Dining with Clients? Preparation Can Ease Your Jitters

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek December 14, 2022
Dining with Clients? Preparation Can Ease Your Jitters

​Business meals can be especially stressful for individuals new to the workforce or new to positions where dining out with clients is a part of the job. But developing business connections often is done while breaking bread, and these opportunities should not be avoided, said Patricia Cook, president of Chicago-based Patricia Cook & Associates since 2003.

"Business dining is all about the relationships, not the free food—but the free food is a lovely perk," she said during a virtual concurrent session at the recent SEI Women's Network Leadership Summit 2022.

"The networking piece of our jobs is so important," she stressed. Prior to starting her own business, she served as vice president and relationship manager, and head of recruitment and manager, at the Commercial Credit Training Program.

She shared the following tips gleaned from her many years of conducting business with clients over meals during her work in the financial industry:

Banish the "lizard brain." Those are thoughts that tempt you to shy away from opportunities—often challenging ones—that allow you to grow. Perhaps you had a bad experience at a business lunch. Instead of telling yourself you will never take a client to lunch again, learn from your experience, Cook noted.

Change your mindset and be prepared to be amazed, she advised, quoting Ginni Rometty, IBM chairman, president and CEO from 2012 to 2020, who said, "Growth and comfort never co-exist. … If you want to grow as a leader, you welcome challenge, you welcome risk because you know you will come out better."

Consider what you are trying to accomplish during the meal. This will determine the type of meal you invite a client to and the type of seating once there. Will you be talking over a deal, requiring a private room, a quiet booth or table?

Consider your client's preference—breakfast, lunch, dinner? Breakfast and lunch are the easiest business meals. A long breakfast is an hour; lunch is 60 to 90 minutes. These are more relaxed opportunities to network with potential clients and customers. They don't take up too much time, so they are good for quick check-ins and alcohol is not a consideration.

"Dinners serve a whole different purpose; it's a relationship-building time," Cook said, noting that dinner might include spouses or partners. Bear in mind, though, that family or after-work responsibilities may dissuade a client from wanting to meet over dinner, she added.

Know your responsibilities as host. When preparing to host a client for a meal, be mindful of the following:

  • The host invites the client, chooses the restaurant and is knowledgeable ahead of the meal about any food allergies or dietary restrictions.
  • Make clear your organization is treating your guest to the meal to avoid any tug-of-war over the check later. In extending the meal invitation, for example, Cook suggested saying, "I'd like to treat you to breakfast to say thank-you for your help with this deal."
  • Show up early. Arriving later than your guests sends the message, however untrue, that they are not important enough for you to make the effort to be on time.  
  • Gauge table availability. If the hostess asks to show you to a table before your guests arrive, take note if you need to secure a table immediately. If not, simply wait for your guests near the hostess stand. If you need to secure a table, sit down and place your napkin in your lap. You may have a glass of water but do not order anything; if your guests arrive late, you don't want to appear you've been waiting on them long enough to drink half of a soda, Cook pointed out.
  • Know what food the restaurant is known for, and make recommendations.
  • Comment on what you're ordering so your guest has an idea of how many courses and the price range from which to choose from on the menu. "If [I'm] the guest and the host has not set the stage and [I] don't know what the host is ordering … I order safe food. Not too messy, not too expensive, doesn't take too long to make and is an easy thing to eat."
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  • Familiarize yourself with place settings. Formal dinner settings can be intimidating. Cook shared a trick she uses: Surreptitiously form the letter "b" with your left hand and the letter "d" with your right to remind yourself that your bread plate is on your left and your drink is on your right. If your client accidentally uses your bread plate, say nothing. Don't even quietly ask the server for a new bread plate; you don't want to cause embarrassment. And do not poach the plate from the person seated at your right.
  • Don't share food. While this may be something you do with friends or family, it's not done during a business meal.
  • Keep the conversation going to make everyone feel included. Stay up-to-date on the news and latest sports scores.
  • Leave personal items—sunglasses, devices, keys, portfolio—off the table. Cook places her portfolio behind her back on her chair. Never place items, such as a purse, on the floor near your chair. It can be a tripping hazard for the waitstaff.
  • Ask the client for recommendations if you are from out of town but making the restaurant reservations.
  • Be prepared to make wine recommendations. If you're not knowledgeable about wine, consider preparing by taking a wine course, getting tips from the local wine store or asking your server for recommendations. Before asking the server, determine your guests' preferences—red or white? Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet? Then peruse the wine menu, note prices and tell your server, "A couple of these look good," pointing to them on the menu. That way, the server will know the cost range and can make a recommendation, Cook said.
  • Listen and be impressed by your client. Lean in and show interest in what they're saying. Remember, though, no elbows on the table once the meal is served. 


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