Your company has a financial plan, a sales plan, and a marketing plan, but does it have a relationship plan?

John Ruhlin is the founder of the Ruhlin Group, a gift strategy, and logistics company that helps its clients increase referrals and strengthen client and employee retention by sending world-class gifts that stand out.

It all started when John began applying the principles of generosity at Cutco, a college sales job selling high-end cutlery direct to consumers. His business skyrocketed. He was making the largest deals out of all of Cutco’s 1.5 million sales reps and distributors. Outside sales and marketing teams started hiring him to speak to and train their people.

John’s book Giftology outlines the principles of giving that made him so successful. I knew after meeting him and getting his book, that I  had to have him as a guest on my Now to Next podcast so that John could share his story and talk about how to put the methods of generosity to work for you.

Life Is What Happens When You’re Making Other Plans

John grew up with four siblings on a farm in a small Ohio town of only 417 people. He milked cows in the mornings before school, and a lot of what his family ate came from their one-acre garden.

From a young age, John dreamed of moving to a bigger city and leading a more affluent life. He set his sights on becoming a doctor. Working his way through med school, he came across an ad for Cutco salespeople and joined their force.

Cutco was a good fit at the time for John, as it exposed him to selling a great product and learning how to handle objections and set goals. The company motivated him to read books about mindset and sales strategy.

A Delivery Vehicle for Emotion

John was selling for Cutco when a conversation with a girlfriend’s father fundamentally altered his approach to his work. A prosperous, generous, and well-loved country attorney, the father told John that he aimed to be top in trust and top of mind.

John pitched him the idea of giving pocket knives to his sales team, but the attorney opted for paring knives instead. John thought this was an odd choice. What would salesmen do with paring knives?

This humble attorney told John he’d learned that if you take care of the family and business, everything else falls into place. It was a lightning bolt moment for John as his field of vision expanded to include his clients and the people who mattered to them. He realized it wasn’t about the knife or the object. The item itself was a delivery vehicle for emotion.

John mimicked this approach with his Cutco sales. He mailed an expensive, engraved knife set to the CEO of an insurance company and his wife with the message, “Carve out five minutes for me, and I promise it will be worth your time.”

John got the appointment. In his office, the CEO was surprised at how young John was. He was expecting a seasoned salesperson in his 50s. He asked John, “Are you here to sell me knives?”

John said, “No, I’m here to show you how to recreate what I did with you with your top ten thousand relationships.” The CEO’s jaw dropped. The knife gift order was so large John got a call from the CFO of Cutco to make sure it was correct.

John knew he was onto something big. At this point, he quit med school and devoted himself to relationship-building full time.

One Relationship Away

The core of what John teaches in Giftology is relationship-building. He talks about how we’re all one relationship away from changing our business forever. It could be a mentor, investor, advisor, or banking relationship.

For John, one of his business-changing relationships was with Cameron Herold, a top business consultant, author, and speaker that Forbes Magazine called “Today’s CEO Whisperer.”

John heard Cameron speak, and everything he said resonated. John knew spending time with Cameron would take his life and business to the next level, but he couldn’t afford his $20,000 coaching fee. So, John set his sights on winning Cameron as a client instead.

On Cameron’s next visit to Cleveland to speak to a local chapter of business owners, John invited him to dinner and a ballgame. John noticed Cameron’s lukewarm response; he accepted, but without enthusiasm.

John asked what Cameron wanted to do while he was in town—what was the one thing he wanted to do before he left Cleveland? Cameron responded he loved Brooks Brothers and didn’t live near one. John shared his favorite shirt and offered to send one to Cameron, so he got his shirt size.

The night they were supposed to meet, Cameron’s flight was delayed. He was going to miss the ballgame and dinner. John said, “No problem, let’s meet for a drink when you get in.”

Determined to make a connection, John convinced his business partner of a new plan. He had to promise to cover the expense with his own money if it failed.

John went to Brooks Brothers and spent $7,000 to get one of everything from the new line in Cameron’s size. He had it all transferred to Cameron’s hotel room and set up like a mini–Brooks Brothers showroom.

Cameron arrived from his delayed flight. John was in the hotel bar, very nervous about how the big gesture would go over. Cameron stopped by for a quick hello on his way up to the room. A few minutes later, he came back to John at the bar and said, “Whatever you’re proposing, yes. No one has ever treated me like you did here.”

Twenty years later, they continue to do business together, and John still sends him gifts.

Practical Luxuries

The best gifts are practical luxuries. It’s that item that you might delay buying for yourself but use frequently. Cutco knives fit perfectly into that category because few people will indulge in truly excellent knives. Once you give them a set, they think of you every time they use the knives.

If a gift bears your logo, it’s not truly a gift– it’s a marketing piece. Rather than the term “gifts,” John calls what he gives artifacts because they are objects with meaning.

Here are a few of John’s top tips for gifting:

  • An expensive gift is not as effective as a thoughtful one.
  • Purchase the best in class for the amount of money you have. 
  • To ensure your gift stands out, give at another time of year besides the holidays.

Give, Give, Give, then Ask

Giftology is not a short-term strategy. Tit-for-tat giving doesn’t have the same ROI. Giftology is an approach and a way of life that works worldwide because reciprocation is a natural part of being human. Thoughtful, practical luxuries that surprise and delight make incredible Giftology artifacts.

One remarkable way John applied his philosophy is with his employees. He was asking them to deliver a Ritz-Carlton experience when he realized they might not have ever experienced a Ritz-Carlton hotel themselves. He made sure they knew what that was like by gifting them the experience.

Giftology works best when applied holistically. If you think only of your clients and not of your employees, the enthusiasm and goodwill you are generating won’t reflect in your business culture. Employees who feel appreciated make better advocates.

John’s book Giftology has so many nuggets, and we’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg.

This is not a campaign or even a way of thinking. It is a way of life. In many ways, it’s a radical departure from how we’ve been thinking, but when you think it through and live it holistically, the results speak for themselves.

However, it doesn’t work if you do this a little bit. It’s when you make those deposits consistently that it starts to come back. I recommend you read the book: Giftology  and watch/listen to our full interview on YouTube or your favorite podcasting platform.

 You can also find out more about John Ruhlin himself on his website, and as always, you can direct any questions you have to me too. I’m always here to help.