Whether you are invited to participate in a group business meeting with outside customers in a restaurant—or are going it alone—there are a few things to keep in mind to make it a success. You don’t want to embarrass your colleagues or ruin the chance to win over a new client just because you have poor table manners or have had too much to drink.
If you can follow these ten guidelines, your restaurant meeting is bound to be productive even if you are just laying the groundwork for a potential long-term business relationship:
Choose the right restaurant
Try to find out ahead of time what type of food your customer prefers. If they hate seafood, obviously do not bring them to a seafood restaurant. If they are vegetarian, steak and potatoes will not impress them. Even if your customer is from a foreign country, your local Italian or French cuisine, for example, will probably not measure up to what they are used to at home. Why not give them a taste of authentic American food popular in your locale, such as barbecue, bison or New England clam chowder, that perhaps they can’t get in their own country? You can always give the customer a couple of restaurant choices beforehand.
Test the quality of the restaurant ahead of time
Don’t try a restaurant for the first time with a potential customer. It will be a good excuse to go out to lunch or dinner so you can evaluate a restaurant ahead of time in order to avoid disappointment and embarrassment. You want the focus to be on your company’s products and capabilities, not on low quality food, a loud atmosphere or poor service.
Make a reservation
Don’t risk having to wait in line for a table, especially if you are meeting someone for a quick lunch. Reserve ahead of time, and if it’s a popular place that doesn’t take reservations, find a different restaurant.
Request a quiet location for your meeting
If you are part of a group of over four people, choose a restaurant that has a small private room and reserve it ahead of time. Otherwise, ask for a quiet corner away from the kitchen and bathrooms when you make your reservation. A good view is always nice too, but let your client decide if they want to sit inside or outside if it’s a nice day.
Pay the bill discreetly
Of course you are going to pick up the check, but you can save yourself an awkward moment by giving the hostess your credit card ahead of time or asking the waitress to be sure to give the check to you.
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Don’t start with talking shop~root~>
When you sit down and finish placing orders, don’t start talking business right off the bat. Rather, get to know the person by asking innocuous and inoffensive questions about their family, hobbies, travels, etc. Without getting too personal, if you can find out things like their birthday, a new baby arriving, or a special anniversary, be sure to record this information back at the office so you can send a card or small gift when the time comes. However, avoid any conversation that comes across as flirting, and certainly don’t over share about the divorce you are going through or the latest illness you just got over.
Also, it’s important to keep up with what is going on in the world, particularly in your industry. Make it a habit to read the daily news regarding travel, science, business and “feel good” stories so you can sound intelligent and well-informed. And the old adage to “never discuss politics or religion in polite company” certainly holds true here. Unless the customer seems ready to talk business, hold off until after the main course is served.
Beware of alcohol
Try to avoid alcohol, particularly if this is a lunch meeting. You know it will be much easier to say or do the wrong thing the more drinks you have. Always let your customer order first. If they are ordering a drink and appear uncomfortable that you aren’t, order just one and make it last for the duration of the meeting.
Follow dining etiquette during the meeting
Now’s the time to remember all the table manners your parents tried to teach you. The napkin goes on your lap, hold your fork correctly and do not slurp your soup! If your parents really never taught you anything or you could use a quick review, you can go online for instructions on basic restaurant etiquette.
Don’t be rude
Some people actually think it’s a sign of power to complain loudly to the waitstaff about the quality of the food, slow service or whatever. Do not do this—it’s a real turn-off to the person who has to witness that behavior. If you do have a complaint, excuse yourself from the table and say something discreetly to the waitperson or the manager.
Come prepared for the meeting
If you have samples to show or a written proposal, make sure you have everything with you and readily available. Always leave the customer with something, whether it’s a brochure, project outline, fact sheet, or even just your business card with a few words saying how much you enjoyed meeting with them. And while they should be thanking you for the delicious meal, it never hurts to send a handwritten note (no one else probably does this) or an email thanking them for their time. This is a great opportunity to highlight what you discussed and make future plans to keep the business conversation going.
A restaurant can be a perfect location to conduct a business meeting since the atmosphere is more relaxed and you have an opportunity to really get to know the customer. And unlike an office meeting, they will probably not get up and leave until at least they have finished eating!
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