Two primary goals of time spent with customers are to develop the relationship and build your credibility with decision makers. Sharing a meal provides a unique opportunity to accomplish both of these objectives in ways that an office meeting cannot. Be sure you have the knowledge and training to make the most of these opportunities:
Know your role: Depending on the circumstances, you may find yourself in the role of host or guest when dining with customers. As host you are responsible for the logistics and success of the meal. This includes selecting the restaurant (explore your client’s food preferences or considerations), reservations, paying the bill and taking care of the tip. Your primary goal as host is to make your guest(s) feel comfortable. Feel free to recommend items on the menu or give insight into what you are thinking about ordering. This will give much appreciated insight to your guests.
As a guest, you should assume nothing. Be sure to carry money and credit cards even if you are not planning to pay for the meal. Better to be the gracious guest who pays than the guest who creates discomfort for an unsophisticated host. If your host does not offer menu suggestions, explore what they like at the restaurant or what they are thinking about ordering. This will guide your food and beverage selection. Ordering too little conveys a lack of confidence. Ordering too much or the most expensive menu item might appear to your host as if you are taking advantage of a free meal. The safest bet is to follow the lead of the host.
Know the table setting: Confusion over which glass or bread plate is yours will do nothing to reinforce your credibility or professionalism. Your water glass will always be placed on the right side, above your knife and spoon. The bread plate is always on the left side, above your fork(s).
Cough or sneeze: First and foremost, be prepared. Always have a tissue or handkerchief on hand, since using your napkin as a tissue is never appropriate.
When spills happen: Whether you are acting as host or guest, in the event of a spill, ask for assistance from your server and don’t give the situation more attention than it deserves. Keep the focus on positive conversation.
Dropped utensil: It is not necessary to dive under the table to retrieve a dropped utensil. Instead, just leave it, signal your server for a replacement, and encourage your guest(s) to keep eating.
Strong table etiquette will eliminate negative distractions and uncomfortable moments that could undermine the enjoyment of the meal. Dining with customers is a precious opportunity to build your relationship with them. Remember, to be interesting, you should be interested. Use your exploratory skills to show your interest and learn more about the others at your table.
For past business etiquette articles: