So, you’ve just landed a major “get”—a well-qualified prospect wants to meet up with you at a trendy restaurant to lay out the parameters of a possible deal. You’ve made the reservations, picked up your best business suit from the dry cleaner’s, and sketched out a basic agenda. Now what?
If the thought of talking business over dinner makes you lose your appetite, you’re not alone. It seems that a not-insignificant number of otherwise poised and polished professionals harbor a deep-seated fear of restaurant meetings.
Whether you’re an untidy eater or just a bit unsure of the rules of restaurant etiquette, this is a fear that’s easy to overcome. Here are some basic tips to help you fly through your next business dinner with ease and aplomb.
Do some restaurant reconnaissance in advance of the meeting. If your client has picked out the setting for your meeting, try to get a read on the place before the day that your tête-à-tête is scheduled to go down. Websites are an excellent resource that let you take a look at the menu and get a feel for the house specialties, atmosphere, and ambiance beforehand. If you can’t find a website, look for online reviews of the establishment. Better yet? If your client has no preference, pick a restaurant that you’ve been to before.
Timing is everything. The restaurant setting is inherently more social than a boardroom, so set aside some time for unhurried small talk as you and your client are checking out the menu and making your selections. Don’t dive into the meat of the meeting, as it were, too soon. Let your client take the lead in signaling when he or she is ready to get down to business.
Stick to common-sense menu selections. Whether you’re an etiquette master who knows with certainty which fork to use for each course or a country bumpkin who usually prefers drive-thrus, it pays to stick to dishes that are easy to eat without causing too much of a mess. Stay on the safe side by steering clear of red sauces, ribs, finger foods, and any dishes that are associated with strong odors.
Avoid the vino. In general, etiquette experts say you should follow your client’s lead during meal meetings—except when it comes to alcoholic beverages. Unless you go way back with your client and your relationship is as much friendship as business partnership, it’s best to just say no. Alcohol tends to diminish inhibitions, which is exactly what you don’t need when you’re in negotiations with a client. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, so save the spirits for another occasion.
Be prepared to foot the bill. You know that little dance you do to grab the bill when you’re out to dinner with friends or family? Yep, that’s right—it’s time to put on your dancing shoes again. No matter who invited whom, you should always expect to be on the hook for the meal when you’re meeting with a client over lunch or dinner. If they repeatedly insist on paying and seem to mean it, it’s better to back off than to cause an awkward tug-of-war —but only with the understanding that the next time’s on you.
Do you have any tips for less nerve-wracking restaurant meetings? Got any horror stories about client dinners that went awry? Tell us in the comments.