Business Lunch Etiquette: 8 Rules

Amid technology overload, face-to-face interactions are even more important. Follow these rules to make sure lunch meetings are both fun and productive.

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Business executives toasting during lunch meeting

Back in the days of Mad Men, the business lunch was essential. Offers were made, partnerships formed, and deals were closed daily over lunchtime martinis.

For the most part, that type of midday meeting is long gone. But with today’s communication technology overload, the face-to-face business lunch is still an important way to build relationships–and is perhaps even more valuable today than it was 50 years ago. (It’s just less likely to include three martinis and a glass of port.)

Follow these simple rules to make a business lunch both productive and enjoyable:

Get the Invitation Right

Lunch with a client, potential business partner or new colleague can often be more productive than an office meeting. Getting out of the office and off the phone creates an environment more conducive to relaxing and candid conversation.

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When inviting someone to lunch, be respectful of his or her time and position. If inviting a superior you don’t know well, don’t risk being presumptuous–you might opt for suggesting coffee instead.

Who Chooses the Spot?

If you’re inviting, offer up some suggestions and let your guests pick. If they don’t care, it’s on you. But make sure to be careful and anticipate their preferences. You don’t want to bring a vegetarian to a steakhouse. If inviting someone to discuss next year’s budget cuts, best to skip the meal at the most expensive restaurant in town. If your guest choses the place, don’t forget to compliment her on the choice.

Time & Place

Get there early. Always know the set-up of the restaurant and make sure both the venue and your table are right for your objective.

One of my colleagues swears by this rule. If it’s a celebratory or casual lunch with people he knows well, he gets a table in a central area, closer to the bar, where it’s typically more boisterous. If it’s a serious conversation and he wants to get something accomplished, he opts for a quiet table in the corner.

When to Talk Business

On the golf course, the common rule of thumb is not to get down to business before the fourth hole. At the table, it’s a bit more ambiguous.

My advice: If you’re having a social conversation, don’t bring up business until you have received your drinks and ordered your meals. Then, when business talk commences, frame the conversation around your guest. Ask about her business, what she’s working on and where she needs help.

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This will give you a clear understanding of context and provide a natural segue into explaining how you and your company might be of assistance.

Speaking of Drinks…

Sorry, Don Draper–if you’re taking clients to lunch and your company is paying, you should probably skip the alcohol. But if your client wants to imbibe, let him order a drink. A good rule of thumb is to let your guests order first, so they’re not inhibited by your choice.

Handling the Bill

There is an art to handling the bill. You want to be graceful about it. When the check arrives, be nimble and reach for it swiftly–but keep looking your clients in the eye if they’re speaking.

By all means, don’t stare at the line items with anything like shock or horror.  That said, if there’s an error with the bill, excuse yourself to talk to the waiter separately without making your guest feel uncomfortable.

And when it’s time to pay, act naturally: Don’t disrupt the conversation, but make  eye contact with the waiter so that he picks up your credit card quickly.

Turn Off Your Phone

You may already know how I feel about this, but I’ll say it again: Turn off your phone. Now is not the time to be checking your incoming email or texting your colleague. I’ve seen some people pick up their phones between courses instead of talking to others at the table. Just don’t.

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Finally … Have Fun

Be yourself! There is a reason you’re not in the office. You can accomplish quite a lot with business lunches, but you shouldn’t lose sight of why they work so well: When people can relax and have a good time, they’re more likely to open up, making it easier to strengthen a business relationship.

Eliza Browning is the vice president of Crane Digital, where she oversees the company’s online business and digital strategy. Before joining Crane & Co., Eliza worked in digital media for news organizations including CNN, ABC News and the AP.

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