You may not think of dining with customers as a business tool, but it’s an important one you use all the time. Andrea Nierenberg is an expert on using common business tools in clever ways to build stronger, more effective relationships with customers. Her Business Meals: A Cookbook For Selling Success has great ideas you’ve probably never considered, but we’ll bet you will try some of them.
As we cautiously return to enjoying meals with customers, it is more important than ever for us to use those meals to strengthen our personal rapport and the trust that customers have in us as salespeople.
Have you ever had a meal with a customer that turned out to be a disaster? Did something or someone at the restaurant make your job much more difficult? While you can’t prevent a waiter from dropping soup in your customer’s lap, you can take steps to make business meals more productive.
When you want to have beneficial and stress-free meals with customers, take the time to plan and do some research. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind:
1. Get better “home cooked” meals
In the city where you are based, work to get known at several eating establishments. Make it your business to introduce yourself at these places and get friendly with the manager, maitre d’ or waiters. Take care of these people with a small gift or tip whenever you walk in with your customers. It will impress customers when you’re called by name and told that “your” table is ready.
You might consider having a variety of places at your disposal. These dining options can be based on price, style or even how close they are to your customers’ offices. You can further enhance your dining choices by learning what types of foods each of your customers enjoys. Then make sure you have a selection of places that can meet the needs of all your customers.
2. Research on the road
When you travel to other cities for business, you might need to do some advance work to find the right restaurants. You could even call the local Chamber of Commerce or tourist bureau in advance to get a listing of restaurants. There are also numerous resources on the Internet that can give you detailed information.
When you discover some places that interest you, call and make an initial contact. Get the name of the manager or maitre d’. One beneficial thing that I do is to drop those people a note in advance, saying, “Thank you for your time and help, and I look forward to my dining experience.”
Of course, when you arrive, you still need to check out the place before you confirm the location with your customer. A friend of mine made a reservation without any research. The place he took his customer to had no windows, old plywood for wall covering and about two inches of space between chairs. His customer commented, “I hope this place doesn’t catch fire; we’ll never get out.” Ironically, it was recommended by the concierge at the hotel.
If your customer is from the city you’re visiting, ask that person for a suggestion. It’s another way of letting that person know that you value his or her opinion. Still, you should investigate the restaurant and say hello to the manager.
Also, make sure you find out what methods of payment are accepted there. Be prepared, so you’re not in a place that only takes cash or a credit card you don’t have.
3. Watch out for noisy environments
Noise level or audio volume in a restaurant is something that can work against you. First, make sure the restaurant does not always have loud music playing. Second, be sure that you’re seated in a place away from anything like a television set or other distractions. An associate of mine went to one of those “theme” restaurants and got seated next to a rumbling waterfall with robotic elephants blowing their trunks.
4. Decide: drinks or a meal?
Sitting in a lounge or a cafe is much different from eating a five-course dinner in a restaurant. Dinner is a very difficult time to have a customer focus on your sales presentation. Here are some ideas to consider:
- Meet the customer for a drink or coffee. In this case, there is less time and clutter involved. It’s easier to get down to business and, hopefully, close the deal. Then, at a later date, you can have a nice meal with your customer to celebrate.
- If you need to conduct a sales call over lunch or dinner, first let the customer eat. While you’re eating, use the time for an informal conversation. Then, as coffee and dessert are being served, discuss your business proposal and make the sales pitch. Have you ever been in a restaurant and watched as someone pulled out his or her laptop or storyboard while the prospect was glazed over with hunger and not paying attention? Feed them first.
- When meals are necessary, the best bet is breakfast. It’s the start of the day, it’s short and people have to get to the office. Also, there’s not the problem of alcoholic beverages. I prefer the early-morning meeting. However, remember that not everyone is an early bird.
5. Make the meal a party
Business meals are nothing new. Therefore, think of ways to make them special. For example, you could give your customer a small “anniversary” gift that celebrates the time you’ve been working together. Or maybe the meal is around the “birthday” of when his or her company started. Arrange to have the waiter bring a cake with candles, celebrating the company’s founding. You might even have the president of your company make a “surprise” visit and join you for the meal. The goal is to come up with original ideas that will help customers remember meetings.
These tips should help you think of business meals as a way to fatten the number of orders you write.