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The gift is supposed to represent the value you place on the relationship.” – John Ruhlin

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Why is gift giving such a challenge? We know the people around us; we know their likes, their interests … but when we want to celebrate them, all great gift ideas go out the window. Amazon becomes our search engine. Wine and chocolates are a go-to.

On today’s episode of Steal the Show, we are joined by John Ruhlin to unpack the performance of gift-giving. Yes, gift-giving is a performance–one that has true craft and technique. John is the founder of the Ruhlin Group, a company that develops relationship-building strategies and VIP-gifting programs to increase referrals and strengthen retention with their most important employees, clients, and prospects.

John’s clients include the Chicago Cubs, San Antonio Spurs, DR Horton, Morgan Stanley, St. Louis Blues, and hundreds of other industry leaders and high-end service firms.

His second bestselling book Giftology: The Art and Science of Using Gifts to Cut Through the Noise, Increase Referrals, and Strengthen Client Retention can be found here

Listen to today’s episode to hear John’s insights about gift-giving, and how we can best approach the often difficult task of finding that great gift for the people in our lives.

“In business, we call it marketing. And we don’t realize we’re spending money to damage relationships because we’re making it all about us.” – John Ruhlin

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Steal The Points

  • Marketing is typically not gift-giving because we make it about us.
  • Don’t give gifts with a transactional mindset.
  • Try to give gifts that people can use every day rather than those that are consumed and disappear.
  • Treat gift-giving as an opportunity to inspire the recipient, rather than just hand off a possession.
  • Understand what the recipient wants, and then align the gift with that.

00:00 John Ruhlin: Even if it’s their favourite food, they eat it, it’s gone in five minutes, or fifteen minutes, and it’s never around to remind them. We’re looking for return on investment when it comes to impressions. I want to give somebody something, like a knife, like you’re using the knives that Roman gave you, and every time that you use them, subconsciously there’s a bond that’s created, because you’re remembering that feeling in that relationship, and you’re remembering him.

00:31 Michael Port: Welcome to Steal The Show, with Michael Port. I’m your host, Michael Port.

And I’m a pretty good gift giver, and I don’t mind tooting my own horn about this, so, ‘toot-toot’, but here’s the thing: I’m good at giving gifts to people I know, but for people that I don’t, well, I’m lucky to have a team that helps me out.

And that’s why I find this week’s guest so fascinating. He’s found the performance strategy to gift-giving and he’s elevated it to such a degree, that it changed the way you’re going to think about gift-giving.

John Ruhlin is the founder of the Ruhlin Group. John’s company is trusted, by the leaders of fast growing companies, to develop relationship building strategies and VIP gifting programs, to increase referrals and strengthen retention with their most important clients, employees and prospects.

Their clients include the Chicago Cubs, San Antonio Spurs, D.R. Horton, Morgan Stanley, St Louis Blues and hundreds of other industry leaders and high end service firms. He lives just outside of St Louis, with his wife Lindsay and three daughters. His second best-selling book, Giftology: The Art And Science Of Using Gifts To Cut Through The Noise, Drive Referrals And Strengthen Retention, has been featured in Forbes and Inc.

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Yeah, so listen, we met three years ago, approximately, at Mastermind Talks. You might not, do you remember us when we met?

01:58 John Ruhlin: Yeah! I remember that. It was with Michael Simmonds. We talked about your boat, you had just spoke and wowed everybody and we had a little conversation after you spoke.

02:08 Michael Port: Well, that five minute conversation I had with you, it changed the way that I viewed gift giving, and it has changed the relationships that I have with clients and colleagues and even family members, I would say, because of what I learned from you in just those five minutes, about gift giving.

And so, I want to thank you for that, and that’s why I wanted you here, because I think gift giving is so under-appreciated and you’ve really had such a positive and significant influence on our industry. I see people doing things with gifts that I’ve never seen before. And when I mention it, they go, “Oh, yeah, yeah! I learned it from John.”

“Of course you did! Of course you did!” So, anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for that, and wanted to talk to you about gift giving and why it’s so important, and how you got into it.

03:05 John Ruhlin: Well, yeah, I’d like to say I was the master plan, or  the master design since I was ten years old, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yeah, I had no idea that five minute conversation had such an impact. That’s pretty amazing!

03:20 Michael Port: It really did, yeah. It really did. So, okay, it wasn’t by design. At ten years old you weren’t thinking, “I’m going to run the biggest gift giving company in the country!” But were you always inclined to give gifts?

03:36 John Ruhlin: No, not at all. What’s funny is, gift giving is not my love language, like, the five love languages. Some people are like, “Oh, John was born with this ability, or loves receiving gifts.” I’m actually, words of affirmation is my love language, and I use gifting as a way to get somebody to – and I’m actually an introvert as well, so when I send a gift, I get the affirmation.

And I also get the engagement of them engaging me, versus me having to come out of my shell and engage them. Now, I’ve changed that, as I became a speaker and started to come into my own over the last seventeen years, but, in general, I’m actually and introvert.

I grew up on a farm, doing one of the more un-sexy things on the planet, milking goats and baling hay. During our summers we never went on vacation, we worked our butts off. We had a one-acre garden, and I learned very early on that I didn’t want to work with my hands. Myy whole life I wanted to try to work with my head.

And so, I was going to go be a doctor, because I thought doctors made all the money, and went into school and was looking for a way to basically pay for school and it was a private university and it was expensive and I knew enough to know I didn’t want to have a bunch of debt, and so I didn’t want to work for GAP or any of that.

So I dove into an internship with a company called Cutco, the knife company, and the reason I had is that a friend of mine, who is that antithesis of a salesperson, he was going to seminary, he was like, “John, I’m selling these $1,000 knife sets and it’s going really well! The company’s incredible!”

And I’m like, “Steve, you couldn’t sell a cup of water to someone in the middle of a desert! How are you selling thousand dollar knife sets?” He said, “I don’t know. It’s great training, I guess.” And so, I’m like, “I’ll give it six weeks.”

So I went to the interview, wore the one tie I had, wore my glasses to look smarter, because I’m nervous as all get out, going into the interview, and I got hired. And really, what changed my life is, I was dating a girl during that time period, her dad as on the board of trustees, he had a law firm, and he was just killing it.

He probably had been in business for thirty years, had more referrals coming out of his ears than he knew what to do with, and he was always calm, he always had time for me. And the other thing I noticed was that he was always being, what I call, radically generous with people. Like, he’d find deals on noodles and buy literally a semi load of noodles for everybody at church the next Sunday.

And I’m like, “Paul, that was $25,000 of noodles! That’s crazy!” He said, “I know, but did you see the smiles on their faces?” I’m like, “Who’s not going to smile when they get 20 cases of noodles for free?” And so, I remember pitching him the idea of giving away knives, like pocket knives, because all of his clients were men. They owned insurance companies and lumber yards and they were all into the outdoors.

And I’ll never forget it, it was Sunday morning, I’m nervous, I’m pitching to my girlfriend’s dad, it’s kind of weird, you know, kind of awkward. And he said, “John, what about paring knives? Could I engrave those?” I’m like, “You’re going to give CEO’s, grown men, kitchen items? Why?”

And he said, “Well, in 30, 40 years of business, the reason I have more deal flow than I can handle is, I found that if you take care of the family, everything else in business seems to take care of itself.” And, for me, it was that lightening bolt moment that I realised it really wasn’t about the knives, although the knives were amazing. Paul understood the psychology of relationship building and reciprocity and how to pour into people and how to do things the right way.

And so I started to apply that as a college guy. At twenty-one years old I would invest $200 in a carving set, I’d engrave the CEO of the company, like a $200,000,000 company, their CEO’s name, the wife’s name and the family name, and I’d put a little handwritten note in it that said, “Carve out five minutes for me, I promise it will be worth your time.”

And I’d send it off, and $200 was a lot of money, back then, I mean, a lot. It might as well have been $2,000 or $2,000,000, and two weeks later I’d get a phone call back from the assistant, and I’d get the meeting, and I’d walk into the boardroom and a sixty-five-year-old CEO would be there, and in walks me at twenty-one, and he’s like, “I thought you’d be fifty years old, like some seasoned sales executive. I’m confused, are you here to sell me knives?”

And I’d start laughing kind of nervously and I’m like, “No, I’m here to help you and your thousand sales reps do exactly what I just did to you. I’m here to help you take care of your top 10,000 relationships and drive referrals and results and create loyalty with your employees,” and dah, dah, dah.

And the guy’s like, “That’s brilliant!” And I’d walk out the meeting with a PEO for a couple of thousand sets. And so, fast forward a couple of years, my senior year at college, I’d become Cutco’s largest distributor in their seventy-year history, out of a million and a half people. Not because I was a salesperson, because if you would have met me at nineteen, I was not at all, I was green. I was awkward.

But I was applying these radical principles of, what I call now, gratitude as a competitive advantage. And, because nobody had ever seen or heard of it before, we just started to crush it with the sales of knives and now other things, but that started seventeen years ago, back in college.

08:14 Michael Port: Wow! That is an amazing story, and you do have, you are legendary in the Cutco world. Every time I meet somebody who sells Cutco knives, because every once in a while I do, and I’ll ask them if they know you. And they’ll say, “Oh, yeah! Of course I know who he is! He’s amazing!” I tell them, I’ll get you an autograph from him.

And, by the way, I have a set, John Roman gave my wife and I a set of knives, and it was a lovely gift. It was after he finished grad school, one of our HPS programs, and so the whole class pitched in together and got a set of knives. Best knives we’ve ever had in our lives.

And, of course, each one is engraved, and it really means a lot.

09:08 John Ruhlin: Roman’s amazing! Roman’s one of my best friends, he was at my wedding.

09:15 Michael Port: He was just down on our boat this weekend, we had some colleagues down and John came down this weekend. Then he had a big event on Sunday that he had to head off to. But one of my quotes in one of my books is, ‘Many business problems are just personal problems in disguise,” so he wrote on one of the knives, ‘Kitchen problems are just knife problems in disguise’. Which is pretty fantastic!

09:47 John Ruhlin: That’s awesome!

09:51 Michael Port: So, let’s talk a little bit about your philosophy behind gift giving. What kind of gifts should we be giving? Who can we give gifts to? Are there people that it’s not appropriate to give gifts to? What’s your philosophy? Walk us through your process that you would share with somebody who wants to be doing this better, but is not exactly sure the best way to go about it.

10:18 John Ruhlin: Yeah, well, I would say that there’s a lot of confusion around even what a gift is. I think that a lot of times people think they’re giving a gift, and what they’re really giving is swag, or promotional items, or corporate gifts. And a gift by it’s very nature, if you want it to be a real gift, it’s all about the recipient.

So, if you go to a wedding, you’d never engrave, “Compliments of Michael Port Family,” on a Tiffany’s vase that you’re giving to the couple. That would be weird and really tacky, but in business we do it every day, and we call it marketing.

And we don’t realise that we’re actually spending money to damage relationships, because we’re making the gift all about us, our colours, our timing, our preferences, our name, and we’re trying to disguise that as a gift. And those are two very different buckets.

There’s nothing wrong with a stress ball, but don’t try to say a stress ball is a gift. A stress ball is a marketing tool. And I think that most people confuse those two and so they spend money on damage.

So, I would say, a big thing, when we take a client on to do gifting for them – because that’s really the core of our business, people from small companies to the Cubs hire us to do their gifting – nothing that we teach is proprietary.

Like, I put everything I had into Giftology as my play book, because somebody could take this and go do this on their own if they wanted to, but since most people have good intentions, they never execute on it. But one of the biggest things that we take people through is, what is the value of the relationships that you have?

Your employee relationships, your suppliers, your clients, your prospects; what’s the current value, and what’s the lifetime value? And if you start to add up those numbers, it can be pretty significant. And you’re like, “Oh, my gosh! I have relationships that are worth five figures, six figures, seven figures,” especially if you take them over a lifetime.

And our view is that you should be pro-actively investing in them, not waiting for them to refer business. Like, we don’t send gifts after referrals, we send gifts before the referral happens, to inspire the referral to happen. We love on people ahead of time, because I don’t want gifts to be part of a transactional relationship, which is how most people gift.

Like, I get something, I sign a deal, I’ll send you a gift. And, even though the intention’s good, it can feel very transactional, and feel very like, “Ooh, I just spent a million dollars with them and they just sent a $50 Starbucks gift card. That doesn’t feel good.”

12:36 Michael Port: Yeah, that was a big learning for me, when you said, “Never give a gift card, ever.” Unless that person is obsessed with that particular place and really, really wants money for that particular place, that otherwise they wouldn’t have. You know, if there’s some special reason, because there’s always a…

12:54 John Ruhlin: An anomaly, yeah. Every rule is made to be broken. Like one of our rules is, ‘Don’t send Apple products,’ but when I found out an executive at the Spurs had a broken iPhone, I went out and got her a new iPhone and you would have thought I gave her a new car.

Now, I never give Apple products, because they’re so ubiquitous, and everybody gives them and so they become kind of meaningless. But every rule is meant to be broken, even the gift card rule, like you said.

13:17 Michael Port: Yeah, and explain to them why gift cards are a bad idea.

13:19 John Ruhlin: Well, the gift at  core level, a lot of things we teach are old school, even Biblical principles from 5,000 years ago, the gift is supposed to represent the value you place on the relationship. That’s why we don’t call them gifts any more. We really want the gifts to be viewed as artefacts.

When you get it, you’re like, “Wow! The relationship’s deepened, there’s meaning to that,” it’s like one of the things that you’d rescue out of your house if your house was on fire. You would grab a handful of things that are really meaningful, that really represent and that couldn’t be replaced.

And so, I feel like most people really undervalue the relationship by giving a gift card, because it basically says, “I didn’t want to take the time to value the relationship and do something personalised for you. So I basically took cash, and tried to disguise it as a gift and put it on a piece of plastic.”

And now you’re forced to go spend money at this place you have to remember to bring this gift card with you. It’s like getting something automated from Amazon, where the note is typed out versus of handwritten.

It feels automated, it feels empty, it just doesn’t feel the same way as, “Wow, I knew you well enough, or I put a lot of thought into researching and finding out what would be really meaningful to you and your family and your assistant and your kids,” or whatever it is, “And I took the time to go get this and package it and put the note with it.”

That feels way different, because, at the end of the day, people make business decisions emotionally, based upon how they feel, and then they justify it with logic and if you really say relationships are your most important asset, how you make them feel is a very important thing to take into consideration, whether it’s a client or a prospect or an employee.

And so, gift cards are on our Top 10 Worst list of gifts to avoid.

14:59 Michael Port: What else is on that list?

14:60 John Ruhlin: Ironically enough, they’re all things that most people give on regular basis. Food is on that list. People are like, “Oh! I’m going to send food, everybody likes to eat.” And the challenge with food is, everybody, in every other part of their business, is looking for an ROI. They’re looking, like, “I want to invest money, I want to invest a dollar and I want to get ten dollars back,” or, “I want to invest a dollar and get five dollars back.”

And with food, you spend $20, $50, $500, it doesn’t matter, and you send it to them and, even if it’s their favourite food, they eat it, it’s gone in five minutes, or fifteen minutes, and it’s never around to remind them.

We’re looking for return on investment when it comes to impressions. I want to give somebody something, a knife, like you’re using the knives that Roman gave you, and every time you use them, subconsciously there’s a bond that’s created, because you’re remembering that feeling and that relationship, and you’re remembering him.

And guess what? Out of all the thousands of people that have come through your course, I bet you you think about John Roman more than just about anybody else, whether it’s consciously or sub-consciously, which is super powerful.

When it comes time for you to ever refer business out, to another speaker or another person or a support for [the] amazing charity that he supports, that’s really powerful to be top of mind, because most people have good intentions of referring you business, but because they’re cluttered with thousands of messages every day and thousands of people, it’s the people that are most top of mind that win.

And so, it’s super powerful when you can give a gift that somebody uses every single day, that’s not consumed and forgotten about in five minutes. And so, food, what usually ends up happening is, we had people that are like, “I received a ham, and I’m Jewish!” So they actually spent money to piss me off and kind of annoy me. Or, “I’m vegan, and they sent me a ham.”

One of the top people for Northwestern Mutual, one of the top advisers, top 25 out of 15,000 advisers, she’s like, “I just got a gift for making form and being top 25 in the company. I’m allergic to chocolate, and guess what they sent me? They sent me chocolate.” So, they actually spent money, I’m one of their top performers on the planet, and they spent money to make me feel insignificant. To make me feel no known. It’s just crazy.

17:19 Michael Port: It really is very powerful, because it’s a demonstration that you haven’t looked into that person. So, I’m allergic to garlic and onions, and it comes up somewhere, almost everywhere I go, because any restaurant you have to deal with it, because they use it so much. So anybody that’s with me more than for a half hour, probably knows that, or has done any research on me, or has read any of my books, because it’s mentioned here or there in my books.

Or if someone, let’s say someone’s trying to lose weight, and you’re sending them cookies, that’s a crazy thing to do. And they’ve been posting, every day, their workout routine and their goals and how proud they are of themselves for changing, and you’re sending them stuff that’s in direct conflict with what’s important to them at that time in their life.

Or alcohol. That’s another really dangerous third rail. Now, I do have one question, though. So, like I said before, sometimes there will be exceptions. So one of my friends, Scott McCain is a whiskey fanatic. Fanatic! And he collects it and we saw on Facebook that he was looking for a particular bottle and there are only a few of them in the US. There were only a few made. And he couldn’t get one.

So, we went to work, researched it, found one, bought one, sent it to him, even though it was alcohol, it’s on that no-no list, but because it was such a unique item, and it was something he was looking for that he couldn’t get, that we were able to, I think it was a win.

19:11 John Ruhlin: Massive win, yeah. That’s the rule that’s meant to be broken, no question. But those are the one-offs. Usually, the one-offs, and I tell people, those are the times that if you are going to do something like that, if you break the rule, break it really big.

I don’t know what the bottle cost, but Pappy costs, like, a few thousand dollars. You can spend a lot of money, but I tell people, if you want to do gifting consistently and strategically, nine out of ten times you should include the inner circle, because they’re usually ignored.

So there’s always rules, like, yeah, I send alcohol sometimes, but usually, if you’re doing something like that, that’s when you really have to dial it up 10X to make it super impactful and super special.

19:53 Michael Port: Yeah, because it shows you really know who they are and what they’re interested in. That’s the bottom line, isn’t it?

20:00 John Ruhlin: Yeah. At a core level, you know we talk about every gift should be personalised, and sometimes you can’t personalise if you’re sending out dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of gifts to that many people, but you can personalise it with at least their name.

You know, people give hundreds of millions of dollars away to universities and one of the reasons they do it is because their name will be on the side of the building. And so, I won’t send a gift to somebody unless I can personalise it with their name and, hopefully their spouse’s name and their family name, because that, at a core level, is one element of making it personal.

And we all know that people’s names are important, but most of the time when it comes to gifting people, it’s like, “Oh, that’s too much hassle. What if I misspell their name?” They start making excuses why they can’t do it, and I’m like, “Cut the BS! You just suck at it because you don’t want to put the effort in.”

It’s not that difficult to personalise something with somebody’s name in it. So much more meaningful than just a random thing showing up. Because, most of the time, when you’re giving gifts, they can afford the item that you’re sending them. But all the little details around the gift are what make it impactful, and the personalisation is one of them.

21:01 Michael Port: And sometimes, we’re surprised that the things that we think wouldn’t be a big deal to people, actually are. So, for example, people will often ask my communications director, “What kind of gift can we get Michael and Amy? I know they’re really into boating and I was thinking about getting something for their boat or related to their boat. But I’m sure everybody does that, so I don’t really want to do that.”

And Laura says, “Listen, you put their boat name on almost anything, they will love it! You could take, like, a piece of shoe leather, put their boat name on it, and they’ll love it, because that’s just such a big part of their life.”

So even if it’s something that might not seem super original, like I just got a couple more of those thermos mugs, not the ones that Ian Altman had sent me, but a different kind, Yeti ones. And our boat name was on them and it was from some people who had just been on the boat.

We’ve been given a lot of different types of drinking mugs and thermoses with the boat name on it, from people. But I love it when we get more. It’s fantastic! And, of course, he went and he, from somewhere in in my company he got the logo, that’s the boat name, because it’s a specific font and it’s designed, he didn’t just choose any font, so he really did a great job with it.

So, yeah, it’s just doing some research. So, how do you go about doing the research, if you don’t know somebody that well, to figure out what kind of gift to give them?

22:48 John Ruhlin: Yeah, well, one of the things that do for ourselves and our clients, and we really push hard on, is taking care of not just the client, but their assistant. And one of the reasons is, they’re usually not treated well, they’re talked down to and we just feel like it’s the right thing to do. They’re oftentimes making our lives either difficult or easy, and we want to be their friend.

But secondly, the other thing is that when you take care of that inner circle, guess what? When you need information, they’re falling all over themselves to help you, whether it’s research on the person, or the spouse or the kids, or the company. They’re the – I hate the word gatekeeper –  but they really are the linchpin in the whole situation.

So, that’s one area that we leverage a lot, also their friends, and other people, their colleagues that they’re really close with. An then I’ll say a lot of it is Social Media. People put a lot of stuff out and if you just do the work, and companies hire us to do the work, but you can go do the work yourself, like, go follow them on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat, or Twitter, whatever their medium is.

And it’s amazing, not every single person is super public, but a good chunk of people are, and they put the word out. Like you said, if they’re working out, don’t send cookies or anything with gluten in it. It’s not rocket science, what we talk about, but it’s just that most people are too lazy, or they say they’re too busy. It’s easier to send a text message.

I’m like, “Well, it is easier, but it’s not going to have the impact that you’re looking for.” So it’s either do it right, and go all in, or direct that money and time and resources somewhere else.

24:26 Michael Port: So, here’s an example of a gift that was sent to my assistant.  She was returning some Zappos shoes, because when we order from Zappos, you order the same shoe in six sizes, to make sure you get the right one, and then you just send the rest back. That’s their model. And they like when you do that.

So, there was some issue with one pair of shoes that we had got for Ruby nine months ago, that we realised we hadn’t sent back, so we wanted to send them back, so Kate had to call them up. And the woman who she talked to was lovely, “Absolutely, we’ll take them back, no problem.” And they got into a conversation about being soccer moms. and they made this connection in a short phone call.

Well, a few days later, we get a gift from Zappos, and I’m thinking it’s for me. Because sometimes things will come to us with our assistant’s name on them because she was the one interacting and she may have ordered it for us. And I’m all psyched, and I open it up, and it was addressed to Kate.  And there were two things in there.

The first was a piece of paper that was a collage, and the woman who she had helped, she’s just a customer service person over there, she’s not the head of the company, a woman who had helped her made a collage of her family and the kids playing soccer, and a lovely note about how lovely it was to meet her, and, you know, “I really hope to talk to you again, soon.”

And then, also in the package, was a GoPro.

26:00 John Ruhlin: Really?

26:01Michael Port: A GoPro! An actual GoPro, not a fake GoPro, but, like, a $300 GoPro, from Zappos, that the customer service representative sent to my assistant because they connected around some personal stuff.

And you might think, “Oh, well, we must be major Zappos customers, that’s why they did it,” because our account probably showed that we spend thousands of dollars at Zappos. We don’t, we are regular Zappos customers, we probably buy a couple of pairs of shoes a year, at most.

I was completely blown away.

26:37 John Ruhlin: And you’re now telling me, and sharing this with your tribe, which is what Zappos knows. And the thing is, you almost take for granted that Zappos, well, yeah, you send shoes back and whatever else, but it was the gift, with the collage and the personalisation that became the remarkable thing. That became the purple cow that people take for granted.

Like, shoes just showing up and being able to ship them back, that’s a big deal, but people take that for granted. The gift is what put it over the top, and now we’re talking about this to, I don’t know, tens of thousands of people. So it’s pretty, I love it!

Those stories never get old, to me, either. They make me feel good even though I wasn’t even involved! I don’t know, there’s something about it.

27:15 Michael Port: Well, it’s because people are making other people feel good, and that resonates for you.

27:19 John Ruhlin: Yeah! That’s awesome! That’s cool!

27:24 Michael Port: What do you think about Amazon wish lists? You know, if you have an Amazon wish list and someone calls your assistant and says, “What kind of things does she like?” and she says, “Oh, here’s her Amazon wish list. Something off here would be great!” What do think about that?

27:42 John Ruhlin: It doesn’t resonate as well for me. The reason is, if somebody, like, I don’t like when people offer, like at the North Western event, it’s like, “Hey! Pick one of these four gifts that we selected for you.” It’s like, it doesn’t feel as special. Just because there’s a gift, it feels like the points of American Express. They’re fine, but it’s not going to blow somebody away.

It’s like the wish list that your kids have, and you’re like, they asked for a puppy, but really they want a pony, and you show up with three ponies. And you just blow their mind, because it was not expected.

And I think that, from a gifting perspective, a lot of times, if you are going to do something that’s in somebody’s interest, like you don’t just send them a bottle of bourbon, you send them the bottle of bourbon that they really want that they haven’t even really told anybody, that they don’t even think is possible to get, but you track it down.

That’s what blows their mind, doing something that’s not even on their list, but that they would want or that would resonate, or you honour the people around them. So, I’m not a big fan of, “Hey, pick the gift out, and I’ll go buy it for you, because 50% of the gift is the wow, surprise element. Which is why I don’t like to tell people a gift is coming.

If I send a gift to somebody, I’m not going to ask them for their address, now they know something’s coming. I’m not going to tell them, “Hey, I’m sending you a gift.” It’s amazing how many people are like, “Hey, John, we want to send you a gift. What’s your address?”  I’m like, “Dude! Did you not read the book? It’s surprise and delight! The Ritz Carlton mindset is like, come out of nowhere with something. Don’t do it out of obligation or let me know it’s coming, then you ruin it!”

So, no, I’m not a fan, typically, of wish lists. That’s a last resort.

29:24 Michael Port: And what about personalised cards? Do you often recommend people do personalised cards in lieu of a gift, or do you always believe that there should be some sort of object that goes with the personalised, meaningful card?

29:39 John Ruhlin: No, I think, there’s some industries, like everybody gives the excuse, “Oh, my industry can’t accept gifts.”  Like, we get 1-2% of our gifts back, so 98% of people, even in Fortune 500 companies, receive the gifts. We’re not sending in lieu of the time bags.

29:57 Michael Port: Right, but, say, bankers might not be able to take it because of conflict of interest.

30:04 John Ruhlin: Yeah, the people play fearful and it’s talked about a lot, it’s not necessarily followed through on in reality, as much as people talk about it. Like, if you can take somebody out to a ball game or a dinner, or golf, you can send them a gift.

Now, there are times when we’ve sent gifts and got them back because the company was being investigated for fraud, or for whatever reason, that person’s conscience just didn’t allow them to receive the gift. But most of our gifts are in the hundreds or thousands of dollars range. They’re not, like, $50,000 Rolexes.

So, we’re not trying to bribe anybody or buy anybody, but there are times, like after a referral. Like, I send out, this year will probably be $310,000 worth of gifts is what we have budgeted. I will never send a gift out after a referral, I’ll send a really nice, handwritten note. Because I want to acknowledge that they were so generous in referring me.

But I’m going to wait six months, or I’m going to give them a gift at a time when they’re not expecting it. So I think the handwritten note, we spend eight, nine dollars on our letterhead, it’s a piece of steel, because I feel like the handwritten note, if you put a lot of thought into it, can actually be more valuable than the gift itself.

Because that’s the magic of making somebody feel acknowledged and appreciated for who they are and what they did and their core value. But most people kind of mail in the note, so to speak. They’re just, like, “Oh, yeah, thanks so much John. Best regards.” I mean, come on! If you’re going to send somebody a thank you note, put some energy and effort into that thing.

So, absolutely, I think there’ times when you can send handwritten notes and a gift does not have to accompany it, and it can actually be more impactful.

31:35 Michael Port: Do you know, when we’re interviewing potential new hires, it’s one of the questions I ask them.  I say, “Do you often send handwritten notes to people?” And if they say, “No, never,” I might strike them off the list, unless there was some other really, really compelling reason to keep them, in the process.

Because it tells me a lot about somebody. For example, our director of communications, she did a little experiment, where she took a month off of Facebook completely, entirely, she didn’t check it once. And, instead, what she did is, she wrote a personalised letter to every single Facebook friend during that month.

So, every day, she’d write a different letter to a few people, and so, if she had ninety friends, she would write three letters a day, each one to a different person that she would put into the mail and send it to them. And that was a little project of hers. And that’s the kind of people that I find represent our brand identity very well.

32:43 John Ruhlin: Yeah! That reminds me, have you heard of John Israel? He’s a Cutco rep, he’s called it ‘The Year Of Thank You’; every day for the last year he’s been writing five thank you notes, to people like the pilot of the plane that he’s on, and the barista at Starbucks.

He finds five people and he puts real time into really thanking them for what they do, and it’s creating this ripple effect of other people that are duplicating it and people that are inspired by it. But he’s getting Uber drivers to start crying and stuff, because they’re, like, “Nobody’s every thanked me for what I do or ever thanked me!”

And he’s just doing it with the right intention, not asking for anything in return, and even just telling you the story, I’m getting goosebumps myself thinking about it. And I know John, I’ve known him for fifteen years, but I love that that’s one of your interview questions to filter people out.

It’s like Zappos, how they treat their driver.

33:35 Michael Port: But it would not have been part of the way that I think, if I had not had that five minute conversation with you at Mastermind Talks. That’s how influential that conversation was. I mean, essentially you become less selfish, when you do this well. You’re not thinking about yourself, you’re thinking about others.

And of course we know that wonderful things come back to us in some way shape or form as a result. I mean, it’s not absolutely altruistic that we’re doing this. Companies hire you because they know that giving gifts is going to be good for their bottom line, it’s going to be good for business.

But nonetheless, when you’re doing it, you’re forced to think about somebody else and their needs and desires and that gets you out of your own head. And that’s a really good place to be.

34:35 John Ruhlin: Yeah, that’s the Tony Robbins concept of ‘get out of the mind and get into your heart’. I love the idea of feeling gratitude, but it feels even better and it’s way more impactful to actually show gratitude. Go do gratitude, don’t just feel it.

And that’s what you’re talking about, you’re putting a pen to  paper, or you’re going to pick up the phone to call somebody, which is really rare any more, it’s really weird, everybody just text messages. Or you’re sending them a gift. It’s acknowledging them and that gets you out of your head.

35:01 Michael Port: You know, your comment about not sending a gift when you get referrals, but rather sending a really nice note, and then sending a gift at a different time, that’s very powerful. I think it’s worth highlighting that, because it doesn’t seem like you’re just giving a gift because they gave you something.

And then the gift has more impact later, but you are still able to express your most sincere thanks, and it also doesn’t feel like you’re buying that referral from them.

35:32 John Ruhlin: Right, yeah, but, in general, I see people, like a financial adviser gets a million dollar client, and you send him a $100 restaurant gift certificate. In your head they’re thinking transaction, because a million dollars, a hundred dollars, and it doesn’t compute.

But if you send him that same $100 gift certificate six months prior, just because, now, all of a sudden, they’re like, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t do anything for you! Why are you sending me this?”

35:57 Michael Port: I know. I always thought that was very funny when realtors would send you $250 becasue you referred a client to them that bought a 2 million dollar house. Like, “Do you really think…?”

36:05 John Ruhlin: You do the math!

Michael Port: Or they use it as part of a promotional thing, like, “Hey, listen, I’ll send you $250 if you send me a referral.” I’m thinking, “That’s worse. I’m going to send a friend of mine to you so I can get $250 for one of the biggest purchases they’ll make?” It doesn’t make sense.

My boat, the dealership where I buy my boats, I referred someone to them. I didn’t even know they did this, but they bought a boat. I mean, I knew my friends bought the boat, but I didn’t know the dealership did this – they sent me a $1,000 Amex card.

I thought, “Oh, a thousand bucks! That’s pretty good!” But I would never, ever send someone to them to buy a boat that’s a few million dollars, for a thousand dollar gift card. It just does not fit in marketing at all. It just should not be part of the process. If you’re going to send something like that afterwards, it’s a wonderful surprise, but it shouldn’t be, “Hey, listen, send me referrals and I’ll send you $250.”

37:08 John Ruhlin: Yeah. Most people use gifts as carrots, rather than as ways to inspire people. It’s like, “Hey! If you do this, you’ll get this!” You’ve ruined the whole gift, you’ve ruined the whole element, so, yeah, spot on!

37:19 Michael Port: So, speaking of inspiration, the way that you proposed to your wife is very inspirational, and I know you’ve told this story before on some other podcasts and in other environments, but I don’t know if all my listeners have heard it, so I would love for you to tell it to them. Because I think it’s a wonderful example, and it’s just a great story.

37:43 John Ruhlin: Yeah, so the very abbreviated version – because I could tell it, it could take thirty minutes – but the long story short is that my wife and I started dating in a very turmoil type time. It was the worst time for an entrepreneur. I almost lost the business, I almost went bankrupt, somebody passed away that was close to me, family wise.

So, our dating relationship started very much on rocky ground, I was barely keeping my lips above the water. So, I decided when I wanted to propose to her – she wasn’t expecting the proposal because she knew I was broke as a joke. This was like, nine years ago, ten years ago. And everybody heard about the crazy me sending saunas to people and Brookes Brothers for a camera and all this stuff, but the reality of it is, I was barely hanging on.

And so I wanted to really create an experience for her that was better than any gift I had ever given a client or a prospect, or ever could do. So I wanted to build it around the movie that was our favourite, The Notebook.  I’m kind of a hopeless romantic and so I essentially put together this notebook, 80 pages of our story, read it and recorded it on an iPod Mini.

And she was living in St Louis, at the time she’d moved back to St Louis, I was in Ohio. And she was flying in for the weekend, for Valentine’s day. And I flew in that morning, into the airport, and had my brother, who had just graduated from film school, transform me into an eighty, eighty-five-year-old man.

I looked like I had gained 200lb, and I had latex makeup and false teeth and Casio watch and Velcro shoes. I literally looked like an eighty-five-year-old man, because the plan was, she would get this box delivered to her by my brother, who would act like it got lost in the mail.

And she would be on the plane and reading and listening to this and not realising until the end that it starts talking about growing old together and starts to describe the person sitting next to her, which I arranged with United, or Continental, before they got bought, to be sitting next to her.

So, I would be there and I would get down on one knee. And the ring was sealed in the back of the book, kind of like Shawshank Redemption style. I cut out pages and wax sealed it and I could get down at 30,000ft and propose, and then, when we land, her family had driven nine hours, and my family was there in a stretch Hummer limo and 200 of our closest friends were there, with photographers and videographers, to capture this whole moment.

And I had rented out a whole restaurant, the whole nine yards. So that was the plan. So everything was going perfect, according to plan, went to the St Louis airport, flew in, disguised myself in a bathroom stall, go to get on the plane, and she’s listening to this and getting ready to get on the plane as well, and as I’m walking onto the jetway, I collapse.

And my brother thinks I’m just hamming it up, like it’s part of the story, but I’m not moving. And so the steward is, like, “Sir! Sir! Sir!” and I’m not responding. They flip me over and there’s blood everywhere, and my brother’s like, “Oh, my gosh! This is not part of the plan!”

And, meanwhile, Lindsay’s watching this, and, “Why is this old guy on the floor? What’s going on?” and so a flight attendant and a pilot from another airline comes over, because they called 911, and, “There’s an old guy on the floor. He must be having a heart attack.”  So they grab the defibrillator and they put the paddles on me and it says to shock me.

And I’m bouncing off the floor and then they pulled the wig off, and now there’s a guy in disguise that’s going through this.  So the FBI shows up, because there was a guy in disguise getting on an aeroplane. And meanwhile Lindsay finally connects the dots and realises it’s not an old guy, that it’s me.

And she just melts down, I mean, melts down. They have to build a wall of people around me, they can’t stabilise me, ambulance shows up, they won’t let her in the ambulance because she’s not family, and so she’s in the back of a cop car following the ambulance, and that’s where the cop tells her that I was going to propose and that’s why I was in disguise and she’s just praying and crying hysterically.

Meanwhile everybody on the planet is getting text messages that John collapsed, he had a heart attack, he is on his way to ICU, party is off. So they check me in to the ICU hospital and run every test under the sun, brain scans and cat scans and MRIs and whatever else.

And she’s up the whole night, praying and crying and next morning I wake up. And I start asking what happened, and they tell me the story, and I’m like, “That’s the best story ever!” and I’m laughing my butt off. I was like, “It was like Romeo and Juliet, but I didn’t die!”

And she’s over in the corner, just shell shocked. It’s the worst day of her life, ever, and they come in, and like, “John, have you changed your eating? Or what have you been up to?” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, every year I do a cleanse or I do a yoga retreat for a month, and this year I eliminated all carbs.”

And they’re like, “Well, okay, what did you eat yesterday?” And I said, “Nothing.” They said, “What did you drink yesterday?” And I’m like, “Nothing, I couldn’t because of the latex makeup.” And they said, “So, you basically had a low blood sugar seizure that the machine misdiagnosed because of the algorithm,” or whatever else, “and you got shocked when you really didn’t need to get shocked, and your body was already really weak. You should have died! You got electrocuted, your body shut down. You’re lucky to be alive!”

I’m like, “That makes the story even better!” I’m like, “This is incredible!” So I’m telling everybody, YPO guys, EO guys, people all over the planet are hearing this story and people are wanting to write articles about it, and I think it’s awesome and my girlfriend, at the time is just beside herself.

She’s like, “I don’t ever want to hear that story again! It’s the worst story every!” and so we fight, after every event we go to and I tell the story, at dinners and whatever else, she’s like, “Good heavens, John, you almost died! I hate that story!” and I’m like, “You just don’t appreciate me! I almost died for you!”

Even though we got married, it became this fighting point. And so, about four years ago, I had a mentor who was asking me these questions, like, “John, what’s Lindsay like?” I’m like, “She’s type A, she’s really detail oriented.” And he’s like, “What’s her perfect day like?”

And I’m like, “You’ll never believe this, but for her birthday she wants an itinerary, and she wants to know minute by minute what’s coming. And I hate it, it seems like the worst thing ever.” And he’s, like, “What about surprises?” And, “Oh! She hates surprises!” I say. And it hits me. I’m like, “Oh my gosh! My wife hates surprises.”

And I realised at that moment that I had made the entire engagement story about everything that I wanted. I love surprises, I love the thrill, I love the story, I love the people, I love the spotlight. And Lindsay hates all of those things, and I had made the entire gifting experience of an engagement about me, instead of about her.

And it was at that point that I realised, in business we do the same thing, too. If we like dinners, we take people out to steak dinners. We put our logo on things, we make it about out colours, we make it about us and how cool we, versus making it about the recipient, the other person.

And so, it became this ‘aha’ moment, that you have to give gifts the way, what would the other person really want, not about what you would really want. And it was an eye-opener from a marriage perspective and relationship and even business, so it really shifted my thinking dramatically.

44:36 Michael Port: Wow! What a story! What a story!

44:40 John Ruhlin: Yeah, it’s crazy. I don’t know that I’ll ever top that one, and I’m not going to try, especially involving my wife.

44:48 Michael Port: Yeah, I don’t’ think you should try. I think everything should have an itinerary.

44:54 John Ruhlin: Yeah, it does! She loves it! I give her an itinerary, minute by minute, what clothes to wear, she feels loved. She loves it! I’m like, “I would never want this, but I know this is what you would want.”

45:07 Michael Port: Oh, that’s so nice. I appreciate that story, thank you for telling it. And thank you for spending this time with me and my listeners, I really appreciate it.

45:16 John Ruhlin: Yeah, well, no, this has been a lot of fun, Michael. It’s been fun to reconnect and engage.

45:25 Michael Port: Yeah, you’re a good man, and I know you’re doing a lot of good in the world and a lot of people have better lives because of what you’re showing us, what you’re helping us to see about how to treat other people. So, thank you so much!

And, you know, listen, guys, keep thinking big about who you are and what you are for the world.

45:47 John Ruhlin: Hey, Michael?

45:48 Michael Port: Yeah?

45:49 John Ruhlin: Would it be okay if I gave a gift to your audience?

45:52 Michael Port: Oh! Yeah! Of course, sure!

45:54 John Ruhlin: I mean, you asked about the worst gifts to avoid, and we talked about a couple of them. I did create a PDF that basically has the top ten worst gifts, for my kids, I call it, it’s like the bumpers for bowling so you don’t go in the gutter.

And, so if somebody wants to take this, and they can buy the book, obviously, and get the whole play book, but if they want to get something for free, they can go download. Go to, they can go download the top ten gifts to avoid and it talks about Apple, it talks about flowers, it talks about the typical things that 90% of people out there do on a regular basis.

It says why not to give them and gives just a real clear thing for them to show, whether it’s their marketing team or their team in general to at least give them a filter as they’re thinking about how to love on people.

46:45 Michael Port: Oh! That’s fantastic! So, it’s

Thank you for listening to Steal The Show with Michael Port. I’m your host, Michael Port.

This podcast was produced by Laura Bernstein, with sound production and marketing by Kast Media. Music is mixed by Shammy Dee, and we recorded today’s episode at Heroic Public Speaking HQ, the most impressive public speaking facility in Lambertville, New Jersey and, perhaps, the world.

Special thanks to our guest, gift-giving machine John Ruhlin, and to you, for listening and learning how to be a performer in your spotlight moments.

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