurate. Coffee meetings are also a way to trick yourself into believing you're doing business development. You tell yourself that you're out there meeting people but it's a little like telling yourself that walking upstairs to your bedroom is working out. If you want to be serious about building your business, you have to be more strategic about your coffee meetings.

To be clear, I love coffee. In fact, I love coffee more than a lot of things. I drink it every day. I love coffee more than white wine, although not more than red wine. I love coffee more than television, arugula, camping, monopoly and even LinkedIn. I also love humans. I am a human myself, I've raised a couple of humans and I've built a business developing relationships with other humans. I just don't want to spend my time drinking coffee with humans wasting precious hours of my life pretending that I'm developing business.

Coffee meetings are often like weird dates (not that I would know this from direct experience, but I've read about it). Two humans show up with some vague notion that they're going to "get to know each other" and proceed to sip their hot beverages and talk about ideal clients, how their "passionate" about their work and have a "relationship-based" business. A side note here. This is another reason I loathe the coffee meetings. No one says one single original thing. Oh wow you're passionate about your business?! Just to be interesting, I want to say, I'm totally indifferent about my work. Oh, you're a relationship-based business? I'm totally transactional and hope to never have a repeat customer as long as I live. I'm the one-night stand of the business world. Talking about being passionate and believing you have a relationship based business as if it's revolutionary is sort of like announcing that you're a bi-ped and breathe oxygen. These are not things that make you unique in any way.

People will sometimes make commitments to make introductions to other contacts but most of the time the coffee ends with an awkward commitment to connect in the future because you're probably just not that into each other so that was both your first and last date - I mean business meeting.

This is not to suggest that you should ban coffee meetings from your calendar and reject every human who extends an invitation to meet at a green mermaid-drinking hole. Sometimes coffee meetings are extremely appropriate if indeed you have criteria for meeting and an objective. Here's what you should do to make the meeting worth your time and your coffee mate's time (not the creamer, but the human you're meeting).

Ask yourself why you're meeting. I know this sounds basic but trust me on this one, not all answers justify a meeting. Good answers would include: this person could be a great referral source or resource, this person would be great to partner with for an event, this person would be an excellent speaker, there are people who would appreciate an introduction to this person. Bad reasons would include but are not limited to: this person asked me to coffee, someone told me to go to coffee with people, I have nothing better to do on Tuesday at 11, I liked his shoes, she seemed nice enough, he doesn't look like a serial killer, so what the hell?

What do you want from the meeting? What are you trying to accomplish? What's the highest goal? Most of these meetings are painful getting to know you sessions because no one really knows what the hell they're doing there. Prepare questions in advance. What do you want to learn about this person and what do you want this person to know and feel about you? Oh yea, you read that right. I used the 'f' word - feel. We are so focused on manufactured pitches that we forget the most important thing about connecting. How do we make the other person feel? People are going to forget most of what you tell them but they will never forget how you made them feel. You might be thinking, "isn't that what my marketing material is for?" If you're having that thought please go back and reread my story about the woman with her eight pounds of marketing material. In fact you might want to be drinking coffee as you read this - that would be a good use of coffee drinking.

This is about doing business with humans. Despite what you may believe, business is not conducted in a vacuum. People choose providers based on the connection they feel to the human presenting to them. They give opportunities to people they like and care about, they avoid people that make them uncomfortable and they look for opportunities to work with people they respect and like. So yes, indeed you should ask yourself how you want people to feel. When I have a speaking engagement I know that I want people to feel empowered, inspired, and motivated to act. I create presentations that rise to those goals. Yes, I have content goals about what I want them to know but what they will feel after that presentation is what will remain with them far longer than anything they learn.

You also need to consider what happens after the coffee? No one meets for coffee and says, "here's my service agreement, please read through it while I sip my half caff grande soy (fill in the beverage) and sign it so we can start working together." Coffee meetings are a bridge to the next step in the relationship. If you leave the meeting with no follow up strategy then you really have wasted your time and money and you would have been just as successful by sitting in your office watching cat videos and putting together a vision board on Pinterest. For the love all things good in the world please do not go to coffee to end with "well it was great meeting you. Look forward to seeing you again." What does that even mean? Will you put this person into your contact management system to receive your newsletter that they won't read? Statistically speaking, it's more likely that their business card will end up in a stack of business cards held together with a rubber band or a shoebox of business cards that some day you'll pay a starving student to input into your contact management which is apparently very useful when used.

If you started your coffee meeting with an objective as suggested in step one then you should have measurable, specific follow up action for one or both of you after the meeting. What's next? Who is going to do what? And when will you be following up (yes, a time a date). The fact that two people met at an agreed upon time and location and shared a hot beverage is really step one. If you stop there it's sort of like bringing home a dining table from IKEA and stopping after opening the box. Now you have an open box of pieces of a table on your floor. You still don't have a place to sit or eat so whoopee for you, you have the potential for a table. Soon you'll misplace the stick figure directions, lose some critical hardware that cannot be found in a single hardware store in America and possibly one of your children will relocate one or more of the legs of the table never to be found again.

The point is that a coffee date has as much chance of developing into a client or referral partner as that table of being built unless you have a clear plan and agreement to move forward. The more time that passes, the less likely you are to create anything with this person. When we meet someone with no real plan or intention of following up we devalue their time and compromise the trajectory of the relationship. Which begs the question: why do we do this?

I believe that most of us are well-intended, respectful people who are fairly terrified of rejection. Even those of us who have been trained to manage the devastation of rejection certainly don't enjoy it unless we're masochists. We don't want to become a pest and we don't want to bother people so our follow up is half-hearted and half-assed and we can't quite figure out what went wrong. What's wrong is our perspective. We see coffee meetings as meet and greets - some people even call them that. The problem is that they have no purpose or direction so they sort of start and stop in an uncertain, timid fashion and this makes everyone a little uncomfortable. Personally, I don't have time for this because I'm dying. Spoiler alert! You're dying too. I know, this sounds dramatic, but it's true. We're all dying and wasting our time is reckless and wasting someone else's time is like stealing. Again, it sounds dramatic but imagine how different your business and life would be if you treated time like the precious, diminishing asset that it truly is. How would this change your behavior and your choices and the way you communicate?

When someone I do not know invites me to coffee generally I say, "Why don't we set up a brief call and see if it makes sense for us to meet." This allows me to shorten this process down to fifteen minutes and determine whether I can do anything for this person. I want to connect with the right people, people I can help. If I say yes to someone I can't do anything for then I've not only wasted my time but I've wasted his or her time as well.

When I plan my meetings, even casual meetings with people, I elevate their significance and mitigate the possibility that anyone feels disrespected. There's that 'f' word again. I take meetings seriously. I am conscious of being present and generous. I listen. I don't just wait for my turn to talk. I can't do any of those things if I check out because I've determined in the first five minutes that this whole ruse of a hot beverage was a glorious waste of everyone's time. Be intentional, respectful, and thoughtful with those you encounter. In the long run people will value your integrity and respect for their time. You will go to fewer coffee meetings but make more meaningful, productive connections.