5 business-lunch faux pas By Christopher Elliott
The recipe for a successful business meal seems deceptively easy. “Let’s meet for lunch,” you tell a client or associate. You get together. You talk business.
Sounds simple enough. But you know better.
A business lunch is part meal, part meeting. It’s informal, but at the same time there’s a long list of unwritten rules that can’t be broken. A business meal is an opportunity to show off your culinary know-how — or expose your bad taste in restaurants. There’s so much that could go wrong, it’s no wonder 40% of us prefer to “brown bag” it, according to a recent restaurant trade association survey.
The ingredients to a successful business lunch don’t have to be a mystery, however. According to a poll conducted by The Creative Group, an advertising and marketing firm in Menlo Park, Calif., being rude to a restaurant employee is the No. 1 reason a business lunch goes bad. What are other reasons?
• Arriving late. • Bad table manners. • Dressing too casually. If you’ve been in business for more than a few weeks, you probably already know that you attract more metaphorical bees with honey than with vinegar. You also know the importance of punctuality, and you know how to use a napkin. And you show respect by wearing business attire.
But what else can doom the fabled business meal, and how do you keep it from happening?
Here’s a look at five other common business-lunch faux pas that are easily preventable:
1. Choosing the wrong restaurant. Picking the right place for a business lunch is hardly a no-brainer,
especially if you’re in an unfamiliar city. And even if you’re on your own home turf, there’s still the possibility that something could go wrong. For example: inviting a prospective client who is allergic to shellfish to a seafood restaurant. Some establishments just aren’t meant for business meals. Brooks Hurd remembers one such place, where his co-workers met to welcome back an employee who had just gotten out of the hospital. “The appetizers and main course were good, but not outstanding,” recalls Hurd, a consultant in San Luis Obispo, Calif. “The quality did not match the prices. Service was slow. The meal dragged on.” Then, during dessert, Hurd says, a waiter accidentally dropped strawberry shortcake on the guest of honor. “The result was stunning.”
Tip: Rely on multiple sources for a restaurant recommendation. If you consult a restaurant survey such as Zagat’s, make sure that you also ask someone who lives in the area to vouch for your selected establishment. And don’t forget to check with your business contact. It’s embarrassing to ask a vegetarian to meet you at a steak restaurant. 2. Inviting the wrong guests. Oh, the grief I got from readers after I admitted that I brought my infant son to a business lunch in a previous column. “I couldn’t stop shuddering at the thought of sitting down to a working lunch with a business client — or my partners — if one of them has brought along his kids,” wrote Lisa Floyd. “Don’t misunderstand; I love kids. But I don’t believe business and kids mix.” How true. And as I pointed out in that earlier column, there are places where children clearly don’t belong, and a business lunch is one of them. But children aren’t the only other meal guests who might be considered bad company. How about the tag-along spouse who wasn’t invited? The intern? Or, heaven forbid, the company lawyer (when no legal matters are on the table)? Don’t laugh, it’s happened to me.
Tip: Follow up your verbal lunch invitation with an e-mail confirming the guest list. You don’t have to be obnoxious about it. A simple, “Hey, just a note to let you know I’ve made reservations for two at Chez Pierre’s at noon next Tuesday,” would be enough to get this message across: No interlopers, please. 3. Sitting at the wrong table. The service may be spectacular, and you might be meeting with the right people. But what if you can’t discuss the deal? When I worked in New York, the deli was a favorite spot to do lunch. Good food, fast service, always a convenient location. What more could you want? Well, just try connecting with a confidential source at a sandwich shop. During lunch hour, a mob of hungry people moves through the joint, yelling orders across the counter and crowding around your table. This is no place to talk business. On the flip side, I also never completely trusted the quiet restaurant where you had to whisper for fear of being overheard by the folks sitting at the next table. Bottom line: You don’t want anyone eavesdropping on you business lunch. The ideal establishment comes with several booths where your conversations can neither be seen nor heard.
Tip: One of my favorite Web sites that offers specific advice on discreet meeting places is Ontheroad.com, which, unfortunately, no longer appears to be updated regularly. But it still offers a database of restaurants ideal for business meals. Once you’ve chosen a place to eat, call ahead and mention that you’d like a little privacy. Some places might be able to offer a separate dining room if it isn’t being used by another party. 4. Saying the wrong thing. Remember the part about the unwritten rules? Here’s one of them: At an American business lunch, it’s considered inappropriate to get down to business before the waiter has handed you the menu. In other countries, you don’t talk business until the first glass of wine has been poured and the host offers a toast. Elsewhere, ordering wine is considered inappropriate. I’ll never forget the shocked expression on my host’s face when I sat down to lunch with him, whipped out my business card, and immediately began talking about work. He’d spent a considerable amount of time in Europe and obviously preferred to ease into a business discussion. But I foolishly ignored his discomfort. That business lunch was a failure.
Tip: A how-to on business etiquette is beyond the scope of this column. But a good place to start is Getcustoms.com, which is published by the authors of the book “Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries.” It offers timely tips on how to take customs into consideration when you’re traveling on business. 5. Ending it the wrong way. The conclusion of a business meal is as important as its beginning. A verbal “thank you” at the end is always appropriate (even if it didn’t go as you planned). It should be followed with an invitation to reciprocate at a future date. If possible, send a thank-you note (which is also another opportunity to send your business card), noting what you specifically liked about the meal and, possibly, recapping the conversation. As a journalist who sometimes writes opinionated stories, I’ve been to lots of “bridge-building” lunches, set up by well-meaning publicists with the intention of mending fences. Sometimes they work, but sometimes they fall flat. You know those scenes in made-for-TV movies where someone throws down the napkin and walks away from the table in a huff? They’re not imaginary. The point is, when the lunch doesn’t conclude the way you hoped it would, it’s still important to end it on the right note. Write a thank-you card, even if you never expect to do business with this person again.
Tip: One of the most effective strategies I know to avoid an unhappy conclusion is to go easy on the alcoholic beverages. Many business meals end tragically at the bottom of a bottle of wine. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a nice martini as much as the next guy. But it can be a bad idea to have one too many at a business get-together.
Sometimes, of course, a business lunch is a bad idea to begin with. Knowing when to call off a mealtime meeting is perhaps the most important business instinct to develop. If you’re not feeling well or your own company is in turmoil, you might want to consider canceling — if not for the sake of your business, then at least for your own health. But if you decide to do lunch, take a little time to pick the right restaurant, invite the right guests and find the right table. And mind your manners.
Christopher Elliott Christopher Elliott writes about business travel and mobile computing, and publishes a weekly travel newsletter. You can e-mail him or visit his Web site.