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Doing Lunch

By Scott S. Smith, – 06/05/2000 – 12:00am

If you have to close a deal over lunch, the key to success is preparation.

June 5, 2000— A vice president of human resources at a national electronics firm was interviewing someone over lunch for a vice president of marketing position. He isn’t quite sure how the interview went because he didn’t hear a thing the candidate was saying. He spent the entire time staring at the salad dressing dribbling down his guest’s chin — and wondering how potential clients might react to the man’s manners.

A sales executive for a lighting manufacturer was about to dig into her salad when she noticed a ladybug on a lettuce leaf. She screamed so loud, her meal companion reported, that he thought she had just discovered half a cockroach. The restaurant was terribly embarrassed — and etiquette experts say it would have been better to simply return the salad without making a scene.

You may never have made such a major faux pas over lunch. But getting through a business meeting over a meal isn’t easy. It isn’t, however, impossible.

Take the Crunch out of Lunch Harvey Mackay, author and CEO of Minneapolis-based Mackay Envelope Corp., says the second-best idea he ever had for doing a business lunch was to not to pay for the meal at the end.

Instead, Mackay says he always calls ahead of time to give the restaurant his credit card, so that the waiter bringing the check doesn’t interrupt a potentially crucial moment during a business lunch. (It also spares his guests any discomfort about being treated to a free lunch.) And Mackay makes sure the maitre d’ knows when the waiter should come to the table, to minimize disruptions of the rapport-building process or the sales pitch.

When he makes the reservation, Mackay also asks for a good view for both himself and his guests. “You want the most pleasant experience possible, you don’t want to be stuck staring at walls or the area where they scrape plates,” he explains. Most importantly, he requests not to be placed near a high-traffic area like the restrooms or the kitchen door.

Julian Niccolini, managing partner of The Four Seasons Restaurant in New York, says his midtown place is popular for lunches for financial deal-makers because it is designed to be quiet and the tables are placed far enough apart that guests can’t readily overhear each other. “Set up a house account at a restaurant where you’re comfortable and know the service will be good,” Niccolini advises. “If you haven’t been to the restaurant before, try to visit it at lunch ahead of your meeting, to see what it’s like.”

And be sure you know if the people with whom you are dining observe any dietary restrictions. Picking that pork barbeque place you love might not go over well with a kosher vegetarian guest. American Continental is probably your best bet because ethnic restaurants too often require a cultivated taste or can’t readily accommodate special diets. Finally, choose a location convenient for your guests and provide them with directions.

Prepare to Dine
Mackay and Niccolini both agree — and this is what MacKay calls his best idea — that a business lunch is not the time or place to do heavy-duty bargaining or to close deals. Those things are better accomplished in the customer’s office, where you can more readily make a presentation. Lunches have time constraints and are more conducive to the kind of schmoozing that yields long-term benefits, they say.

Sometimes, however, lunch is the only time to catch a busy executive, which is why Hollywood thrives on the power lunch, according to Los Angeles attorney Marc Diener. Diener, author of “Deal Power: 6 Foolproof Steps to Making Deals of Any Size,” says that, at the least, you can reach an agreement in principle. He says the key to selling yourself successfully over lunch is preparation.

“Think of the outcome of a business lunch like the meal itself,” Diener says. “Enjoying it is just the culmination of everything that went on before in the kitchen.” Too many over-confident business people go into meetings without carefully considering what their goals are, looking at the downside, exploring alternatives, asking for objective advice from someone else or finding out enough about the other people, he says.

In his book, “Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive,” Mackay lists 66 helpful items to know about the individuals you’re meeting. Where did they go to college and what were their majors? Married with children? Hobbies? Previous positions at the same or other companies? Do they smoke or drink? You don’t need to have all the answers before you do lunch, he says, “but 10 are better than five, and 20 better than 10.”

Solid preparation will help you avoid making crucial mistakes, Diener adds. “Even top deal-makers can miss the obvious traps, because they’re rushed and often have to make quick decisions that depend on gut instinct. They’ll take someone’s word, not call a lawyer, or they will make an agreement with someone who has a disreputable background they didn’t bother to check out.”

Thriving with Etiquette
While Diener stresses the importance of preparation, Sue Fox — author of Business Etiquette For Dummies and president of the Los Gatos, Calif., consultancy firm Etiquette Survival — is an expert on the event itself.

On the day of the meeting, Fox says, you should consider how to dress to impress without making the other person uncomfortable. “Business casual” is a safe compromise between traditional suits and Silicon Valley shorts, she says. As mealtime approaches, be sure you arrive on time, shut off your cell phone and put your beeper on vibrate.

In a reversal of most social situations, you should walk in front of the guest to guide them to their seat, Fox says. Then, she says, order something familiar and easy to eat: “You don’t want to be wrestling with lobster or a Caesar salad with large leaves.” But don’t skip food entirely. You don’t want the other person to become self-conscious about being the only one eating while you make your pitch. “It’s impolite not to eat with your guest,” says Fox. “It’s all about balance and harmony.”

While you’re waiting for the food to arrive, stick to safe personal topics (vacations, family, sports), avoiding the too personal (religion, sex, politics, income). “Ideally, if your dining partner has the time, you should wait until the very end of the meal before getting down to business,” she says. But when time constraints don’t allow that, Fox counsels, make sure you have a two-way conversation: Ask your guest questions, both because people like to talk about themselves (and you’ll learn about them) and to give yourself time to eat something.

In addition, Fox suggests that you not worry about the rules governing which utensil to use. They’re good to know, but don’t get nervous and formal. And if you make a real mistake, like dropping something, Fox says to use humor and move on. “If there’s a problem with the food or service, handle it discreetly, excusing yourself to talk privately with the maitre d’, or wait until your guests leave,” she says.

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