The Five Most Common Questions On Business Lunches Answered

Don’t slay your chances at landing that big deal by screwing up at your business lunch.

Who should pay at a business lunch? When do you stop being social and start talking shop? Which wine should you order and ultimately, how do you avoid being a social pariah at the table? The business lunch is a social minefield, but we have a few tips to make sure that you leave the douchebag at the door.

Image: Chris Hondros/Getty

Business etiquette expert Danielle Di-Masi talks to Business Insider Australia about the dos and don’ts of business lunching.

1. Which Restaurant?

Danielle says that it’s important to go somewhere you know. Don’t let your guest see you as someone indecisive and annoying to do business with because you can’t choose a meal from a menu you have never seen before.

Make sure you check both the menu and the wine list online before you make the booking. That way you can appear confident and decisive in your choices.

The best thing to do when choosing the venue is research, followed by more research and topped off with a side of research. Don’t let poor planning ruin your lunch.

Danielle has this squirm-inducing story. “Some people were taking clients to pubs that they knew of once, and at a certain time, the pub becomes lingerie service, or student night, or ladies night. That’s awkward for you and even worse for your guest.

“Saying that you simply ‘didn’t know’ doesn’t stand up anymore. Even if you haven’t been to that particular venue before, check it out before you make the booking and see where you’re going. You don’t want some student party to be happening that night where usually it’s a nice bar.

You also have to be mindful of the service you get at some places, Danielle says.

“If it’s an important meeting, you don’t want a sassy service. If you do everything perfectly and then get a rude wait service, it can ruin it. All i would say is know where you’re going and know what’s appropriate,” she says.

The best way to figure this out is to look at different reviews sites like TripAdvisor, Google or Yelp to see if the place has a bad wrap.

2. Who Asks?

It’s tough to know when you should actually start talking shop at a business lunch. After all, you’re there to do business, right? In fact, there’s no such thing as “the perfect time” to start asking about business.

You have to do what’s appropriate for that situation, Danielle says.

“Any time you deal with relationships and big sales, there are always way too many elements at play for you to say ‘here’s the stock-standard rules’. It doesn’t work that way. Every relationship is delicate and you need to be realistic about where you’re at with one particular relationship or another.”

Danielle adds that being too direct might actually work against you at a business lunch.

“People may have a one-stop plan about fancy lunches and spending money to get what they want, but they’ll get a reputation for that. It might work if someone wants what you’re selling or wants to give you stuff, but you need to recalibrate for each situation. Ask yourself: ‘what’s appropriate? Do I have a lunch or do I have a meeting? There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all answer.”

Quite often, generational factors will play a role in how the lunch unfolds.

“We see students that meet people for the first time then go straight in for the big ask, sometimes they succeed, but often they don’t. Some of the younger generations have the balls to do something like that, but that might really put someone off. You need to look at the bigger picture, you might just need to have a lunch without an ask.

“People are smart and time poor: they won’t go out to lunch with someone if they feel like they’re going to be pressured. You don’t want to put anyone on the spot. People will bring out forms and flyers at the table sometimes and that’s uncomfortable for everyone. If it’s done poorly, you’ll ruin that relationship,” Danielle adds.

3. Which Wine?

Wine can be a tricky proposition at a business lunch. If you have your company’s black card then ordering wine from anywhere on the menu becomes a less daunting proposition. The issue of wine can become a problem, however, if you’re trying to lunch on a budget. If that’s the case, Danielle has a great tip for you: get the wait staff to help via subtle signals.

“Saying ‘give me your most expensive wine’ comes across as pretty arrogant in Australia. If you are on a budget or you are conscious of money, let your wait staff suggest something for you. Here’s the trick, though: you can tap on one that you like that might be cheaper on there and then the wait staff will probably get the hint. If you touch two wines you want to pay for, wait staff should be smart enough to figure out that you’re defining your price range.”

4. Who Pays?

Paying is arguably the most awkward part of the business lunch. Danielle’s advice? Don’t let it get awkward at all.

“People can get into a fight over the corporate card. Who pays turns into an ego-thing. All rules are there to be broken, but if you really want to pay for that lunch, make it happen. Give your card over early, or prepay early. Say to your wait staff before your guest arrives, ‘hold my card, I’m paying for this’. Then you just tell the guest at the conclusion of the lunch that it has already been paid for.

“It’s so nice for everyone, because money can be awkward. Say you’ve got it and leave. Most places are pretty cool with that.”

Otherwise, the rule for paying is whoever asked for the lunch forks out.

5. The Golden Rule?

The most important rule to remember on a business lunch is this: just because you took this client or this supplier or even this future employee out to lunch doesn’t mean they owe you anything.

Danielle says that “people don’t owe you anything. A business lunch is still a professional environment. Although there’s beer and steak, you need to watch your reputation and how you’re speaking so you don’t get yourself in trouble.”


What’s your best business lunch tip?

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