Entrepreneurs and business owners are always looking for ways to grow their businesses; most have tried many different ideas. But after meeting John Ruhlin and learning about his company, you might be surprised to learn that one of the most effective ways to expand a business is simple—giving people gifts.
In fact, Ruhlin has become one of the world’s foremost experts on using the art of gift-giving to retain current customers and obtain new ones. His clients include Fortune 500 companies, sports teams and private companies. Author of the bestselling book Giftology, he generally gets $25,000 for a speech, but he graciously shares his insights here with Ami readers.
“I was born in Delroy, Ohio. It’s a small town near Canton; there were only 500 people in the whole place. I grew up on a farm and we planted our own vegetables. I also baled hay in the summertime.
“Still, my parents earned their living with ‘regular’ jobs. In fact, my stepdad held down two jobs—he trimmed trees and was a water engineer. We simply enjoyed the farming way of life. But by the time I finished high school, I wanted to experience something other than rural life. The blue-collar stuff wasn’t for me.
“My mom was into alternative health and wellness, and I wanted to become a doctor of alternative medicine. I enrolled in a small but fancy liberal arts college, Malone University, to earn my degree. At the same time, I started a side business working as an independent contractor for Time Warner. I bought myself a little truck and a ladder and helped them with installations. After falling off the ladder twice during my first year, I thought to myself, Am I really doing this to pay for medical school? At this rate, I’m not even going to make it to medical school!
“Next, I went to work as an intern for Cutco, the famous knife company. The company has had over a million interns working as salesmen over the years, and they still don’t accept everyone. I had a friend who did well with them and became a manager, so I figured I’d try my luck. I was actually pretty nervous. I wore my glasses and the one tie I owned, and I got the job.
“I decided to try to sell to people who could buy more than one knife, including a close friend of my father’s named Paul. He was well-off and a rainmaker; he was always giving things away. I remember he once bought an entire truckload of noodles and gave them away in the neighborhood.
“I knew he had many CEOs as clients, so I asked him if he would consider purchasing Cutco pocketknives for all his customers. He asked me if I had any kitchen paring knives, explaining that he wanted them engraved with the names of his clients’ wives. He said, ‘In over 40 years in business I’ve come to realize that if you take care of their families, everything else takes care of itself. Gestures like that are really appreciated.’
“He ended up ordering 100 knives, and they weren’t cheap. When I put the order through, Cutco didn’t honor it right away. They basically didn’t believe it, thinking that perhaps I wanted them to resell. They’d never had a new salesman make such a big order so soon. Of course, by then I was hooked, and I changed my major in college to public relations and marketing.
“I remember thinking that Paul really understood relationships, and I altered my approach. None of my teachers had ever mentioned using gifts to help your business. I stopped presenting myself as a knife salesman; instead, I said I was a ‘client retention consultant.’
“Most salesmen go after the regular consumer, but I set my sights higher. I asked satisfied clients to refer me to their CEO friends. My goal was to develop a relationship and sell them something small. I would then would pitch the idea of purchasing more knives as gifts for customers, vendors and employees.
“I was always straight up when I called. ‘Would you be willing to meet a college kid so I can show you some knives that are way too expensive?’ They would usually give me a chance, but it also helped that their friends recommended me. Cutco also pays you per appointment. And I especially enjoyed my Jewish clients because they purchased separate sets for dairy and meat!
“I soon became Cutco’s all-time number-one rep because I was going after business owners rather than individual people. And I had many repeat customers.
“Initially, it was a three-step process. First I’d try to get the CEO to buy the knives from me. A few months later I’d send him a gift—a different Cutco item with his name and/or his company’s logo on it. Then I’d ask him if he’d like to buy similar gifts for his clients, employees or even prospective clients. Why not make them all love you?
“In my third year of college I started the Ruhlin Promotion Group. I finished my degree, but I was already making good money and saw no reason to continue with school.