Sales Management e-newsletter

It's Not About the Food
Heather Baldwin
The business lunch: simple, right? You make reservations, you order your food, you bond over the minestrone, and by the time the crème brùlée is served, you and your prospect have found you have several things in common on which you can build your relationship. Not so fast, warns Lynda Goldman, a business etiquette and communications consultant for large corporations. The seemingly straightforward task of going to lunch is fraught with pitfalls into which many reps unwittingly fall. In the process, they erode their ability to make a good impression – or a sale. Goldman says she often sees sales reps make the following errors:

Failure to plan. This is a biggie. Many reps tend to think of a business lunch as lunch, but it's not – it's a meeting with tableware, says Goldman. Plan it as carefully as you'd plan a meeting. Have an agenda, know what you're going to say, bring the appropriate materials, and, above all, have a goal. The goal may simply be to build a relationship, but make sure you know that going in.

Failure to do your homework. This is another rookie mistake, says Goldman. If you don't do your homework ahead of time, you may show up and discover there's a loud live band that makes conversation impossible. Or that the tables are so close together, you can't discuss business without being overheard. Visit the restaurant ahead of time to make sure it's easily accessible, that the noise level is appropriate, and to hunt out the best tables.

Forgetting to check your client's preferences. Taking a vegetarian to a steakhouse isn't going to win you any points. Worse, taking someone with a peanut allergy to a Thai restaurant could result in a detour to the hospital. Check in with your guest to find out about food allergies and preferences. But don't just say, "What do you like?" Offer some choices: "I know a great Italian place and a great Chinese place. Do either of those sound good?"

Ordering the ribs, extra sauce. A business lunch is not the time to get creative in your food choices. "Choose a food that's easy to eat with a knife and fork; don't choose a food that's going to sabotage you," warns Goldman. "Remember: it's not about the food. It's more important to build a relationship with your client than with your lobster." In particular, Goldman recommends you avoid minefields like spaghetti and ribs and stick with easy to eat staples like chicken and fish.

Being a high maintenance patron. You know the kind – they want their dressing on the side, they want only so much sauce, they want low carb, they want the Cajun shrimp but without any paprika. "This is not the time to worry about these things," says Goldman. Eating a little extra fat at one meal won't kill you – but it could kill your chances of making a sale. "The client," she explains, "will think, 'If he's fussing over everything on his plate, how is he going to be about my business?'"

Failure to follow up. Most people know if you're someone's guest at a meal, you should send a thank-you note afterwards. But what if you're the host? It's just as valuable to follow up with your client when you host a meal, says Goldman. If you discussed business, send a note capturing the essential points of your discussion and reiterating any commitments you made. If it was strictly a relationship-building meal, you might simply send a short note saying you enjoyed spending time with the person and discovering your shared passion for sailing.

If any of these sound familiar, or if you find you're regularly uncomfortable in business dining situations, it might be worth taking a course in business dining. Such a course should be easy to find in most cities. And it's a small investment for potentially big payoffs when you wow your clients with your sophistication and skill in hosting them at lunch.

For more information, including a list of the 13 foods that can sabotage a business lunch, visit
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