Taking a client out to dinner can be a smart business move. The shared experience can create a bond between you and lay the foundation for a long-term relationship. Meals are also an effective way to thank customers for their loyalty.
However, to ensure that the event is successful, you need to do some planning. Here are seven tips for making a positive, lasting impression on a client over dinner.
1. Check your schedule. Obviously, you should choose a date and time that’s convenient for your customer. Make sure your own schedule is free of other commitments, either before or after the meal, to eliminate unnecessary distractions. A last-minute cancellation not only inconveniences your client, but also makes you appear disorganized.
2. Pick a restaurant you know. You could choose a trendy or hot new restaurant, but that leaves a lot up to chance. Instead, author and sales expert Tom Searcy recommends choosing a personal go-to spot. “If you entertain regularly in your city, pick a great restaurant and use that restaurant for all client entertaining,” he says.
As Searcy notes, the advantages of this strategy include:
- You have an established relationship with the restaurant manager and waitstaff
- You know the tastiest items on the menu
- You can make special requests (and they’ll be honored)
As a valued customer of the eatery, you can speak with the manager ahead of time and take care of seating arrangements and other considerations (such as ordering appetizers in advance) ahead of the scheduled dinner engagement. If you’re ordering for the table, be sure when inviting a guest to dinner to ask about their preferences and/or dietary requirements, as well as any food allergies they may have.
3. Pre-pay your bill. When possible, arrange to pay the bill in advance. The appearance of the bill on the table may make some customers uncomfortable, even though they know you’re buying dinner. Give the server your credit card, assign a percentage for the tip (a generous percentage, to encourage and reward excellent service), and sign the bill before the client arrives or after the client leaves.
4. Arrive early. Never show up late to a dinner you’re hosting. On the contrary, being on hand to greet your customer at the restaurant makes a great impression. By arriving early, you can handle any last-minute adjustments, such as choosing a different table away from a large group of noisy diners. Remember to turn off your mobile phone before sitting down, too.
5. Put small talk first. Although the purpose of dinner may to be discuss business, you may offend your guest by diving in immediately. No one likes a hard sell, especially over a meal.
Begin with pleasant small talk. One way to keep things light — and build an emotional connection — is to check out your guest’s various online profiles as part of the planning process. Learning about their personal and professional interests enables you to focus on areas of mutual interest (hobbies, athletic activities, tastes in books or movies). Save discussing business matters until the main course or coffee and dessert are served.
6. Pace your consumption to match your guest’s. Remember, this dinner is all about what makes your customer feel relaxed and comfortable. Measure how quickly you eat by his or her example. (You want to avoid sitting before an empty plate while your guest is still eating or continuing to eat after your guest has finished.)
Having drinks with dinner can be a bit more unpredictable. Lydia Ramsey, author of Manners That Sell, suggests ordering one glass of wine (and never more than two) that you can savor during the meal.
7. Follow up the next day. Does your client have any unanswered questions? Did you promise to look into a particular solution? Follow up the day after your dinner with a brief email, thanking him or her for their time and saying how much you enjoy (or look forward to) working together.