1. Style

Entertaining at a Business Lunch

It's Important to Pay Attention to the Details

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Business networking over lunch.

Two women networking at a business lunch.

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When most people think about entertaining, their minds quickly jump to personal events such as dinner parties, birthday parties, barbecues or holidays. But there’s another type of entertaining that happens just as frequently, namely, entertaining for business. And as much as we worry about “getting it right” at our personal events, it’s even more important to pay attention to details when we entertain someone for business.

There are a variety of reasons for entertaining someone for business. First, you might be trying to convince someone to buy your product or service. Or, more often, you may simply be building a networking relationship for ongoing business purposes. If you participate in business networking events, it’s common practice for someone to initiate a follow-up meeting to further relationships on a one-to-one basis, and these are often done at a business lunch.

The Preliminaries

If you’re the person that has initiated the follow-up meeting, it’s your responsibility to make the necessary arrangements to entertain in a restaurant to assure a meeting that proceeds without the kind of delays that might interrupt focused conversation.

Further, good table manners are always important any time you entertain, but it’s even more important to mind your manners for business. We’re not talking about trivial topics such as whether you should lift your pinky when you sip a cup of tea. No, the kind of manners we need to be concerned about are topics that could be distracting or make your guest feel more or less comfortable, such as whether it’s okay to use a toothpick or match book to clean distracting spinach from your teeth while at the table.

Once you’ve attended to the preliminaries, you can give some thought to the more subtle points of entertaining for business. Although you should consider many of these details, the one, overriding concept is that you should remember to do things that will make your guests feel most comfortable. So really, entertaining for business or personal reasons aren’t that different, after all.

Preparing for your Business Lunch

When planning your business lunch, give your guest a choice of dates and times to make it easy for them to say “yes” - a good precedent for any business relationship.

Ask your guest for suggestions of restaurants that she likes. That way, if she has a special dietary need, she can choose the restaurant without revealing anything too personal about herself. In addition, if this is simply a network building meeting, not an actual selling situation, your guest may insist on splitting the tab. If so, by choosing the restaurant, he can choose one that fits his budget.

Dress professionally. Even if it’s a sweltering summer day, you should not show up to a business lunch dressed like you’re going to a picnic.

Starting Off on the Right Foot

Be on time! It’s one thing to show up fashionably late to an open-house type of networking event with many people. But if it’s a one-on-one luncheon, you don’t want your guest to sit around wondering if you’re going to show. If you’ll be unavoidably late, call them to let them know the reason and time they can expect you to arrive. Be sure to express your apologies for the delay.

Be prepared with a few open ended questions in case your guest is shy. A yes or no question will end in silence. An open ended one can lead to a great rapport. You could bring up news you heard about a local business expanding, or a new one moving into town. You could talk about the weather and its impact on your industry, if relevant. Try to keep the conversation positive and relevant. Never gossip or speak negatively about others. And always look for a balance between your guest speaking, and maintaining the conversation on your side.

Be courteous to everyone around you. Guests aren’t simply judging you on how you treat them, they’re also observing your overall character.

Limiting Distractions

Keep your attention focused on your guest. That means, don’t look around the room to see if any of your other business contacts are there. Don’t take phone calls unless you know it’s a true emergency. Don’t text.

If another acquaintance stops by your table to say hello, introduce your guest to your acquaintance, and keep your conversation short.

Managing the Business of the Lunch

Don’t assume your guest will offer to pay or split the bill with you. Take charge of the check and if they resist, tell them they can cover the next lunch - but then don’t book it at the most expensive place in town!

Unless you both attend the lunch with the intention of finalizing a business deal, treat your lunch as a relationship building opportunity, not a chance to be pushy.

The Follow Up to your Business Lunch

End your meal by thanking your guest for meeting with you. Then follow up with a thank you note, handwritten or email, after you return to your office.

Follow up as soon as possible on any promises you made during your lunch. Whether it’s sending an interesting article you discussed, getting the phone number of a contact you promised to share, or making an introduction, you will build your credibility by your actions, not your promises.

Schedule another meeting either during your current lunch, or soon afterwards. Relationships are built over time, not over one lunch meeting.

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