Taking clients out for an enjoyable dinner can help you build the long-lasting relationships that your business needs. But you need to plan carefully so you're sure to make the best possible impression.
For example, choose a restaurant willing to accommodate people on a vegetarian, gluten-free or other special diets, says Mark Hemmeter, founder of Office Evolution, a provider of virtual office space in Boulder, Colo., who often meets with investors and potential franchisees over dinner. "I don't want to put someone in an uncomfortable situation."
Here are seven of the essential ingredients to wooing clients during a business dinner:
Research your dining companions.
Take time to read up on your guests using online search tools or LinkedIn. If you know the business and personal backgrounds of the attendees, including personal interests and hobbies, you can use the information to help build your relationship, says Deborah Goldstein, a founder of Goldie's Table Manners, a New York City-based dining etiquette business. "If you find a hobby in common, you can steer the conversation to 'stumble on' that commonality."
Getting to the restaurant ahead of your guests can help ensure that the dinner goes smoothly. For one thing, you'll have time to control the noise level by making sure you're not sitting next to a large group of people and that the table isn't in the path of traffic, says Lydia Ramsey, a business etiquette expert in Savannah, Ga. Also, she says, if the guests arrive first, they may not feel they're a high priority with you.
Prepay the bill.
Seeing the bill arrive can be awkward for your business guests even though they aren't expected to pay. If it's a restaurant you're comfortable with, let the server run your credit card, designate a tip percentage and sign the bill either before your guests' arrival or when you discreetly step away from the table mid-meal. You can either pick up the check as you exit or have it mailed to you, Ramsey says. "That way the check never comes to the table. It makes it very comfortable for the guest."
Match the client in consumption.
To keep a balance throughout the meal, let your guest order first. For example, skip the appetizer if your guest orders only an entrée -- ditto when it comes to dessert. Even if you order the same courses, adjust your pace so you're eating at a similar rate, Goldstein advises. Sitting in front of your finished plate may make it awkward for your companion if he's only half way through the meal. If you're having drinks, it's also important to follow your guest's lead, Hemmeter says. "I want to relate to the person I am dining with, and unbalanced alcohol consumption can make that difficult." If the guest starts drinking too much, however, keeping pace clearly isn't a good idea, he adds.
Respect the wait staff.
How you communicate with restaurant staff can affect your business relationship by changing the way your guests feel about you. So don't lose your cool even if dishes or service are not up to par. "I can't stand it when people are rude or condescending to servers in a restaurant," Hemmeter says. "They usually carry that attitude to their workforce, and I don't want to work with people like that."
Take advantage of the small talk.
Inviting a client to dinner doesn't mean you need to talk about only business. In fact, it may be appropriate to avoid work topics altogether and simply get to know each other on a personal basis. Small talk can often be a great way to assess another guest: Does he dominate the conversation or is he a good listener? Does she act in a respectful or demeaning manner toward subordinates? If you do need to discuss business matters, Ramsey recommends that you save them for after the main course when there will be fewer interruptions from the server.
Be sure to follow-up on the dinner
Take note of what you may need to do post-dinner and be sure to follow through on any requests from your guests, such as making introductions to third parties or tracking down information. "Many people promise action, but don't follow through," Goldstein says.
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