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Unless you are living under a rock you probably have been party to the cultural captivation over an episode or binged watching the Netflix hit shows “Inventing Anna,” “Bad Vegan” or “The Tinder Swindler.” The further proliferation of these documentaries chronicling the exploits of emotional and financial vampires underscores the cultural moment and fascination pervading our society.
How did these events happen and what can we learn from them?
Alec Baldwin, Twitter and the charmer
In “Bad Vegan,” a documentary on Netflix that tracks the rise and fall of the raw food matriarch Sarma Melngailis, there is one specific introduction that leads down the path to disaster with her mysterious charmer who later surfaces as Anthony Strangis. It’s where Melngailis recounts seeing witty interactions over Twitter between Alec Baldwin, whom she knows, and this new individual Strangis, whom she does not. She highlights that digital connection as encouraging her to believe that this person must be interesting and have some form of credibility.
The biggest mistake
This underscores how credibility and trust get transferred by relational networks in answering this capstone question, “Do you know someone who I know?” As humans wired to look for connection, the biggest mistake we make is to take this piece of information and then stop there versus digging deeper to understand the true nature of the relationship and how deep it is. But we are wired to believe and it’s easy to make excuses.
This happened to me recently in a conversation with a new multi-family office platform representing two or three billion-dollar, single-family offices. The gentleman responsible for advising these families took a significant amount of time to understand the origins, nature and relationship I had with the individuals who had made the introduction.
This is where most people go wrong. Over the course of the conversation, he carefully asked about how long I had known the person making the introduction and how we specifically had met. He was fact-checking, in a nice way.
While the Bernie Madoff story is beginning to recede from our memories, “Inventing Anna” seems to draw us in deeper because, in complete contrast to Madoff, who at least had some form of industry credibility and skills, Anna Delvey’s reputation and personae are a multi-layered construction of paper mache all the way down.
For Delvey, one can easily trace the path of introductions that led to the fictitious building of credibility. She was attempting to secure a loan to bring her vision of a new club concept to life that was going to require tens of millions of dollars, despite the fact that she was simultaneously leaving a wake of unpaid travel and meal debts owed to all who were circling around her.
The initial introduction came from a random “finance friend” who said that she should reach out to a gentleman named Joel Cohen who worked at Gibson Dunn, which has a significant real estate practice. She did reach out and was then introduced to another gentleman at Gibson Dunn named Andy Lance. Because the referral came internally, Andy did not think to question it in the beginning.
Lance then introduced her to City National Bank and Fortress Investment for the purpose of helping to fund her ambitious redevelopment of 281 Park Avenue South. Again, offering credibility on her behalf, Lance would explain to them both that Delvey’s personal assets were tied up in accounts outside the US but that UBS would provide a letter of credit.
City National received a list of figures from a man named Peter W. Hennecke who used an AOL e-mail to send over the document. As is the refrain in her life, the documentation validating her assets never came and City National passed. But, this was how she had any credibility with Fortress and City National Bank.
Tools for avoiding this mistake
If you just take a few minutes to ask the following questions either of the person making the introduction or the prospect themselves, it can save you from wasting time with someone about whom you are unsure as a potential fit with your business:
Questions to ask the individual making the introduction on the front end where the ball gets fumbled the easiest
- How long have you known them?
This will help offer a quick qualification right at the beginning. Six months versus six years is a big indicator of the strength of their relationship. Melngailis should have probed more vs. trusting a Twitter exchange.
- Where did you meet them?
This provides further context and allows for further analysis on the relationship. If someone says, “Oh, we met at a conference where they spoke,” it offers a very different context than “through their spouse” or over an intimate dinner.
For example, Delvey’s “finance friend” that started the chain reaction of her potential loan was most likely met a party with no real framing context for trust.
When triangulating a prospect directly and trying to qualify them, use your instincts about ‘red flags’ and out of the ordinary behavior
There was a copious trail of incidents when Delvey said money would be wired, yet it never was. The UBS banker using an AOL e-mail address should have been the final red flag, and it was for City National.
Delvey would use distraction to divert focus and continue a veneer of credibility. For example, when dealing with her hotel, to which she owed tens of thousands of dollars in back fees and which asked about the wire, she would create a credible distraction by delivering a 1975 Dom Perignon to the staff.
Don’t be afraid to ask simple questions
There was a fictitious narrative that preceded each introduction to Delvey, whether she was called a German heiress, the daughter of a diplomat or the daughter of an oil tycoon, none of which anyone could verify or validate.
This is delicate because how do you probe about such matters? The short answer is that most likely you will not unless you are being asked to make an introduction or pay for something.
Delvey easily played off the scenario that people wanted to believe in her wealth and glamor.
On the flip side, if you are making an introduction to someone that is a new relationship, I often make sure to tell the person that it’s a new relationship and I can’t vouch for that person unless I have done my own due diligence. I think we need to be more transparent with such introductions.
In many ways, Delvey was a master at creating environments where she appeared credible by the presence of well-known actors, stars and artists. Their mere presence conferred on her a level of credibility that was never questioned.
Furthermore, by inviting other people who may have had questions about Delvey due to their own personal experience, these lavish parties helped to override their instincts and rationalize what they wanted to believe about her. The parties she threw helped establish her credibility while quelling any simmering doubts that detractors might have had. These parties also served to provide people with something they craved — access to stars and artists.
If anyone had traced the path of introductions and how some of these people showed up, I think the fantasy would have quickly evaporated with a response like, “Well, my friend asked me to attend and I don’t really know her” as a hypothetical response.
Moving forward, the ability to qualify a prospect to ensure optimization of time and resources for luxury sales professionals will be a critical skill. Referrals are the lifeblood of new clients and prospects for luxury agents, but the simple tools and practices listed in this article can ensure and protect agents who are seeking to “Avoid Anna” vs. “Inventing” her.
Summary Toolkit Matrix
|Key Questions to Help Qualify New Relationship or Prospect