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Eight tips for a successful business lunch

Jul 27, 2018
Orla Brosnan of the Etiquette School of Ireland has eight helpful tips to ensure that your business lunches are as efficient and productive as possible.

Whether you want to sell your services, better understand a client’s needs, strengthen a business relationship or just keep in touch, the traditional business lunch remains one of the most effective means of in-person impact. 

Know your objectives

A business lunch is just like any other meeting; it should have an agenda and defined goals. That’s not to say that all business lunches need to be explicitly about business, but it’s important to be clear about what you need to achieve. If it’s a first meeting with a potential client, your objective may simply be to establish rapport. You may choose to leave business out of the conversation altogether unless the client asks. The key is knowing what you want to accomplish.

Do your homework

The business lunch meeting is an ideal opportunity to connect on a personal level as well as a professional one. However, to build the strongest connection, it’s important to do some research on the person you’re meeting in advance. To prepare, take some time beforehand to learn what you can about your dining companion. Social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are great resources for understanding what people find important, and can fuel your conversation.

Set the stage

Even though you’re meeting in a restaurant, it’s nonetheless important to choose an appropriate location. Choose a quiet restaurant with a relaxed setting that will be conducive to conversation. Make reservations a few days prior, and arrive early to meet with wait staff and make arrangements for a good table. You may also wish to give the restaurant your credit card, in order to avoid confusion or embarrassment about who will pay at the end of the meal. Wait to be seated until your guest arrives, and don’t forget to turn off your mobile phone to avoid distractions.

Make safe food choices

Choose a dish in the middle price range – and one that you can eat gracefully, like a salad or fish. Avoid food that is messy, gets stuck in your teeth, or requires a lot of attention. There’s nothing worse than having sauce dribbling down your top in the middle of a conversation!

While whoever is hosting the lunch should make it clear that guests should order whatever they wish, guests should nevertheless show some restraint. Stick to simple dishes that are on the menu, such as beef or salmon, and avoid asking the wait staff for an explanation of a dish. Remember that many people have specific dietary requirements and it may be worth contacting the restaurant in advance to ensure they can accommodate special requests.

When it comes to a beverage, many people attending business lunches choose not to drink alcohol in a business setting. However, if your client orders a glass of wine or a cocktail, it’s fine to do so yourself. In this instance, sip your drink slowly and limit yourself to just one.

If ordering from a wine list, the waiter will normally bring the wine list to the person they perceive as the host or organiser. If you are the host and it is given to someone else, then you may ask them to pass it over and take charge, but do consult others, particularly if they have an interest in wine.

Start with light conversation 

Begin your lunch by connecting on a personal level. Remember to focus on your client, rather than yourself. This is your opportunity to learn what your client cares about while building trust. If you have specific business matters on the agenda, save them for after you place your order.

Mind your manners

Table manners matter and can make a difference to the success of your business lunch. Always follow these basic rules of dining etiquette:

  • Put your napkin in your lap when you are seated. If you need to excuse yourself during the meal, put your napkin on the chair. When you’re leaving, put your napkin on the table.
  • Put your utensils on your plate, not the table.
  • Don’t talk with your mouth full.
  • Treat the wait staff with kindness and respect.

Keep an eye on the time

Plan on lunch lasting an hour and a half, but take your cues from the situation. If the conversation is lagging, or if your client hints of all the work that awaits back at the office, it’s probably time to wrap up early. Propose a second meeting if necessary.

Wrap it up

Send an email the following day to thank your client for joining you. It may also be helpful to jot down notes from your conversation. A ‘cheat sheet’ of personal facts you learned about your client will be useful the next time you meet.

Orla Brosnan is that founder and Director of Etiquette School of Ireland.