Dining with the Client

    We have discussed the importance of developing relationships with the client to become a client’s trusted advisor.  One of the most awkward of situations is when you finally have to sit down and enjoy a meal with the client.  In this week’s podcast, we’ll discuss some of the do’s and don’ts involved with dining with the client to help you advance in your consulting career.Is it okay to have wine at a business lunch?

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    1. What should a consultant consider when dining with a client?
      1. Well let’s talk about a situation where you’ve got a new-ish client and you’re going out for dinner after work.  One of the key questions is who will pay?
      2. Now it’s pretty well assumed that the vendor pays, so the consultant should plan on paying for the meal.
      3. But I was in a situation where the client asked us out for dinner.  We graciously accepted and there were four or five from each team.
      4. We had a nice dinner and nice conversation.  Then when the check came, the client did nothing to make an effort to pick up the bill.
      5. Finally, my boss grabbed the little folder and put his credit card in it to pay.  The client didn’t even flinch.
      6. So I think the moral to that story is to always be prepared to pay.
      7. I’ve also been in situations where we might be in a late morning meeting that finishes right before lunch and we’ll ask the client to join us for lunch.
      8. When the check comes we pick it up and he’ll offer to pay for his part.  This can be a little sketchy.  If you work for a firm that will reimburse you for lunches when you take the client out, it’s okay to flat out refuse payment.
      9. Their offer is not usually a real offer.  But if you can’t expense the meal, it’s acceptable to allow them to pay their own if the rest of the diners are doing the same.
      10. You may risk creating some bad will if you invited them to lunch and there was an implied invitation that you would pay.
      11. So who pays is somewhat touchy but you generally assume it will be the client.
      12. Another issue is what to order. This can be particularly questionable if you’re going out to dinner.  Now as a consultant, I would never take a client to a restaurant where I wasn’t willing to pay for the most expensive item.
      13. If that’s what they want to order, that’s fine with me.  But I’ve been in situations where the client goes first and orders a burger when the consulting team orders steaks.  Sometimes the client is trying to appear that they’re not taking advantage of the situation and orders a less expensive item.
    2. Do you have ways to navigate that awkward situation?
      1. I usually discuss it with the people at the table.  I’m looking at that filet, what are you thinking about.  That kind of sets the standard for them and they won’t feel like they need to order something cheap.
      2. Another thing I try to do is get some idea of their preference.  I’ve worked with clients that are vegetarians or have some type of special dietary restriction.  I’m a big steak eater, but when you take the client out, it’s supposed to be about them.
      3. And I wouldn’t want to take a vegetarian to a steak joint.  It’s just not good form.  So I’ll say something like we’d like to take you out to dinner, do you have any suggestions?
      4. If they’re hesitant to make a suggestion, I’ll just come out and ask if they’re vegetarians or have any dietary preferences.  I’ll suggest maybe a steak place and a seafood place and something different like an Indian or Italian restaurant.  Again, it kind of sets the standard for them for the price range you’re thinking about.
      5. Another question is whether to drink alcohol.  This is something the client may shy away from if the consultant is paying and it’s something the consultant may shy away from to avoid offending a client.  They may not like alcohol consumption or they may be a recovering alcoholic.
      6. And even if you cross the line and everyone is okay with having a drink, it’s always a good idea to stop at one or two.
      7. There is almost always driving involved and even if you’re cabbing it or close to your hotel, you want to control your alcohol consumption when you’re with the client.
      8. I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to get totally messed up with the client.  You have so much to lose and so little to gain.
    3. How do the rules differ for things like a team outing?
      1. That’s a little different story.  I’ve been involved in projects where there is a blended team.  When a milestone is reached, the management team will often treat the team to an outing
      2. This can be as simple as taking the team bowling or out for pizza, or it can be a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant.
      3. You have some of the same issues as when it’s just a dinner with the client.  You want to make sure about payment beforehand.
      4. Sometimes the client and consultant agree to jointly take the team out and split the bill somehow.
      5. More often, it’s the consulting firm taking everyone out.  You’ll also want to arrange the alcohol situation ahead of time.  Because of liability the firm may say that they’ll provide soft drinks and the team members can purchase their own alcoholic drinks.
      6. But I’ve been to many project outings where the firm opens the bill.  They paid for all the food and kept the bar tab open for several hours.
      7. I think in that situation, again, any individual consultants need to be careful not to consume more than one or two social drinks.
      8. I’ve seen outings like this where it’s all on the consulting firm and the client’s team members are reluctant to order anything and run up the bill.
      9. It’s incumbent on the consultants to encourage them to order and make them comfortable.  Essentially let them know that they aren’t going to get in trouble for ordering more food or a drink or two.
    4. Have you ever seen a lunch or a dinner go bad?
      1. Well, I told you about the time the client invited us and didn’t pay.  That had potential to go bad.
      2. I’ve heard of situations where either the consultants or the client have too much to drink.  That’s just kind of an embarrassment, particularly if they end up reenacting The Hangover or something.
      3. I’ve heard various stories about that type of situation, and it just reinforces my belief that alcohol should be kept to a minimum when you’re out with the client.
      4. I’ve also seen conversations go downhill when people start talking about politics or religion.  These are very touchy subjects for some people and subjects I would recommend staying away from.
      5. I think it’s easy to avoid them in an office environment, but once you get outside of that and in more casual surroundings, our inhibitions are lowered and we get this false sense of security.
      6. I’ve even seen it with sports.  If two people start talking and they each root for different sports rivals, it can get a bit uncomfortable watching it escalate.
    5. Any advice you would suggest to a young consultant that hasn’t dined with clients on a regular basis?
      1. I remember when I was in my first year or two, I didn’t get invited to too many client lunches or dinners. But when I did, I was a bit nervous.
      2. I was fine sitting in a conference room or an office talking about business or technology.  But I didn’t have any small talk skills.
      3. I mean, I could chat with my friends and hold a conversation, but I was a bit awkward with the management at my firm or with the client.
      4. I was afraid I’d say something wrong or appear naïve.  So I was overly quiet and that’s awkward for both the one who is being quiet and everyone else at the table.
      5. I also followed the interview rule.  I was very careful not to order anything like spaghetti or anything messy enough that I would be prone to spill on my shirt.
      6. Now that I’ve been in the industry for a good while, I was way too careful.  I look back and realize that I probably looked more stupid by not saying anything than anything I could have said back then.
      7. A good consultant is comfortable in their own skin and can hold a conversation.
      8. Something I do now if I’m going to meet with someone for dinner – or any meal – is to do a little homework.  I’ll actually look for their LinkedIn profile and see if I can learn a little about their past that might be interesting to talk about.
      9. But more than anything, I follow the Dale Carnegie approach and just take an interest in them.
      10. I’ll ask them a few questions about themselves and show an interest in them.  Most people like to talk about themselves.
      11. It gets the conversation started and you can eventually find something that you have in common that will grow into an interesting conversation.
      12. I would recommend not talking too much about yourself.  Especially if you’re meeting with a client, maintain an interest in them.  It’s okay to add tidbits about yourself and add to the story.
      13. But if you just show some interest in someone, they’ll think you’re a good conversationalist.
      14. Also, if you’re nervous, it takes pressure off of you trying to come up with things to talk about.  You put all of the attention toward your client.
    6. Have you ever had to deal with a client that just wasn’t talkative?  You ask them a question and they only answer with one or two word answers?
      1. Yes.
      2. That can be problematic if the client and you as the consultant are awkward in social settings. That’s why a good consultant is a good conversationalist.
      3. I mentioned asking them questions about themselves.  One thing you can do is try to come up with questions that aren’t open to yes/no answers.
      4. Ask them why something happened or how they did something.  They may still figure out a way to give a limited answer but it should get them to open up a little.
      5. It’s also good to be a good story teller.  I mentioned earlier that you want to focus on the client and let them talk about themselves, but if they don’t want to open up, you can take the heat off of them and do some of the talking.
      6. You want to be careful.  Some people think of storytelling and think they can just open up and talk about themselves.  The key is to tell them something interesting.  If what little conversation you have leads you to think of a humorous story, then go ahead and tell it.
      7. Just make sure you keep the stories short and monitor their reactions.  You should be able to tell if you’re boring them silly or if they’re genuinely interested.
    7. Any final thoughts?
      1. Much like a lunch interview or the first meal with your in-laws, dining with the client can be an awkward situation.
      2. Just keep in mind that it can be just as awkward for them.  They know the consultant is paying and they may not be sure what their appropriate actions are.  It’s always good to put them at ease and try to be a gracious host. That includes letting them know in a subtle way that they’re welcome to order whatever they want.
      3. As I mentioned, you need to be careful with alcohol, even if the client is not.  If they tend to over indulge you may feel like it’s fine, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
      4. It’s also good to learn how to be a conversationalist.  Try to get them to open up and talk about themselves and if they won’t, it’s okay to do so as long as you don’t bore them to death.
      5. But developing good dining skills, being comfortable and making the client feel comfortable can work wonders for advaning you consulting career.

    Next week’s topic: Public Speaking

    Book suggestion:

    Shine While You Dine: Business Dining Etiquette for the Virtual Age by Robert A Shutt http://www.amazon.com/Shine-While-You-Dine-Etiquette/dp/1456713299/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1359830463&sr=1-5&keywords=dining+etiquette

    Essential Etiquette Fundamentals, Vol. 1: Dining Etiquette By Mike Lininger http://www.amazon.com/Essential-Etiquette-Fundamentals-Vol-Dining/dp/098019511X/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1359830463&sr=1-3&keywords=dining+etiquette

    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101 provides you with 101 useful tips to optimize your professional performance and jump-start your consulting career with success.


    One thought on “Dining with the Client

    1. Lew, you made some great points. Food is a great way to win someone over if you plan it out. Doing a little digging about what the client likes to eat would probably help.

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