Much Ado About Business Dining

Jan 24, 2019

Taking clients to breakfast, lunch, or dinner has long been an effective way to build relationships, make the sale, or seal the deal. Business meals are business meetings. Knowledge of your product or service is crucial to the success of the occasion, but so are your manners. Too many people jeopardize an opportunity because they fail to observe the rules of etiquette.

Business dining is not about the food, the wine, or the atmosphere. The focus is on dining for profit.

Know your duties as the host. It is up to you to see that things go well and that your guests are comfortable. You need to attend to every detail, from extending the invitation to paying the bill.

Before the Meal:

  • Plan ahead when you issue the invitation. Allow a week’s notice for a business dinner and three days for lunch. Be certain that the date works for you. That might sound obvious, but if you have to cancel or postpone, you can look disorganized and disrespectful of your clients’ time.
  • Select a restaurant that you know, preferably one where you are known. This is no time to try out the latest hot spot. Being confident of the quality of the food and service leaves you free to focus on business.
  • Consider the atmosphere. Does it lend itself to conversation and discussion? If you and your clients can’t hear each other over the roar of the diners and dishes, you will have wasted your time and money.
  • Confirm the appointment with your clients. Check in with them the day before if you are meeting for breakfast or that day if you are having lunch or dinner. Last minute issues can come up and mix-ups do occur.
  • Arrive early so you can attend to the details. This is the perfect time to give your credit card to the maitre’d to avoid the awkwardness that can accompany the arrival of the bill.
  • Take charge of the seating. Your guests should have the prime seats—the ones with the view. As the host, take the least desirable spot—the one facing the wall, the kitchen, or the restrooms. Beyond being polite, where you seat your guests is strategic. When you are entertaining one client, sit next to each at a right angle rather than across the table from each other. With two clients, put one across from you and the other to your side. If you sit between them, you will look as if you are watching a match at Wimbledon as you try to follow the conversation.
  • Allow your guests to order first. Order as many courses as your guests, no more and no less, to facilitate the flow of the meal.  It is awkward if one of you orders an appetizer or dessert and others do not.

During the meal:

  • As the host, you are the one who decides when to start discussing business. At breakfast, get down to business quickly, as time is short. At lunch, wait until you have ordered so you won’t be interrupted. Dinner, the more social occasion, is a time for rapport building.  Limit business talk until after the main course.
  • Keep an eye on the time, but don’t let your guests see you checking your watch. Breakfast should typically last an hour; lunch an hour and a half. Wrap up your business dinner in two to three hours, no more.
  • Handle any disasters with grace. Despite all of your planning and attention to detail, things can still go wrong. The food may not be up to your standards, the waiter might be rude, or the people at the next table may be disruptive. Excuse yourself to discuss any problems with the restaurant management. Don’t make your guests uncomfortable by complaining in front of them.
  • Limit your alcohol intake. If your guests are drinking liberally and you sense trouble, excuse yourself and discreetly ask the server to hold back on refilling the wine glasses or offering another cocktail.

Your conduct before and during a business meal will determine your professional success. If you pay attention to the details and make every effort to see that your clients have a pleasant experience, they will feel confident that you will handle their business the same way. Before long you could have them eating out of your hand.

You can learn more about this topic at these AMA seminars:

Polishing Your Professional Image

How to Communicate with Diplomacy, Tact, and Credibility