March 14, 2006
How to succeed at a business lunch
Seattle Times staff reporter
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SUSAN JOUFLAS / THE SEATTLE TIMES
To: You, Mr. Knife Licker
Re: Basic Table Manners
Rule No. 1: Remember What Momma Taught You
Think you're ready for that big lunch interview? Then go on with your bad self. Just don't stick your knife in the communal mustard jar, slather your bread and then lick both sides of the knife before putting it back in.
Oh, yes. It really happened. It's one of the more outrageous tales that Las Vegas consultant Robin Jay shares in "The Art of the Business Lunch: Building Relationships Between 12 and 2," (Career Press, $14.99).
Jay, the self-proclaimed queen of business-lunching, says she learned the value of such meetings as a radio ad sales rep, where she regularly lunched with clients to freshen up contact. Her entertaining book paints negotiating-while-noshing as a munchy means to success, even if it sometimes reads like Table Manners 101.
Business lunches have evolved since the days of the three-martini power lunch, Jay says, but one similarity remains. They're still about building relationships — a chance to share quality time with clients. "That's how you become friends," she says.
But they're also about power: One side wants something from the other — insider tips, a job, a sales account. So business lunches can pack all the tension of a date, with their worries and fumblings over what to say. Was what I just said insulting? Do I have food in my teeth?
The war stories she relates are many: the potential business partner who put a whole dessert tray on his expense account, the job candidate who went cuckoo over her crème brûlée. Both clients ended up as someone else's leftovers.
Things happen. A spilled glass of iced tea usually falls on the other person. It's not so much avoiding disasters, Jay says, as handling them with humor and grace.
To: You, With The Key Ring Bottle Opener
Rule No. 1: Don't Get Tanked
"If you say something really stupid, you may never recover," Jay says.
The general rule on drinking is to let the client order first, then follow suit. "But never refill," says Erin Ross, a Washington Mutual recruiter. "You don't want anything to deter you from the reason you're there."
If you don't drink and the client wants one, it's trickier, Jay says. If you order something non-alcoholic, "they might say, 'Oh, I'll just have iced tea,' and you've just rained on their party."
To avoid such quandaries, she suggests non-drinkers either choose restaurants where they know the waiter or discreetly excuse themselves at unfamiliar sites to arrange for virgin drinks incognito. "Waiters love to conspire with you," she says.
The aim is to make the other person comfortable, a policy Jay suggests when ordering anything. A dieting person who orders light could feel put off if you order the steak and shrimp combo, and vice versa.
Sometimes a guy doesn't even have to be tipsy to tumble. Another Washington Mutual recruiter Derrick Mickle, in a previous job, once lunched with a financial executive who had been flawless in interviews. The lunch was supposed to be a way to take the edge off the proceedings.
"He was atrocious," Mickle says. "He really berated the servers and complained about everything."
When the server flubbed his Diet Coke order, he called her from across the room. "He said: 'Hey, I ordered this without ice!' We're thinking, 'What?' I wanted to hide under the table.
"He made this little joke, like, 'Sometimes you have to be assertive, ha ha ha.' I was thinking, 'Sometimes you have to not hire somebody, ha ha ha.' "
To: You, With The Bits Of Turnip Peel On Your Pants
Re: Conducting Yourself
Rule No. 1: Don't Act Like You Just Fell Off The — Well, You Know
If you're being wooed, Jay writes, be a chameleon. Don't act like the lunch site is beneath you or like you've just stepped into Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. In the book, a Commonwealth Title executive tells of an escrow officer candidate who went nuts over dessert at a casual, upscale restaurant.
"She was moaning," Jay laughs, recalling the exec's imitation of the woman. "He said it was like it was the best thing she ever had in her mouth. ... She was just going, 'Mmmmmm, it's so creamy and gooood.' "
If you're doing the wooing, picking a place can be crucial. Menu, price, location, even acoustics are all important. Too loud and you'll be shouting your business; too quiet and everybody hears you.
Menus should feature common comfort items. One that's exclusively sushi could creep out your meat-and-potatoes crowd. Also, when you order, avoid foods that are challenging to eat. Crab legs, baby back ribs and noodles are no-no's.
"Obviously," WaMu's Ross says, "you want to stay away from something that could ruin your outfit."
Price, too, is important; a place that's too expensive or too cheap could make your client feel out of place. A place of consistent quality that takes reservations and credit cards is ideal, Jay says.
Christy Miller, founder of online networking site SeattleJobs.org, says a midway point is fine, but since you're asking for another person's time it's better to pick something closer to them. "Say, 'There's three places nearby — what works for you?' Give a range."
To: You, Coupon Queen
Re: Picking Up The Bill
Rule No. 1: Save Coupons For Your Hunny Bunny
Miller once drove from Seattle to a Chinese restaurant in Bellevue in the dead of winter for a lunch meeting. The food was good. Her companion asked a lot of questions. But at meal's end, the woman pulled out a two-for-one coupon.
"I appreciate that people are watching their nickels," Miller says. "But two hours of my time for a half-price lunch?"
And leave no uncertainty about the bill when it appears, frequent lunchers say. Avoid guessing games. "Make it smooth and hassle-free," Miller says. "You're wooing someone into giving you information or wanting to work with you."
As a recruiter, Miller was saturated with lunch requests; once flattering, they became day-shattering. Over and over, people just wanted to pick her brain, to the point where she developed mental images involving the top of her head being sliced and flipped open for little crows to pick at.
Thusly stung, Miller now avoids business lunches. "People usually try to pay for my time with an $8 lunch," she says. "As if an hour of my time were worth $8."
Adds recruiter Mickle: "More often than not, people don't have time for lunch. I've done the business coffee, the business drink, the business happy hour. People care about you respecting their time rather than the atmosphere."
And Pat Doody, of Seattle media firm Wongdoody, says midday breakers are giving way to early risers. "In the last five or 10 years it's just as prevalent to meet for breakfast, he says. We all feel like go-getters. It's like, 'Here we are at 7:30. Aren't we industrial guys?' "
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