Why David Lee Roth hates brown M&Ms, and other tidbits to sweeten client dealings

Wisdom from a pro, for pros

Yeah, Diamond Dave was pretty much the poster child for ‘80s rock ‘n roll excess. Part of that persona included some of the wild conditions that Van Halen included in their now-famous contract rider for their shows. The most infamous condition? No brown M&Ms backstage. For real.

Van Halen Backstage List
Source: Smoking Gun

Just another case of rock and roll petulance and entitlement, right? Maybe not. Check out the video below, where DLR tells his version of the story.

To hear him tell the story, the real reason was to help determine if the venue promoters on the other side of the table were actually reading the details of the agreement. At the time they were touring, Van Halen was putting on one of the most complex stage shows that had ever been mounted. There were dozens of technical details around wiring and electrical setup and structural reinforcement that required attention in order to ensure the safety of the band members and crew. If those items weren’t addressed, the crew’s safety would be at risk.

The brown M&Ms were the canaries in the coal mine.

If the promoter didn’t read the rider and didn’t remove the brown M&Ms, it was reasonable to think that perhaps some other aspects of the agreement had been glossed over as well. The M&Ms were a way to ensure that communication was taking place between all the parties.

Van Halen M&Ms
Photo: H. Michael Karshis via Flickr cc

You might not be a multi-platinum selling artist with long flowing locks and a predisposition for doing high kicks*. If you are, you can get away with slipping a line like the M&Ms bit into a document in order to see if everyone is paying attention. If not, here are three things that you can do to ensure that communication is actually happening with your clients:

Take copious notes, and report back.

I used this approach a lot when working on consulting projects. Especially during the kickoff meeting with a new client, taking very detailed notes and then emailing them to the client after the meeting with a final question of “does this match your understanding of what we discussed, and did I forget anything?” is a great tactic to make sure that what you think you heard is actually what was said. It’s also a great way to tease out additional requirements.

Ask the client to repeat things back to you in their words.

If you have explained something to a client or prospect, ask them to play it back to you. If you’re having difficulty understanding the replay, it’s probably a good idea to go over things another time or two in order to make sure there is agreement and understanding.

Do lots of check-ins, especially early in the process.

Especially as things are first getting underway, frequent check-ins are important. In a fast-moving environment, daily check-ins are probably a good idea. (An agile standup is a great example of this.) Once things are rolling along and in a groove, the checkins can probably be less frequent, down to weekly or every other week.

For Van Halen, a miscommunication between the band and the promoter could have resulted in a miscue that would have ruined a show or caused bodily harm. For a web pro, miscommunications can result in unhappy clients, wasted time or lost business. Are you doing the right things to make sure that everyone is on the same page?

* Or maybe you are. If so, that’s cool, too.


Also published on Medium.

Image by: Jaafar Alnasser Photography via Compfight cc

Christopher Carfi
A veteran of both startups and the enterprise, Chris has a deep track record in developing customer community and evangelist programs for brands such as Adobe, H&R Block and Aruba Networks while holding executive positions at Ant’s Eye View and Edelman Digital, and he was co-founder and CEO at Cerado. He currently lives in the Bay Area with his family.