Table Manners -
"Let's meet for lunch,"
The ingredients to a successful business lunch don't
have to be a mystery, however. According to a poll conducted by The Creative
Group, an advertising and marketing firm in Menlo Park, Calif., being rude
to a restaurant employee is the No. 1 reason a business lunch goes bad. What
are other reasons?
• Arriving late.
• Bad table manners.
• Dressing too casually.
Here's a look at five other common business-lunch faux pas
that are easily preventable:
1. Choosing the wrong restaurant.
Picking the right place for a business lunch is hardly a
no-brainer, especially if you're in an unfamiliar city. And even if you're
on your own home turf, there's still the possibility that something could go
wrong. For example: inviting a prospective client who is allergic to
shellfish to a seafood restaurant. Some establishments just aren't meant for
business meals. Brooks Hurd remembers one such place, where his co-workers
met to welcome back an employee who had just gotten out of the hospital.
"The appetizers and main course were good, but not outstanding," recalls
Hurd, a consultant in San Luis Obispo, Calif. "The quality did not match the
prices. Service was slow. The meal dragged on." Then, during dessert, Hurd
says, a waiter accidentally dropped strawberry shortcake on the guest of
honor. "The result was stunning."
Tip: Rely on multiple sources for a restaurant recommendation. And
don't forget to check with your business contact. It's embarrassing to ask a
vegetarian to meet you at a steak restaurant.
2. Inviting the wrong guests.
Oh, the grief I got from readers after I admitted that I
brought my infant son to a business lunch in a previous column. "I couldn't
stop shuddering at the thought of sitting down to a working lunch with a
business client -- or my partners -- if one of them has brought along his
kids," wrote Lisa Floyd. "Don't misunderstand; I love kids. But I don't
believe business and kids mix." How true. And as I pointed out in that
earlier column, there are places where children clearly don't belong, and a
business lunch is one of them. But children aren't the only other meal
guests who might be considered bad company. How about the tag-along spouse
who wasn't invited? The intern? Or, heaven forbid, the company lawyer (when
no legal matters are on the table)? Don't laugh, it's happened to me.
Tip: Follow up your verbal lunch invitation with an e-mail confirming the
guest list. You don't have to be obnoxious about it. A simple, "Hey, just a
note to let you know I've made reservations for two at Charlie's at noon
next Tuesday," would be enough to get this message across: No interlopers,
3. Sitting at the wrong table.
The service may be spectacular, and you might be meeting
with the right people. But what if you can't discuss the deal? When I worked
in New York, the deli was a favorite spot to do lunch. Good food, fast
service, always a convenient location. What more could you want? Well, just
try connecting with a confidential source at a sandwich shop. During lunch
hour, a mob of hungry people moves through the joint, yelling orders across
the counter and crowding around your table. This is no place to talk
business. On the flip side, I also never completely trusted the quiet
restaurant where you had to whisper for fear of being overheard by the folks
sitting at the next table. Bottom line: You don't want anyone eavesdropping
on you business lunch. The ideal establishment comes with several booths
where your conversations can neither be seen nor heard.
4. Saying the wrong thing.
Remember the part about the unwritten rules? Here's one of
them: At an American business lunch, it's considered inappropriate to get
down to business before the waiter has handed you the menu. In other
countries, you don't talk business until the first glass of wine has been
poured and the host offers a toast. Elsewhere, ordering wine is considered
inappropriate. I'll never forget the shocked expression on my host's face
when I sat down to lunch with him, whipped out my business card, and
immediately began talking about work. He'd spent a considerable amount of
time in Europe and obviously preferred to ease into a business discussion.
But I foolishly ignored his discomfort. That business lunch was a failure.
5. Ending it the wrong way.
The conclusion of a business meal is as important as its
beginning. A verbal "thank you" at the end is always appropriate (even if it
didn't go as you planned). It should be followed with an invitation to
reciprocate at a future date. If possible, send a thank-you note (which is
also another opportunity to send your business card), noting what you
specifically liked about the meal and, possibly, recapping the conversation.
As a journalist who sometimes writes opinionated stories, I've been to lots
of "bridge-building" lunches, set up by well-meaning publicists with the
intention of mending fences. Sometimes they work, but sometimes they fall
flat. You know those scenes in made-for-TV movies where someone throws down
the napkin and walks away from the table in a huff? They're not imaginary.
The point is, when the lunch doesn't conclude the way you hoped it would,
it's still important to end it on the right note. Write a thank-you card,
even if you never expect to do business with this person again.