Doing business over meals is a ritual that has gone on for centuries even during those times when men speared their food with their knife—that being the only utensil they had—and when they used the table cloth or their sleeve to wipe their mouth. Today we a bit more civilized. There are rules.
Taking clients to breakfast, lunch or dinner has long been an effective way to build relationships, make the sale or seal the deal. Your knowledge of your product or your service is essential to the success of the meal, but so are your manners. Too many people jeopardize an opportunity because they fail to use good dining etiquette.
Here are a few basic rules to make the experience pleasurable, profitable and productive.
- Know your duties as the host. It is up to you to see that things go well and that your guests are comfortable. Pay attention to every detail from extending the invitation to paying the bill.
- Plan ahead when issuing the invitation. Allow a week for a business dinner and three days for lunch. Be certain that the date is solid for you. That might seem obvious, but if you have to cancel or postpone, you will appear disorganized and disrespectful of your client’s time.
- Select a restaurant that you know, preferably one where you are known. Being confident of the quality of the food and service leaves you free to focus on business. You need to be sure the atmosphere is conducive to conversation. The trendiest restaurant may be so loud that you and your guest can’t hear a word over the dishes and the diners.
- Call ahead for a reservation. This is no time to take a chance on whether or not you will be able to get a table upon arrival. It can be most awkward trying to kill time and make small talk while waiting for a table.
- Confirm your plans with your client early that day or preferably the day before to make sure that nothing has changed. Things do happen and mix-ups occur.
- Arrive early so you can attend to last minute details. This is the perfect time to give your credit card to the maitre’d and avoid the awkwardness that seems to accompany the arrival of the bill. If you are unable to do that, quietly let your server know to bring the check to you. If those suggestions fail, reach for the check the minute it arrives at the table. Erase all doubt as to who is paying.
- Take charge of the seating. Your guest should have the prime seat—the one with the view. As the host, take the least desirable spot—the one that faces the wall, the kitchen or the restroom.
- Allow your guest to order first. You might suggest certain dishes to be helpful. Order the same number of courses as your guest, no more and no less, to facilitate the flow of the meal.
- Choose the right time to start the business discussion. Wait until you have placed your order so there will be fewer interruptions.
- If alcohol is served with the meal, limit your consumption—even if Uber is waiting outside. Wine, beer and liquor can loosen the tongue. You may find yourself saying or doing things you hadn’t intended.
Your conduct over the meal will determine your success. If you pay attention to the details and make every effort to see that your clients have a pleasant experience, they will assume that you will handle their business the same way. Before long they will be eating out of your hand.