Managing the Business Lunch or Dinner—Just in Time for the Holidays


A simple social outing seems like a no brainer, but there's a big difference between a well thought out occasion and a "random act of lunch."  One of the first things to consider is "why?"  There are a few reasons for a get together

  • To say thanks for business or referrals
  • To nurture a relationship
  • To make an introduction
  • To conduct business 

You and your invitee(s) should be clear on the purpose from the outset.  "I'd like you and a guest to join me for dinner...I've also invited a partner at Dunlap Codding whose company I think you'll enjoy."  Or, "I really appreciate the work you've referred to us.  Please be my guest for dinner."  Or, "I'd like to take you to lunch to discuss how we might expand the work we're doing with you to another area that I think you'd find valuable."  Be transparent; no one likes bait and switch. 

Know the territory.  Either frequent a restaurant where you've established a relationship or research the taste and preferences of your guests.  This isn't a time to try something new. Arrange ahead of time for a quiet table—arrive early to scout it out.  It's a nice touch to deal with the check in advance.  This may be especially important if you are a female host.  Even if you repeatedly indicate you're hosting by saying, "please take my guest's order first," etc., an inexperienced waiter may hand the check to the male guest.  Wait for your guest at the front of the restaurant, if possible.  (Similarly, when someone comes to your office, walk out to the lobby to greet him or her.) 

Introductions.  Say the name of the "most important" person first.  "Catherine Client, may I introduce you to Paul Partner, our firm's most experienced life sciences attorney.  I believe you and he are both dog lovers."  It's helpful to offer a topic to get the conversation started. 

Cross selling--rare or well done?  Making an introduction during a business meal to someone else at the firm is fine, but it's typically not the best way to showcase a partner's talent.  Better:  When the client is in the office, call the partner into the meeting to actually do something or to offer advice.  Or, offer a private briefing. 

Take a seat.  Offer the best seat (with a view of the room) to your guest.  Stand up when someone comes to the table to say hello. 

Timing is almost everything.  After pleasantries and small talk have been covered, order your meal and consider discussing business then, rather than rushing through a business discussion (if there is to be one) at the end of the meal. 

Ordering and setting parameters.  Mention dishes that are noteworthy and in the price range you are comfortable with.  Match your guest—if they order a soup, a salad, and an entrée, you do the same.  If you are the guest and the host has not suggested a game plan, order a first course and an entrée.  Order something mid-priced—neither the least nor the most expensive item.  If the host or guest orders wine or champagne and you don't wish to drink alcohol, order something festive (e.g., sparkling water with cranberry juice and lime) in order to "match."  At a dinner, when you are hosting, order wine for the table.  If you aren't an expert, get recommendations from the sommelier in advance.  If that's not possible, order something mid-priced.  If your guest is an aficionado, you may request that they order the wine.  Regardless of who orders, don't make fun of anyone's choice.  "What?  You're going to drink a blush wine with fish!"  And, don't mock someone for putting ice cubes in their glass.  In general, match your guest.  If they continue eating, you do the same.  If they order dessert, you do too.  Your goal is to make your guest feel perfectly comfortable.  

Navigating the place settings.  Remember BMW--bread, meal, water.  Your bread plate is to your left, your meal is in front of you, and your water or beverage glass is to your right.   Knives and forks are placed in order of use—the outermost fork is the first to be used.  There are several on-line images available that depict formal place settings in detail.  Refer to one before your event.  Pick up your napkin immediately after being seated and place it in your lap.  There's no need to flap it around or shake it out.  Just place it.  If you must leave the table during the meal, place your napkin on the seat of your chair and not on the table.  Purses, handbags, and briefcases also do not belong on the table. 

Your fork is not a spear.  Don't stab your steak and saw at it with your knife.   Either Continental  style (fork in the left hand, tines down) or American style (fork in the left hand, tines down, when cutting your entrée and then switch your fork to your right hand, tines up, to transfer the food to your mouth) is acceptable.  Pick one and stick to it.  Don't gesture with your knife or fork when making a point.  Used utensils should be placed on your plate and not on the table.  To indicate you are finished with your dish, place your knife and fork at four o'clock, tines up (American) or tines down (Continental).  To indicate you are resting, cross your knife and fork at the bottom of your plate, with your fork at four o'clock and your knife at seven (Continental style).  

Service issues.  If you have scouted your location and spoken to the staff in advance, service should not be an issue.  Some hosts have been known to tip generously in advance with a request for exceptional treatment.  If service is an issue, be gracious.  Your purpose is to build a relationship with your guest, not to eat a great meal.  If your steak isn't cooked quite right, consider eating it anyway.  By the time your entrée is corrected, your guest may be finished or their food may be cold.  Sending food back disrupts the flow and should be avoided.  If you don't like your food, eat the side dishes and "play with your food."  Meaning, take a bite or two and move the rest around a bit in order not to call attention to your displeasure. 

Follow up.  Send a handwritten note to your guest thanking him or her for joining you.  If you are the guest, of course do the same.  If your meeting involved a discussion of new or additional work, send customized materials directly applicable to the client or prospect, not a brochure. 

Finally.  Remember your purpose.  Act graciously at all times, with a goal of making everyone as comfortable as possible.  

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia: 



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