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How to own a business lunch Add to ...

Imagine your company has launched the app of the moment and you’re hosting a business lunch to bring interested parties together. But here’s the thing. You and your colleagues usually nosh on takeout sushi directly from the carton. Or drop into the neighbourhood café. So there is likely a learning curve ahead – and it’s not just about the silverware.

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As host, you’re expected to select the venue, e-mail invitations, confirm the guest list, greet and seat, make introductions (and get everyone’s name right) and keep the conversation flowing. And while a lot can go wrong, it can also be a powerful tool.

“I’ve seen examples where relationships were deepened, people got hired or did million-dollar deals as the result of a business lunch,” says Alan Kearns, founder of Career Joy, a national job coaching company. “It’s all about that fine line between personal and professional. A great business lunch dances that line.”

Here are some tips on how to make the best impression.

Work ahead

Whenever possible, visit the restaurant beforehand and get to know the staff. Go at lunch to see whether diners have to shout over the noise, or if the kitchen gets stuck in the weeds when it’s busy.

“It’s helpful to seek out two or three quieter places that meet your criteria, where you know the menu and can call ahead to reserve a good table,” says Mr. Kearns. If you’re hosting in a new place, get a personal recommendation from a business contact and read online reviews. It’s a good idea to ask if the restaurant offers vegetarian choices.

Let guests know in advance if business will be discussed at the table and once the guest list is confirmed, e-mail everyone with a bio of those attending.

“Knowing people’s backgrounds always gives you something interesting to discuss,” says Toronto-based PR expert Mat Wilcox, founder of the Wilcox Group. “At a formal lunch, it’s also great when name cards are printed on both sides so everyone from any vantage point on the table can remember your name and company.”

Own the event

Unless it’s wieners at the ballgame in the company’s private box, dress as you would for an important business meeting. It shows respect. So does being there well ahead of your guests so you can welcome them and direct them to their seats. Leave your cellphone on until everyone has arrived. Then turn it off and focus on your guests.

First, break the ice. “Discuss the most interesting business story of the week. I never talk about politics or religion, but everything else is fair game,” suggests Ms. Wilcox.

Be ready with menu suggestions, but avoid messy items like ribs or lobster unless you like your guests in bibs.

To drink or not to drink is a personal choice, but the two-martini lunch doesn’t mix well with business. If you want to serve wine, suggest it at the start so your guests feel comfortable about having a glass. It’s also good to have your server on the lookout to keep people from embarrassing themselves with too much alcohol. If your guests aren’t drinking, stick with mineral water.

If there’s a problem with the food or service, keep your cool. Being rude to a staff member can be a real deal breaker.

“I have a client who will never hire someone unless they go to lunch with him, because it puts people in a situation that’s unpredictable,” says Mr. Kearns. “How a person orders and reacts to the staff tells a lot about that person in an hour and a half.”

Manners matter

Good manners aren’t elitist. They put people at ease and help you feel confident yourself by knowing what to do. “I think the small things count the most,” says Michael Hyatt, CEO and co-founder of BlueCat Networks in Toronto.

Say please and thank you. Never serve yourself first when passing a shared dish (pass to the right). If you can’t tell which water glass is yours (on your right), what bread plate to use (on your left), which utensil to pick up next (go from the outside in) or where to put your napkin (on your lap), get some help. Take an etiquette course, watch a video, buy a book or ask someone who knows how to cut their meat without spearing it like a harpoon fisherman.

Sweet endings

Make payment arrangements before the end of the meal so the bill is not brought to the table, and thank your server in words as well as with a generous tip. Walk your guests out. Follow up with handwritten notes or e-mails. When Ms. Wilcox attended a breakfast with Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, she was impressed when the next day Ms. Sandberg sent an e-mail thanking her for coming and commenting on the specifics of their conversation.

The faux pas

Ms. Wilcox has watched guests wipe their hands on their pants instead of their napkin, speak with food in their mouths, berate a hapless server, monopolize the conversation and constantly check their BlackBerry. This is not how you want to be remembered.

Mr. Hyatt’s worst experience was with a business prospect at a steakhouse. The man got so drunk he threw up in the bathroom. “I had to take away his car keys and send him home in a cab,” says Mr. Hyatt. “What a gong show!”

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