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Dine Like A Diplomat: Survival Guide for Business Dinners

When people talk about business, it almost automatically evokes visions of huge companies in tall buildings, high-end marketing and advertising campaigns. However, if you ask any career executive, they would probably tell you that beyond the jobs and career opportunities their businesses provide, a huge part of doing business is actually building dependable, lasting relationships with clients, current or potential business partners, and their employees.

A significant part of building relationships is taking clients out for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is usually during these more laid-back types of meetings that most deals are sealed. You don’t need to break the bank just to host a successful meal with a client. You just need to know the basic etiquette to make your dining experience enjoyable, rewarding, and productive.
Dinners are usually the more commonly scheduled meeting due to its convenience --- end of the day, as one is winding down from a deluge of whole day activities. Taking clients out for a nice, relaxing dinner is a good opportunity to build sustainable relationships that your business need.
And so, here are eleven important guidelines to help you become an impressive host for your clients:

  1. Send your invite at least a week in advance

    Make sure that your schedule is wide open on your proposed date. As much as possible, avoid canceling or postponing a dinner appointment to avoid appearing disorganized and unmindful of your clients’ precious time. Follow this up with a confirmation at least a day before to ensure your appointment is still on, since sometimes, emergencies do arise or mix-ups may occur.

  2. Make reservations with a good restaurant ahead of time

    Never take a chance on this one. It is a waste of time and quite awkward having to wait around for a seat. Another crucial thing to remember when choosing a place to dine in is to pick a restaurant willing to adjust to people with varying dietary needs e.g. vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free or other special diets. This is to avoid putting your clients in an uncomfortable or frustrating situation, not having anything available for them to eat.

  3. Read up about your dining companions

    Thankfully, we now have social media and online sites like LinkedIn to rely on for these types of crucial information. Knowing the backgrounds and personal interests of your attendees would help you leverage your conversation. You may then “steer” the dinner conversations to common topics of interest to build a deeper rapport and connection with your clients.

  4. Dress appropriately

    Find out the dress code ahead of time (and make sure to inform your guests about it), follow the dress code and make sure your entire appearance is clean, neat and crisp. How you dress up will make a huge impression on your guests.

  5. Arrive at the venue ahead of time to make sure things are in order

    Choose a table that is away from the path of “foot traffic,” noisy groups of people or loud background music. Rehearse the seating arrangement in your mind, or better yet, have the restaurant put place cards especially if you are meeting several people. Your guests must have the prime seats (e.g. one with a nice view), and you as the host can take the least desirable spot (e.g. facing the kitchen, toilet or wall).

  6. Prepay the bill

    As much as possible, avoid the awkward situation of seeing the bill arrive at your table. Give your credit card to the maitre’d as soon as you arrive, excuse yourself to pay at the register mid-meal, or quietly signal the server to give you the check. In case you fail to do these first three suggestions, reach for the check as soon as it arrives at your table.

  7. Let your guests order first

    If you know the restaurant’s specialties, you may suggest these to your guests. Match your guests’ number of courses and their eating pace. Finishing before your guests would be quite awkward. When having drinks, follow your guests’ lead, but not to the point of consuming too much alcohol. Alcohol tends to loosen one’s tongue, and you don’t want to risk saying or doing things you don’t intend to.

  8. Deal with the restaurant staff politely, no matter what

    In the extreme case that dishes or services fail to match your expectations, keep your cool. How you deal with any person in these situations can affect your business relationship, as it would reflect how you may also deal with your clients.

  9. Choose a good time to start talking business

    Wait until your guests have fully settled down, loosened up a bit and have their full focus on your discussion. Also wait until after you have placed your order to avoid interruptions by service staff. Although the business discussion is definitely the most anticipated part of the evening, never underestimate small talk as well. You can gauge your clients’ character and their initial impression about you during these chit chats.

  10. Keep gadgets at bay

    Keep your cellphone, iPad, laptop and other gadgets in your bag during the entire dinner. Keep your cellphone on silent mode. Answering texts, reading emails or resting your phone on the table during the meal would send the signal that you are not fully interested and engaged with your guests.

  11. Follow through at least the morning after your dinner

    Make sure to note down the agreed action points during your dinner, and follow through on requests or promises on both sides.
    Aside from these guidelines, it is also very important to know the subtle art of eating. You don’t want your clients or prospects to be distracted or turned off by lack of manners after everything you have prepared to ensure a nice dinner.
In an article from the Seattle Times, Business Reporter Stanley Holmes tells the story of an executive candidate who was invited by the Chief Finance Officer (CFO) of a company to a lunch meeting. The candidate wasn't aware that he already clinched an executive level position because the company still wanted to check on the candidate's soft skills. The job offer was never pitched because during the lunch meeting, the CFO observed that the candidate did not follow proper dining etiquette. It was a red flag for the CFO, implying that the candidate was not fit for a public relations executive role which required regularly meeting clients over a meal, where deals can be closed, or lost.

There’s a lot of material online on the etiquette of eating properly and discreetly. Read up, and practice if necessary.

You’re all set!

The way your dinner goes will determine your success. Just apply these basic guidelines, be extra attentive to the needs of your guests, and when they do associate your actions to the way you will also handle their business, then you’re well on your way to a successful business partnership.

Communication is an essential skill for executives to clearly deliver their message in a way that people understand and will resonate with those you need to persuade. Since we mostly communicate these days electronically, it’s a must to master the Art of Business Writing. Follow our blog to read about the basic rules for using salutations in business writing.

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