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A new small business owner recently asked me about taking a potential client to lunch.

She explained she didn’t have a lot of money to spend, but she also didn’t want to look cheap. She wondered what to do if the prospect selected an expensive venue.

The business lunch. It’s an integral part of doing business even in today’s hectic and technology-driven world.

Getting to know your customer or prospect in a less formal environment is an excellent way to build rapport. Many business deals have been closed before desert is delivered.

However, I understand the dilemma when you’re just starting your business. It’s important to hold costs down, but in the current economic climate, most small businesses are exercising caution when it comes to business expenses.

Here are a few tips to help you make your next business lunch a success.

1. Make the invitation.

When you’re doing the inviting you can select the restaurant and choose one within your price range. Make sure it is a venue with which you are familiar and one where you can make reservations.

2. Be on time.

You don’t want to use up precious time waiting in line for a table. Speaking of time, make sure you arrive ten minutes early. Tardiness is disrespectful to your guest.

3. Choose the right location.

Another consideration in selecting a restaurant is the location. You should choose something that is easily accessible for both parties.

It’s not smart to pick the latest “hot spot” that’s going to be crowded and noisy. Your restaurant choice should be conducive to a comfortable level of conversation.

Also, avoid cuisines that are not considered standard fare unless you know the customer is a fan. It never hurts to ask your guests if they have any food preferences or dietary restrictions.

4. Be proactive with the check.

According to business etiquette guidelines, when you invite someone to join you for lunch, you are expected to pay. However, to avoid any argument over the bill, provide your credit card to the waiter when you first arrive. (Another reason for getting their early). When the check comes you can let your guest know it’s already taken care of.

Let me share a few more ideas to help your business lunch be a success.

  • Be prepared to make small talk. Current events, sports, even the weather are good topics, but avoid anything potentially controversial.
  • Don’t order “messy” foods. Choose something that is easy to eat and won’t spill or drip on your lap.
  • Turn your cell phone off. It’s rude to interrupt your lunch with phone calls and/or emails. Focus on the customer.
  • Brush up on your etiquette. If you don’t remember the basics, blow the dust off the etiquette book your Great Aunt gave you for college graduation and review it. You may not think people notice, but they do.

Finally, a lot of business owners are opting for mid-morning or mid-afternoon coffee meetings instead of lunch.

These meetings are in informal settings but typically don’t require your customer to block out as much time so they may be more receptive to accepting the invitation. Plus, meeting for coffee is a lot easier on your budget that a full-blown lunch.

Bon Appetit!