7 Tips to Ace the Client Lunch

It’s a high-pressure situation: You’ve invited a prospective client to a luncheon to discuss a big upcoming project. The business could keep you busy for months so you want to make the best possible impression.

Since your professionalism at the lunch indicates your professionalism on the job, you want to get every detail right. There are a number of considerations, from choosing the right restaurant to displaying impeccable table manners. That’s right, social graces count more than ever in today’s conservative and competitive business environment. Here are seven essential tips to help make your lunch a smashing success:

One: Location is everything. It’s tempting to pick the latest hot spot to impress your client, but that’s not always the best choice for a business luncheon. You probably won’t be as familiar with the surroundings; you’re also unlikely to get the star—or even preferential—treatment at a trendy restaurant unless you know the owner. Instead, choose an old stand-by where you’re comfortable and know the wait staff. Make sure it’s a quiet place so you can talk without raising your voices. You might want to ask your potential client if he or she has any dietary restrictions, too. Bringing a vegetarian to the House of Prime Rib isn’t likely to make a favorable impression.

Two: Treat the wait staff well. Half of the advertising and marketing executives polled in a recent Creative Group survey said the single biggest blunder a professional can make during a lunch meeting is being impolite to a waiter or waitress. Don’t be rude or arrogant to the wait staff. Your behavior will likely cause your potential client to wonder if you’ll display the same attitude when you work with him or her.

Three: Don’t be late. In fact, arrive early so you can ask beforehand for the check to be delivered to you to avoid any awkwardness at the meeting. Since you arranged the luncheon, you should pick up the check. This is also a good time to ask the host for a quiet table.

Four: Don’t order "high-risk" cuisine. Do you love hard shell crab? This isn’t the time to order it unless you want your potential client’s image of you to include a crab bib. To save yourself the potential embarrassment, order food that isn’t likely to spill or accidentally be hurled toward the person across the table. Along the same lines, don’t place a high-maintenance order. Asking for the house specialty pasta with no oil, sugar and, well, pasta because you’re on a low-carb diet, or requesting just raw, steamed vegetables, is bound to make the other person uncomfortable.

Five: Make small talk. Don’t launch into your business proposal as soon as your guest arrives at the table. Think about some conversational questions that aren’t too personal in nature, such as "Where did you grow up?" or "Have you taken any good vacations lately?" Actively listen to your dining companion’s responses. You can delve into a business proposal after you’ve ordered your meal.

Six: Know your etiquette. A quick test: If you excuse yourself from the table, what do you do with your napkin?
A) Bring it with you.
B) Make it into an origami.
C) Leave it folded on the seat of your chair.
D) Drape it over the back of your chair.

If you don’t know the answer (it’s C), be sure to brush up on your table manners before your meeting. Also make sure your cell phone and pager are turned off before you’re seated as well, and never accept a phone call while at the table unless it’s a true emergency.

Seven: Save the "dog and pony" show. Meetings over a meal are best for relationship forming, not a formal presentation. Whipping out a computer with your online portfolio while dining is bound to be cumbersome. Instead, use this opportunity to get to know your potential client. Show off your portfolio pieces at the next meeting.

Finally, remain calm if something unplanned happens during your meal. A spoon that slips out of your hand or a spilled glass of water gives you a chance to demonstrate your ability to handle a glitch with grace—a quality any potential client will appreciate. Bon appetite!

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.