Sydney Biddle Barrows, otherwise known as the Mayflower Madam, found herself moonlighting as a phone girl at an escort service to supplement her unemployment check after being fired for refusing to participate in a kickback scheme.
Less than a year later she decided to open up her own escort agency. It was relatively small but very upscale. Cachet prospered for 5 1/2 years until New York’s finest closed it down, only to later publicly concede that it was the most honest and professionally run business of its kind ever operated in New York City.
Sydney’s first book, ‘Mayflower Madam,’ went right to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List. Fortune Magazine named it one of the ten best business books of the year and business schools across the country including Harvard used it in their curriculum.
Her fourth book, ‘Uncensored Sales Strategies,’ was co-authored with the legendary marketing guru Dan Kennedy. Today, Sydney Barrows is a recognized authority on customer experience. She consults with entrepreneurs, business people, and professional practices to re-imagine the way they interact with their customers in order to create meaningful and memorable experiences that add value to what they do or sell.
How did a nice girl like you – and you really are nice! – grow up to become a madam?
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No one grows up hoping to become a madam, and it certainly wasn’t a career path my parents picked for me as you can imagine. What happened is I started working in retail at the executive training program at a store called Abraham and Strauss which no longer exists, but at that time it was the crown jewel of the former Federated Department Stores Group. From there I went on to May Co. corporate. They owned Lord & Taylor and were also swallowed up by Macy’s. Then I went to a resident buying office where I got fired because I refused to participate in a kickback scheme.
There I am standing on the unemployment line, and I met this gal. We got along and started hanging out, and one day I went down to her apartment in Greenwich Village and I walked in the door and there she is unpacking a brand-new stereo. Well, I knew she didn’t have any money. I mean, certainly, no more than I did. Of course, I wanted to know where she got it, so I kept asking her questions. She was being very evasive, and at one point, I even said well gee, did it fall off a truck? She said ‘Sydney, do you swear you won’t tell anybody? I answer the phones for an escort service.’ And I said, ‘Oh, what’s an escort service?’ I didn’t have a clue.
She told me what it was and of course, I was horrified, but fascinated, and asked all the questions that anyone would ask. I was the only one who knew what she was doing, so I heard a lot about it over the next couple of months. Then one day she calls me up and says, ‘Sydney, one of the girls in the office is leaving, would you be interested in a job?’
I was afraid of the police, I was afraid of the mafia. But I figured it wouldn’t hurt to go over there for the interview, particularly since it was paying $50 a night off the books and unemployment was only $150 a week. It was a lot of money back then. I went over there and met this guy Eddy, who was a bit of a sleazeball but he’d been in business for about 20 years and nothing had ever happened to him. I met a number of girls who were every bit as nice as my girlfriend had told me, and obviously no one was holding a gun to their heads. I thought, how bad could this be? Sure, I’ll give it a try.
It may have been the world’s oldest profession, but it wasn’t being run very professionally! My girlfriend and I were constantly Monday-morning quarterbacking, saying ‘Why doesn’t he run it this way?’ One day we just looked at each other and said you know, we’re as smart as he is, we’re definitely nicer than he is, why don’t we start our own escort service? So we did. I literally fell into it. That’s exactly how it happened.
Tell me about your first book, ‘Mayflower Madam’ that’s now used in business schools.
I wrote that book with a guy named Bill Novak who co-authored ‘Iacocca’ with Lee Iacocca. He wrote books with Nancy Reagan, Magic Johnson, Oliver North, all kinds of really famous people. We weren’t really sure what people would want to read about, so we just asked everyone we knew. If you were to buy this book, what would you hope to find inside? Everybody said, tell us how it worked.
What really interested people was knowing how the escort business itself actually operated because there’s never been a book, either before or since that really talks about how the escort business works. That’s why it ended up being, totally unintentionally, a business book. Business schools including Harvard use it in their curriculum; Fortune Magazine named it one of the ten best business books of the year. We didn’t set out to write a business book. In fact, we had no idea that that’s what we’d done.
Did writing that book help reinvent you from a madam to a business consultant?
There was insane media attention. The New York Post and New York Daily News had a field day with it. In the end, all that ended up happening was I paid a $5,000 fine and that was it. Well, the fine may have only been $5,000, but the legal bills ran well into the six figures. To be honest with you, I needed money to pay those bills. So I wrote the book to pay my lawyer. That’s really why I wrote it. I never saw a dime either, trust me.
Thanks for being, being honest. Do you think writing a book is a good way to reinvent yourself?
Well, it depends. If you’re writing about something you did, unless you can get it on the bestseller list, and unless you can draw attention to it somehow, it’s really only going to keep you where you were. The reason it worked for me is that it did do so well and it got a lot of people’s attention.
Business groups, especially the Young Presidents’ Organization, started calling me and asking if I would come and do a talk in front of their membership. At first, I thought these people were kidding. Why would people who make millions and millions of dollars a year in these big companies hire someone like me to tell them how to do business? It just seemed odd to me. But they were paying good money so I thought to myself, if this is what they want to hear, I certainly know the story.
So I went and did these talks. What happened afterward was members of the audience would come up to me and ask if I did consult. I didn’t know what consulting was any more than I knew what an escort service was when I first heard about it, but I could tell they were going to pay me money to do it. So I started asking questions and I asked, what is it you’re hoping I can help you with? What challenges is your business facing? I really had no idea what they wanted or hoped I could do for them.
After talking to these people and they told me what they wanted I thought to myself, I can do that. I’m sure all of your readers can appreciate what I’m about to say. The first two or three consultations that I went on, I was shaking in my boots. I was convinced they were going to find out that I was this terrible fraud. But it ended up being really easy because everybody has a gift.
I can look around and see incongruities, inconsistencies, little things that are wrong. I can see a typo on a page a mile away. Don’t ask me how or why I just have that gift. I do the same thing when I go into businesses. I can see what it is that’s not right. They say this is who they want their clientele to be, they claim this is the business that they’re really in, and yet they are doing all these things that are totally inconsistent with the image they’re trying to project.
I just have a gift for picking out those little things and I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was really doing was experience design. I didn’t hear that term until a number of years later. I call myself a CEO – a Chief Experience Officer.
What did you take from your previous business as a madam and apply it to being an experienced designer?
Let’s start out with my first job. I was an assistant buyer in the bath shop at Abraham and Strauss. One day my buyer took me to the market because we needed more shower curtains. Here we are sitting in the shower curtain showroom and this guy’s showing us this stuff and I gotta tell you, Jordan, this stuff was ugly! I mean, we are talking deadly hideous.
Yet here is Mary, my boss, scribbling orders for this stuff. I couldn’t believe it. I said, what are you doing? This stuff is hideous. I wouldn’t put this in my bathroom on a bet and neither would you! She looked at me and said, Sydney, you are not our customer. Our customer likes these kinds of shower curtains and in fact, they come to our store because they know we sell shower curtains just like these. We’ve got to give them what they want to buy, not what we would buy.
What that really is, is what is the business that your customer wants you to be in? So many business owners make a huge mistake. and get into the business that they want to be in. They don’t pay attention to what the customer really wants. I would say that’s probably the number one thing I learned.
The second thing I learned from the escort service is that people do not necessarily pay you money for what you think you’re selling. I would imagine most of your listeners, if I asked them, what business did you think I was really in, almost 100 percent of them would say, ‘Oh, Sydney, come on, it was the sex business.’ But it was not the sex business. I was really in the fantasy business and the trust business.
The fantasy part of it was that my clients wanted the most beautiful, elegant, charming, charismatic, sexy girl in New York City to walk through their door. This fantasy girl had nothing on her agenda other than to please him for the entire time she was there. She would listen to his stories, laugh at his jokes, admire whatever he wanted her to admire. A lot of times it was just himself and his escapades or his business wins or whatever. Sometimes, if it was a residential client, they’d want to show the girls all the things that they had bought with all the money they’d made and they wanted her to admire that. They basically just wanted her to be charming company so they could just forget about whatever else was on their minds.
Then when it came down to what we used to euphemistically call the nitty-gritty, you know, she would please him in whatever way he wanted and we permitted, which wasn’t a whole helluva lot ’cause we were pretty straightforward in that regard. That was the fantasy.
Then there’s the trust part of the business. For those of you who don’t know anything about escort services, and I’m sure that’s everybody in your audience, you don’t know that the escort service business is dishonest beyond belief. All they care about is getting your money in their pocket tonight. They will tell you anything they need to in order to make that happen.
For instance, if you tell the phone girl that you want someone who is tall with beautiful legs, they’ll swear she’s 5 foot 10 and has gorgeous legs. If you tell her you want someone who has blond hair, they’ll swear she has blond hair. If you want someone there in half an hour, they promise that she’ll be there in half an hour. They’re basically promising anything to get him to book that call.
Well, an hour and a half later, a petite redhead knocks on the door and of course, he’s not a very happy camper about this because he’s expecting a tall blond. That’s really very unfair to her because a) she had no idea she’s supposed to be tall, she has no idea she’s supposed to be blond, and she has no idea she’s an hour late because of course, they don’t tell her any of this stuff. But he ends up keeping her. It’s getting late and he knows he’s not gonna have better luck anywhere else.
That’s what they’re counting on because they routinely lie. We absolutely did not do that. In fact, we even had a guarantee that if when the young lady got there did not look exactly the way we described her, all he had to do was give her $20 and send her home, no hard feelings. We’d send you somebody else. That was our guarantee. So I was really in the fantasy business and the trust business, not the sex business because believe me if that’s all they wanted they could have gotten it for a helluva lot less in a lot of other places.
Also, we were the only people who ever – practically in the history of this business – ever got the money afterward because I just felt it was very tacky to walk in and say, with your hand out, ‘Hi, my name is Suzi, give me the money.’ That doesn’t get things started out on a very good footing. And you should excuse the expression, but in 5 1/2 years, we never once got stiffed.
Also, let’s say the lady had been there for three hours and he started acting in a way that made her uncomfortable. Let’s say he had a little too much to drink. Well, her orders were that she was to get up and leave and not listen to him when he says, ‘I’m not gonna pay you if you get up and leave’ because it didn’t matter. I would pay her for the amount of time she had been there because I did not want any of my young ladies to ever be in a situation that made them uncomfortable or feel bad. It almost never happened, but it was nice for them to know they had that option if they ever wanted or needed to.
Loyalty is really important. If people feel you’re there for them if you’ve got their back, if you have their best interests at heart, they’ll walk over hot coals for you. They really will. And they’ll enjoy doing it because they appreciate that you’re good to them, and they want to give back to you. It’s a wonderful synergy.
Talk about your new business of helping companies selling experiences.
There were two main experiences we created depending on the client. There were some clients who wanted the most beautiful, the most gorgeous call girl to walk in their door. They really got off on the fact that they were so successful and could afford the most expensive call girl in New York. They also liked knowing that they knew the number of the place where the most beautiful girls were and that kind of thing. So there was that clientele.
Then there was the other clientele who even though they knew they were paying for, didn’t want to feel that it was a commercial transaction. The experience we provided for those clients was not reminding them that this was a commercial transaction. For instance, when it came time to talk about money, we would say to them, ‘How would you like to take care of this evening?’ Not, ‘How would you like to pay?’
When the young lady was there and she was ready to leave, she would call on the phone, say hi, I’m ready to leave and I would say, okay, well, you should have $800 cash or you should have an $800 check or whatever it was he was paying her. She would never talk to him about money, ever. They were totally divorced from the money.
She handed the phone to him and I would say, okay, she should have $800.00 cash or whatever it was. Also, we always referred to them as young ladies because we wanted the clients to think of them as young ladies and to know that we thought of them as young ladies. There was some psychological sales choreography going on there.
When the young lady got there, we made sure that she reinforced this lady/gentleman dynamic by having a suit jacket on or a coat, or maybe she’d have both. But when she got there, she would stand in front of him and turn around a bit and start to slip her coat or her jacket off her shoulders, which would cause him to instinctively reach out and help her with it. That’s something that a gentleman does for a lady. Everything we did, we tried to keep as much of a feeling of it being a commercial transaction out of it as we could because that was the fantasy that they wanted.
You talk in the book about the movie in your customers’ minds.
Yeah. A mental movie is basically all of the input that a client gets from the second that you appear on their radar screen, following any transaction you have and even following that. Really what it is, is people have an expectation or a hope or both of what doing business with you is going to be like. For instance, with my clients, their expectation and their hope was that they had found a very, very upscale elite business as opposed to the other nonsense that was going on out there.
Our ad looked like it had been engraved at Tiffany’s. It was very, very elegant, with lots of white space. Just two heavy borders around our name, Cachet, with our phone number and the hours that we were open. That’s all that was on the ad. When they called, they got a young lady on the phone.
Our phone girls were all aspiring actresses because I was very, very particular with what the phone girls said to the clients. I had a script that I had said a gazillion and one times to myself and I wanted them to say it – everything exactly the way I said it. That’s what actresses are great for. They’re used to repeating the same lines over and over and making it sound like it’s new. They were perfect for this.
That was the next part of the mental movie. You saw this beautiful ad, which signaled an upscale, refined operation. You got somebody on the phone who was very polite and had a beautiful speaking voice. And then the young lady herself would arrive, and as I said, she was a pretty girl. She was beautifully dressed, knew how to behave and conduct herself. She wasn’t a gum-chewing broad from Brooklyn. Then when the evening was over, she walked out looking as pretty as she did when she walked in.
The financial transaction part of it was done very diplomatically so from start to finish, everything was congruent with what they were hoping and expecting a very upscale business to be. That was the mental movie they had. What’s important for your readers to know is that you’ve got to find out what the mental movie is that your clients are hoping to find and then you have to give it to them.
You can also manipulate them a bit and gave them hope, want, and expect, some of the things that you want to deliver as long as you know that it’s something they want. But the most important thing I want to emphasize is that everything has to be congruent. Everything has to maintain and support whatever the story of your business is. That’s vitally important.
I’m sure you’ve heard Dan Kennedy tell the story about this guy named Charlie Martin who is a cosmetic dentist. His average case is like $80,000. Obviously these are people with really messed up teeth! But when you walk into his office, it’s marble and oriental rugs and he’s got a grand piano in there. You walk in and you say to yourself, oh, boy, this guy is not gonna be cheap. So when he quotes you $80,000, it’s not a complete and total surprise.
If you want into a sort of an average-looking dentist office and all of a sudden he tells you he wants $80,000, he might technically be just as good as Dr. Martin, but the atmosphere you’re in, the movie in your mind when you walk into that guy’s office is not going to be the same. It’s gonna be incongruent having him ask for that kind of money because your surroundings, the mental movie that you’ve gotten so far doesn’t support that.
For instance, do you think you would ever see Barack Obama or Queen Elizabeth sign a big treaty with a Bic pen? No, because it’s totally incongruent. That’s not the image they want to project. That’s what your readers have to think about. Down to the littlest thing, the kind of gloves you wear, the kind of shoes you wear, when you pull your mirror out of your handbag, what kind of a mirror is it. If you have a very upscale image, you don’t want to be pulling out some nasty little piece of plastic with Duane Reed written all over it. It’s very important. With little things like that, people don’t necessarily notice what it is, but they know something’s wrong.
You talk more about this in your book, ‘Uncensored Sales Strategies.’
Yeah, if you’re looking for escort service stories! That’s my USP, my Unique Selling Proposition. There’s no one else out there who sells great call girl stories as I do.
Right. You’re probably not going to find another book about improving your business using lessons learned from escort services. But it’s really important to take things from other industries. You take things from other industries that are completely unrelated and that’s what’s really going to give you the edge and improve your business.
Yeah. Let me give you an example. I was in a service business and yet I took something from a product business. I was thinking to myself the first Christmas, what can I do to show these clients how much I appreciate them? And I thought, gift-with-purchase like what the cosmetics companies do at the mall.
I didn’t want to give them something if they weren’t gonna give me some business in return, you know. That was the purchase part. When any of our really, really good clients would call anywhere between Thanksgiving and the end of January, the young lady would swing by the office and pick up a bottle of chilled Dom Perignon.
We went out and bought two cases of it. At the time, Dom Perignon was the most expensive, most elite, the best non-vintage champagne available. What this signaled to the client was, oh my goodness, these people must think I’m pretty special because they’re giving me a bottle of the most expensive, top drawer champagne. Not only are they spending this money on me, but they obviously think I’m important.
It also upped our transaction size because no one swills Dom Perignon in one sitting. So if he was a two-hour client, she’d be there for three hours; if he was a four-hour client, she’d be there for five hours. We upped our transaction size which is exactly one of the reasons that the cosmetics companies do it. It also burnished our image.
We never touted ourselves as the most expensive, the most fabulous, blah blah blah, but it was pretty clear from everything that we did that we were. Giving away the most expensive, most fabulous champagne reinforced our image, so that one little bottle did so many different things for us and also created an experience.
He gets to sit in his hotel room or his home with a beautiful girl, drinking champagne and – this is the best part – all my young ladies had to carry a packet of bubble bath in their handbags with them. They especially needed to do this around this time of year because I’m sure most of you out there have heard of champagne bubble baths. If you haven’t it does not mean you bathe in champagne, it means you sit in a bath with bubbles and you drink champagne with a companion of your choice.
When the young lady would say to him, ‘Oh, would you like to have a champagne bubble bath and we can drink this?’ None of these guys had ever had that before. So what a wonderful experience we gave them. Not only did they get a chance to have that, but I have a $100 that says every time they hear the word bubble bath or the word champagne, they remember back all those years ago sitting in a bathtub with a beautiful girl drinking champagne we had given them. That was an experience we provided.
You had celebrities as clients and a lot of our Members have celebrity clients.
Yeah. And actually, only once did I ever do this. There was someone who called who was so famous that I said, ‘Oh, my god, are you so-and-so?’ and there was silence on the other end of the line. And I said, ‘You know what, I am so sorry, that was such an incredibly inappropriate question.’
Of course, the girls were always really excited when they saw somebody very well known, so we had something called the celebrity board. It was a big corkboard that I went out and bought because girls would come in with articles or pictures of different clients. Either sportspeople or musicians or business people, whatever. They’re really excited and they pass it all around. ‘Yeah, I saw him.’ ‘Oh, yeah, I saw him too.’ So we had a celebrity board that we put all this on.
But the young ladies, let’s face it, didn’t want anyone to know what they did, so they weren’t exactly about to go out blabbing it around, and we certainly weren’t going to say anything because we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves. I think just the way that we conducted ourselves, the caliber of the young ladies, the way we ran the whole business, made our clients feel as safe as you’re ever going to feel doing something like that.
Proximity to celebrities is very alluring to people because even though you’re not the celebrity, just the fact that you were with them, sort of confers something extra on you. I mean, does it really make sense? No. It’s not like you’re this person’s best friend and they tell you all their secrets. But there’s just something about celebrity in our country today that all you have to do is have even the least little thing to do with them and all of a sudden, you’re a celebrity practically. It’s very very interesting.
Anytime you can align yourself with a celebrity – and I don’t need to tell you this – but anytime you can align yourself with a celebrity, it’s good.
Tell me about the term you created, ‘sales choreography.’
Sales choreography can be physical or it can be psychological. Basically what it does is influence a client’s perception of you and your business. It influences whether or not the client buys and very often how much they buy. I hate to use the word “manipulation” because that word has such an ugly connotation in our culture, but that’s really what it is. You’re sort of manipulating the way.
Let’s take a department store. You go by one of these mannequins and it’s got a dress, jewelry, a scarf, and bag. You look at it and say, ‘Oh, my God, I want it all!’ Because they put it together for you. If you’re in the iPod business, you don’t want to have the iPods in one place, and the little extra-special earbuds in another place. You want them all together so that when the person’s ready to buy that iPod, they think, ‘Oh, wow, yeah, I guess I do need speakers and, yeah, I guess I really do need something to carry it around in.’ So that’s physical choreography. That’s influencing them to buy more.
I’ve got a member named Chris Hearn who’s in the commercial mortgage brokerage business. Every time he does a deal, he takes a photograph of the property, and then he has a photograph of the client, and then he’s got some sort of document – I’m not really sure what it is, but he puts them in these huge frames. They’re easily two feet by 18 inches and they’re in beautiful wooden frames. When you go to his office, they deliberately take you on a tour. And every hallway you walk down from the ceiling all the way down to the floor, I think they can get like four of them stacked up on top of each other, you just see row after row after row of these frames with all of the deals that this guy has done.
By the time they usher you into the room where they’re gonna talk to you about if you’re gonna give them your business, you’ve thought to yourself, my god, look at how many people this person’s done business with! I mean, geez, if it’s this many people he’s been successful for, surely he can be successful for me. That is psychological manipulation. And that’s exactly what sales choreography is.
The way you dress is sales choreography. Let’s face it, if you’re in the financial planning business or you’re in the real estate business or you’re a lawyer, you’re not going to show up in khakis and a Polo shirt. If I’m gonna give you my money, I want to see you in a suit and tie, pal, and so do most people.
I had a client once who wanted to upscale his business. He was in the photography business and wanted to do more weddings and members of the board photographs. I looked at him and said, ‘You can’t dress like that. I’m not saying you have to wear a suit, but you have to wear a nice button-down shirt and a pair of really nice slacks and you gotta lose the sneakers.’ That kind of thing really makes a difference.
From reading your book, it seemed like were a mother figure to the girls that I’m assuming they probably didn’t have.
Yeah. Well, it wasn’t so much that these girls didn’t have good experiences with their parents because for the most part, I don’t think that was true. What it was, though, is when you’re 20, 22, 23 years old, you don’t want to be going home and asking mommy for everything. Apparently kids today are different but back then, people wanted to be independent. And yet they still needed something – they still needed an adult to get guidance from and to ask questions of. I sort of filled that role for them and that was fun for me, it really was. I really enjoyed it.
Do you miss your old business or have you completely moved on?
I have completely moved on. We get nine lives – I think this is my fifth or sixth. I got a few more to go. But no, I miss it only because it was a lot of fun. It was a challenge, which I liked. And it was very rewarding. I was in the make-people-happy business, you know? You have no idea how grateful these men were that I had the kind of business they could call up and get a nice, well educated, lovely, pretty girl to come over and spend time with them in a way that made them feel safe. They were thrilled. I can’t tell you how many times they would call and say, ‘I can’t imagine ever doing business with anyone else ever. You guys are great.’
So that was nice. And of course, it was really nice helping out the young ladies because most of my girls were students, or aspiring models, actresses, dancers, singers, writers, artists, that kind of thing. The analogy I use is, they’re standing on one side of a canyon, a big deep ravine, and on the other side is their college degree, all of their acting lessons, whatever it is they need the money for, and there’s a bridge that goes over that ravine. But you gotta pay a toll. Where are you gonna get the money to pay that toll? That’s what I helped them out with.
I mean, they made the choice to come work for me. I certainly didn’t make anybody work for me That was their choice. What I basically did was help them get from where they were to where they wanted to be in their life. Most of them lasted a year or so and when they got to where they wanted to be they left. I couldn’t have wished them more happiness. As a matter of fact, I’m still in touch with a lot of them because of that. And that was a really good feeling. I don’t get that from what I do now. I get other things from what I do, but that was very special.