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Jennie Wong: 5 ways to botch a business lunch

By Jennie Wong
Correspondent
Jennie Wong
Jennie Wong, Ph.D., is a nationally syndicated columnist, executive coach, and the creator of the product quiz website www.ABorC.com.

Breaking bread with our business associates is such a normal thing, sometimes we forget the fine points of dining while doing deals. So here’s a quick rundown of mistakes to avoid at your next business meal.

Mistake 1: Show up starving. At the beginning of “Gone with the Wind,” Scarlett O’Hara is told to eat before a party, and that’s still good advice. Sharing a meal with someone, be they a mentor, prospect, employee or client, is a chance to be fully present. Carving time out of everyone’s busy schedules to be at the same place, at the same time, drinking the same ice water with lemon should be treated as a special occasion.

So if you’re really hungry, take a moment before the appointed hour to have a snack. That way, when you arrive at lunch or happy hour, you can fully engage with the person you’re meeting, instead of with the plate in front of you. Sometimes, I even peruse the restaurant menu online, in advance, to better focus my attention on my dining companion.

Mistake 2: Rush the rapport. Everyone has a different tolerance for chit-chat before getting down to business. For someone you know very well, sometimes a warm greeting is all that is needed before diving into the details. For others, a business meal or drink is all about the bonding. Some people are looking to decide if they like and trust you before they decide whether they want a business relationship with you.

My natural preference is to jump right into the matter at hand, but over the years I’ve learned to sit back and let the other person take the lead at the beginning of a get-together. If the person across the table wants to break out the spreadsheets before we’ve even ordered, I couldn’t be happier. On the other hand, if my companion wants to tell me about their weekend or an upcoming vacation, I switch into a more relaxed gear until about halfway through our allotted time, when I’ll gently guide the conversation back to the main agenda.

Mistake 3: Tanking on table manners. As a busy mompreneur, I’ve been known to inhale entire meals in just a few minutes, all while cleaning up spills and corralling a toddler. But in a business setting, it pays to mind your p’s and q’s. Remember, no one ever lost a deal by showing up on time, putting their phone on silent, and keeping their elbows off the table.

And far more important than using the correct fork or picking the right wine to go with dinner is treating everyone with kindness and respect. I always take note of how someone treats the wait staff, especially when something goes wrong. Good grace in the face of an overcooked steak can tell you a lot about a person.

Mistake 4: Bungle the bill. I believe that, in general, the person who requested the meeting should offer to pay. It is also usually appropriate to request separate checks or to split the check. Exceptions include job interviews, where the employer should host the meal, or customer-vendor lunches, where the vendor usually pays. And of course, if you’re in an employment relationship, the boss should pay.

But no matter who pays, a sincere thank you is always appreciated.

Mistake 5: Fail to follow up. Make notes about things you’ve promised to do. If you’re not able to jot down a note during the lunch, make sure to do so immediately afterward so that you don’t forget the link you promised to send or the introduction you offered to make.

Keeping your word and delivering on your commitments is the ultimate in good manners and will ensure a lasting positive impression after your next business lunch.

Jennie Wong, Ph.D. is a Charlotte-based executive coach and the creator of the product quiz website www.ABorC.com.
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