CPA INSIDER

8 tips for making the most of business meals

Lunch or dinner with a client can nourish a good relationship.
By Hannah Pitstick

Business meals offer a chance to accomplish multiple goals. In one hour, you can take care of a business matter, get to know a client better, network with other professionals, and recharge with good food. Plus, it's often easier to entice a client to meet when there's the promise of a decent lunch.

"As financial advisers, we sometimes have difficulty motivating clients to come into the office to do a review, unless they have some pressing need," said Gina Chironis, CPA/PFS, CEO of Clarity Wealth Management, based in Irvine, Calif. "But if you offer to have lunch near their place of business, and say, 'I just want to review things with you and make sure we're not missing anything important in your life,' I think that's one way to get certain clients to carve out the time."

Here are some tips from experts on how to get the most out of your next business lunch or dinner:

Communicate a clear objective for the meeting. The single goal for the meeting could be anything from getting to know the client better to reviewing a change in his or her accounts.

"People's lives are incredibly busy nowadays, so it's best when you extend the invitation, to state the reason why you're inviting them, so they have a clear understanding and can prepare or decline, if they're too busy," said Margaret Page, a business etiquette expert, professional speaker and career coach based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Along those lines, Chironis recommends not having too much in the way of paper involved when you have a client meeting. It can be very difficult to handle paper at a table when there's a meal involved.

Take care of everything. It's the responsibility of the person who extends the invitation to take care of everything, from the bill to figuring out any logistics for the meal, according to Page.

To make sure things go smoothly, Page recommends sending the person a calendar invite once you've agreed upon a time to meet. That invite should include all the necessary information, including the address, time, tips on where to park, where exactly you will meet the client in the restaurant, and anything else that will eliminate confusion.  

Although Chironis never orders alcohol for herself during business meals, she does recommend offering your guest the opportunity to do so, as well as asking for a dessert menu at the end of the meal, in case they're interested.

"It's very important to order something that's on the more expensive side on the menu so they don't feel awkward about doing that same thing," Chironis added.

Meet guests in their comfort zone. Everyone has their preferred mode of communication, whether that's phone calls, email, or text messaging. Page recommends figuring out which method the other individual likes and using that to reach out with an invitation. Along those lines, you should consider the other person when selecting the restaurant.

"It's important to choose the right location," Chironis said. "For many of my clients who are a little older, at least in their 50s, if not in their 60s, it's very important to find a restaurant or location that is quiet and not too noisy, and that's actually a taller order than it should be."

Need help finding a quiet place? The Soundprint app crowdsources information to offer lists of quiet restaurants in cities including Las Vegas, Nashville, and Philadelphia.

Clients will also appreciate it if you choose a restaurant close to their place of work, so it's convenient. Ask about dietary restrictions before choosing a spot, and select one that serves food they can enjoy — vegetarians may not enjoy the steakhouse experience, for example. You may also want to try out the restaurant in advance to make sure it's an appropriate venue for a business meal.

Don't make it all about business. Chironis recalls the famous adage, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

The foundation of any successful business meal is the relationship you're working to build. You want the other person to feel comfortable and secure, and you don't want them to think the meeting is a sterile business exchange.

"You want to build a connection and be a good listener," Page said. "Ask questions and make eye contact with the individual, and warm up a little bit before you dive into what it is you're hoping to get out of this meeting."

Chironis adds that it's also important to have something interesting to say if they ask what's new with you.

"Instead of the usual response of, 'Oh nothing, just really busy,' it's important to have something topical to discuss with them," she said. "For example, 'We just started this new project of adding sustainable investing to our platform,' or something along those lines."

Learn dining etiquette in advance. As far as what Page calls "napkin know-how" and "silverware savvy," you should really get a handle on dining etiquette before you sit down for a meal with a client.

"I can't tell you how many people have hired me because someone on their staff did something inappropriate," Page said. "For example, one of the VPs cut their food and poked their knife into a piece of meat and ate it off the knife, rather than their fork."

There are countless dining faux pas, but as long as you review the basics in advance, you can avoid any major red flags. Along those lines, experts urge hosts to avoid slipping completely out of business mode, which can be easy to do in a social environment like a luncheon.  

"It's very easy to lose focus and all of a sudden think that this is a social interaction," said Lori Reiner, CPA, chief people officer for EisnerAmper, based in Philadelphia. "It can be very social, but at the end of the day, it's business. It's kind of like drinking too much at a holiday party — you have to stay in your business lane."

Be fully present. Perhaps worse than spearing a piece of steak with your knife is spending the entire lunch distracted by your phone.

"The biggest faux pas of [modern times] is having that smartphone on the table or on your lap secretly trying to send a message," Page said. "What that says is the other individual is not the most important thing in this moment, which doesn't make anybody feel good."

Page urges everyone to put their phone on silent mode and place it out of sight for the duration of the meal.

"Be fully present at any dining experience and you will be deemed charismatic," she said.

Consider bringing someone along. Some business meals are better one-on-one, but Reiner often uses meals as networking opportunities to either connect two clients who are facing similar issues or show a rising star the ropes.

"When I meet with a client or business relationship, I always try to bring somebody with me, and I ask them to do the same thing," Reiner said. "Sometimes I'll bring another partner, sometimes a rising star who's already connected to the engagement. In order to develop the next generation as trusted business advisers, it's really important to bring somebody along, because how else are they going to learn?"

Follow up with a thank you. A very small but significant thing to do after a business meal is follow up in some way, perhaps with a note of appreciation for some useful information they gave you at lunch or simply thanking them for a great conversation. And of course, if you made plans for a future meal or promised to follow up with more information, be sure to do so promptly.

"Acknowledging the dinner in some way after the fact adds a little more impact to the activity," Page said.

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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