Business Meal Etiquette: How to go to a Client Event and Survive to Tell the Tale

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Entering the corporate world can be a daunting prospect. Whether you’re fresh out of education or returning to work after some time away, the social side of a job can sometimes seem like an even bigger challenge than the role itself. Client events can tell a lot about your character and professionalism, and these half-business, half-social hybrid affairs can be a tricky scene to navigate. You’ll want to feel comfortable enough with the status-quo to impress during them.

Get prepared and learn how to play the game with our handy guide on business meal etiquette, to score top points with your boss and any potential clients.

Dress for the occasion

Planning to be a high-flyer starts before you’ve left your house. As you head out for your event, check your appearance in the mirror one last time: are you dressed appropriately? Context will determine what you should wear — if it’s a sit-down dinner to kick off a financial conference, you’ll likely be expected in formal attire, whereas if you’re off to a client-bonding night at a sports bar, you’d expect to go casual. Adapt your dress based on what and where the event is.

Good grooming is also vital if you want to impress. As much as we’d all like to be judged solely for our words and actions (or at least, those of us that aren’t devastatingly beautiful would like to be), appearance is one of the most significant factors that impact how we are perceived. Business Insider reports that first impressions develop before any greetings are exchanged, with how we look significantly influencing how others will rate our character traits, including trustworthiness and intelligence. As a result, you want to turn up to any event looking clean, well presented, and dressed appropriately.

Be punctual

Once you’re out of the house, it’s your next task to arrive on time — make sure to begin that all-important outfit selection process well in advance, because being fashionably late will do you no favours. Wherever you’re heading, aim to get there five to ten minutes before the reservation time. You want to give yourself some margin for error if anything holds you up on the journey, as being late could see you being perceived as rude or disorganised — hardly ideal for a good first impression, nor conducive to positive working relationships.

However, it’s best to be communicative if you think you’re going to run late. Most people are fairly understanding, and we’ve all lost the race against the clock at one point or another. Unfortunately, accidents happen, and public transport delays have surged in recent times. Always make your host  aware, as an unexplained absence could reflect poorly on you or your company.

Choose your food wisely

You’re all dressed up, on time, and sitting down to eat. So, what do you order from the menu? Ideally, you should pick a light dish without lashings of sauce or greasy ingredients that could easily transfer to your face or clothing. As long as you wear a napkin, there’s no need to avoid your favourite Italian foods like spaghetti or pizza;  this is no slight against Italian cuisine: more so just a sensible preventative measure to keep you looking your best.

Making good food and drink pairing choices is another subtle way to demonstrate your competence. Certain ingredients are better suited to particular beverages, so you may want to scour the menu ahead of time and use a handy wine pairing guide to figure out what combination you’ll be enjoying when it comes time to order. You probably already know the basics: red for beef or cured meat, white for chicken and fish — but an in-depth understanding of flavour profiles can help you to look educated and tasteful, as well as be a great talking point.

Work the room

Now that the dining’s done and you’ve impressed your party, it’s time to fulfil the ‘business’ side of things. Remember the purpose of the meal: it might be the moment to sell your product, close a deal, or carry out general client outreach. For some events, this could be as simple as exchanging business cards, but on other occasions you may be expected to discuss projects and negotiations. If this is the case, it’s best to start by warming up the room.

Your food (and probably more significantly, your drinks orders) should have done most of this heavy lifting for you. Still, if reception is frosty, it’s best to begin with casual conversation about neutral topics, such as travel or happenings in the workweek. Then, once you’ve established rapport, move on to more pragmatic discussions about working together. When time is of the essence, it’s best to get to the agenda of the evening before everybody slips into an after-dinner food coma.

Show your manners

Lastly, you need to remember your pleases and thank yous around the dinner table. This might seem obvious, but the final step to ensuring slick proceedings at a business meal is making sure that everybody leaves with a good taste in their mouth.

Thank the host for the invitation, and let them know that you enjoyed the evening. If you’ve heard murmurs of your colleagues offering to pay their part of the bill, it’s polite to do the same — but always accept graciously if the person or party who put on the event wants to get it themselves.

Stay off your phone for the duration of the evening (unless LinkedIn connection requests start flying out) and keep elbows off the table setting. If dining somewhere especially formal, you might even want to revise your utensil etiquette before going in, so as not to embarrass yourself by tucking into a salad with a seafood fork.

If you’ve followed these steps and everything goes to plan, you should be well on your way to new business connections. However, if something goes awry, don’t panic — dust yourself off and start talking about wine pairings again. It never fails. Best of luck!

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