Taking Clients to Lunch

Today we get to write about two of our favorite things: lunch and clients. This post is based on an idea by our colleague Anabella Tidona, a court-certified interpreter in California.

We've often written about the fact that it's a good idea and a nice business gesture to take current or potential clients to lunch to take the relationship to the next level, even if you don't get any immediate projects out of this small investment  It's amazing how different a business relationship with someone can be once you've shared a comfortable meal. Please read on for our tips about the art of the business lunch. While we are far from experts on specific etiquette, we do believe that we've learned a thing or two after hundreds of business lunches in four countries.
Lovely outdoor lunch in Austria. Photo by Judy.

  • Ask. Occasionally colleagues ask us about the best way to go about this, and it can be very simple. E-mail or call and say: "I'd love to show my appreciation for your business and take you to lunch next week. I just went to this fabulous ______ place near your office. Would you be available next week? If that's not convenient for you, how about XYZ?" Alternatively, if the person is not your client yet, you could say: "It was nice meeting you at XYZ. Since the weather is so great this week, may I treat you to an al fresco lunch at ______, which is very close to your office?" If you have a specific business purpose, just state it. Don't be shy: it's a business lunch, not a date, and the purpose of business is, well, to do business. If you don't have a specific business purpose, it's perfectly fine, and you don't have to explicitly say that you'd eventually like to do business with this person. It goes without saying. And don't worry about people declining the lunch: most people LOVE a free lunch, so this is a very attractive proposition. It's not like you are asking someone to a boring three-hour meeting on Friday afternoon.
  • Pick a restaurant. Ask your lunch partner if he/she has any preferences. Perhaps she's a vegetarian, so you should probably not take her to a steak house. Or perhaps he's on Atkins and you happen to know this, so do some research into restaurants with Atkins-friendly options. Pick a restaurant that's convenient for the client, even if you have to drive to the other side of town (or walk, or bike, or take the bus, depending on your city). Ideally, go to a restaurant (at least mid-range in terms of prices) at which you have eaten before so you know it's good and so you can make recommendations. Choose a place that does a lot of business lunches. 
  • Get there early. You should be waiting for your (potential) client, not the other way around. Get here 5-10 minutes early.
  • To drink or not to drink? This is a tricky one. If it were a job interview in the US (and pretty much anywhere), we'd say no, stick to water and soft drinks. But it isn't a job interview, and perhaps your lunch partner wants a glass of Chardonnay or a martini. Our suggestion: let the client decide and then follow suit. 
  • Order wisely. No one likes arugula stuck to their teeth or a sandwich that falls apart when you bite into it. Choose something that you can easily eat without making too much of a mess. You should be able to gracefully handle your lunch and the conversation at the same time. We traditionally choose a light pasta or fish dish that we can eat with a fork.
  • Table manners. We hope you listened to your mother, but if you didn't, review some basic table etiquette (you can always watch some YouTube videos if you are a bit fuzzy on the details). Napkins go on your lap. Most fancy restaurants, which we frequent and love (yes, we are very guilty of spending too much in restaurants) will bring you black cloth napkin if you are wearing black pants or a skirt. This goes without saying, but don't talk with your mouth full, don't lick the knife, use the bread plate that's on your left, pass the entire bread basket if asked, don't slurp, be nice to the wait staff, etc. 
    One of our favorites: Vintner Grill, Vegas. Photo by Judy.
  • Making conversation. If this is your first longer face-to-face conversation, it could be a bit of a challenge to get things going, but most Americans are very proficient at small talk and you should be able to chat easily after a few minutes. This is a bit more difficult in other countries, such as Austria and Germany, at least in our experience. Come prepared with some non-controversial topics to chat about, such as local sports, a recent event, something interesting that happened at the client's company, or an anecdote about your week. Judy recently broke the ice by telling a potential client about the lost mastiff puppy (9 months old, 120 pounds) who turned up at her house last week and immediately proceeded to slobber all over keyboard. Most people love a puppy story. You don't need to start the conversation with: "So, let me tell you about my business " Actually, we think that's a bit of a turn-off. Let the conversation develop organically,and perhaps you won't even get to talk about your services during that first meeting, which would be OK, too. Don't force it. However, you will find that most business professionals have very good manners and will, at some point, ask about your business, so have something intelligent to say about it.
  • Ask questions. Most people feel very comfortable talking about themselves, so you can come prepared with some questions that aren't too personal, but still interesting. The point of this exercise is to find things that you might have in common. You could ask your lunch partner where he/she is from, about her/his alma mater, etc. 
  • You need to pay. You should make it abundantly clear that this is your treat. No splitting the bill and under no circumstances should you allow the other person to pay. This is where your business credit card comes in handy. In the US, we love to use this handy trick: pretend to make a very quick trip to the bathroom, but in reality slip your credit card to the waiter so he/she can run it before the bill even reaches your table. This is an old Jenner trick that we frequently use on each other, as we are constantly trying to take the bill away from the other person. We wouldn't use cash, because you don't want your lunch partner to see exactly how much it cost. If you are in Europe and the restaurant doesn't accept credit cards, handle the money discreetly and don't count out bills. Learn how to add 20% gratuity in your head so you don't fumble. 
  • Keep an eye on the time. If your client told you she needs to leave by 1:30, be courteous and keep an eye on the time for her so she's not late for her next appointment.
  • Dessert. If your client wants dessert and/or coffee, you should probably join him or her, even if it's just a few bites. No one likes to eat alone and feel guilty about eating dessert. You can go to the gym later.
  • Have fun. Don't forget to enjoy yourself! Ultimately, clients do business with people they like, and this is your opportunity to spend time with a (potential) client in a casual atmosphere, and you might just discover that you really like your client. 
This list of tips is not  meant to be exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination, and of course, there are always many ways to master a particular situation. Would you like to add to this list or do you have any additional ideas to share? Do you do things differently? We'd really like to hear from you, dear readers!


Tim Windhof on May 1, 2013 at 10:20 AM said...

To drink or not drink: I think that depends on where you are and whom you are meeting. When I was working in Munich and meeting "older" Bavarian business partners, anything but a beer would have been considered an insult!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on May 1, 2013 at 3:10 PM said...

@Tim: Absolutely, you are right! We should have added that rules/customs about drinking are much more relaxed (to say the least) in Europe, and that you are pretty much expected to drink! We should have mentioned that. We completely agree: not sharing a glass of beer would probably be a German lunch faux pas, depending on the lunch partner....And of course, one needs to drink some schnaps after the meal to digest it all.

Nouf on May 14, 2013 at 11:51 PM said...

Thanks for bringing this up. We need to learn about business etiquette since we lack literature in this field in the translation industry as we only focus on the business side of it.
Another technique I found to be useful and advised by some professional business people is pay in advance out of sight. This means that you need to ensure that you arrive a little earlier than your guest. Brief the waiter and hand him your card (or cash). Ask him to deduct the amount and bring you back the card (or change) and a receipt for you to keep once you have asked for the bill at the end of the meal.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on May 15, 2013 at 9:10 AM said...

@Nouf: Thanks for your lovely comment. That's a great idea indeed -- getting to the place early and covering the bill before your lunch/dinner partner even arrives. We might have to steal this idea from you if we may. :)

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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