These days, most people just don’t “do” etiquette. It’s too much trouble, and it would involve taking our noses out of Candy Crush long enough to actually be respectful to someone. What’s more, society will generally consider us a member-in-good-standing as long as we aren’t Politically Incorrect (that train left for me long ago!) and can keep our picture out of the local “Busted” magazine and the Rednecks of Walmart front page (yeah I know, for some that last part is easier said than done!).
Certainly, those Downton Abbey days are long gone. Forget the fancy suits, if it weren’t for those pesky “no shoes, no shirt, no service” signs everywhere most people probably wouldn’t even wear a wife beater and a pair of flip-flops when they leave the house. We barely use forks or eat at tables, much less consider their proper placement on the table before dinner (on the left, right??). We don’t look people in the eye or know how to really listen. We’re too busy stuck in our virtual worlds to consider the one we’re actually living in.
Amazingly, technology has somehow managed to completely reverse the human evolutionary process!
The problem for those of us who actually have to work for a living, however, is that while society may give us a pass, the business world certainly will not. There’s an entire generation of kids being raised devoid of any notion of how to properly interact with their fellow humans, and it’s costing us dearly.
Enter “client lunches,” an overlooked but important part of any business, especially ours. If your very busy client agrees to go to lunch, it probably means they value you and the service you provide enough to sit down and “break bread” with you, a positive sign of goodwill and social acceptance.
So, what happens when you take your 22 year-old right-out-of-college staffer along to lunch with your biggest client?
Having dark, foreboding thoughts about now? I understand! That’s why I wrote this guide to help young staffers (and the older among us who may have forgotten) grasp a few basic rules of etiquette that will hopefully keep your client-vendor relationship intact after the check has been paid.
Leave your cell phone alone
You know it’ll happen, because it probably happens to you every five to ten minutes. Somewhere during your client lunch you’ll hear that all-too-familiar “baloop” sound, the siren sound that means somewhere, across the vast reaches of the interwebs, someone is “thinking” about you. Sure, it could be anything – a text from your buddy asking you “whazzup?;” a Facebook request from your great aunt Mable (who taught her computers anyway??) inviting you and all her other “friends” to play Pet Saga for the twentieth time; a notice from your World of Warcraft clan leader letting you know when the next raid is (ahem – if you’re thinking I must have some past personal experience to write that last bit, you’d sadly be correct); heck, it could even be an email from your ex-girlfriend begging you to take her back.
You’ll want so badly to pull that phone out of your pocket, just for a second. Your client probably won’t even notice. She may have even pulled her phone out too at some point. What’s the big deal? It’ll make you seem like a big shot anyway, right? Aunt Mable needs you because Pet Saga and her four cats are all she’s got!
The big deal is that your client, besides being a fellow human, is who really pays for your food, housing, utilities, even the phone that’s in your pocket. As such, he or she is worthy of your respect. Since pulling out your cell phone in the middle of a conversation is a HUGE sign of quite the opposite, don’t do it, ever.
Whatever it is, whatever the temptation – and I agree it can be great – remember these three words, capitalized and bolded for emphasis – IT CAN WAIT! If you find that you’re indeed powerless to fight this temptation, leave your cell phone in the car.
Always steer the conversation toward your client
It’s only natural to want to talk about ourselves and our own experiences. We are, of course, the most interesting people we know, right? Yes, there’s a place for that, because your client is probably to some degree curious about you and will ask you questions. But, ultimately, your client lunch is about your client and his wants and needs, particularly as it relates to how to improve on the service you are providing.
Ask business related questions first – How is their business? What’s it like to work at XYZ company? How can we improve on the services we provide?
Ask surface-personal questions – hobbies, interests, civic organizations, etc.
You can respond back with experiences of your own, of course, but remember not to linger there and to always steer the conversation back to them.
Columnist Jeff Haden calls it social Jiu-Jitsu – He writes, “Some people have a knack for getting you to talk openly yourself. They ask open-ended questions. They sincerely want to know what you think, and that makes you open up to a surprising degree. You feel like the most interesting man (or woman) in the world.
“And you like them for making you feel that way.
“As soon as you learn something about someone, ask why they do it. Or how. Or what they like about it, or what they've learned from it. Charming people ask
sincere questions that make it easy to answer in a thoughtful, introspective way. They make you think, in a good way, about yourself, and in the process make you feel charming too.”
This approach won’t just help us with our clients, but in all our other relationships as well. After all, when it comes to our interactions with our clients, it’s really ALL about them anyway!
Remember your table manners
This assumes, of course, that your parents taught you table manners in the first place and that you remember them. If not, a refresher could be in order.
To list a few: Take small bites. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Handle your silverware properly. Allow your guest to take the first bite. Don’t hog the appetizers.
Pick up the tab
This should be a given, of course, but don’t leave any doubts in the client’s mind. Let the server know as soon as he/she takes your order that the check will be coming to you.
To sum it all up – minimize distractions, steer the conversation, remember your table manners, and pick up the tab. There are certainly more, but start with those and you’ll be well on your way to a successful and mutually prosperous interaction with the people who, despite who’s picking up the tab, really pay the bills.