How to Handle Client Meetings – Part Three

How to Handle Client Meetings – Part Three

5. Socialising with Clients After Hours

You’ve been working with the client on a daily basis for the last couple of weeks and they suggest that you should go out for a drink that evening. You’ve got nothing on tonight and hey, getting to know the client can only be in your best interests. So you give your assent, name the pub / bar and arrange a meeting time. Come 6 pm, you trundle off merrily to get pissed with your new-found friends.

This article is split into 3 parts. The first part published today deals with:

Part One of this series deals with client meetings during and outside working hours.

Part Two of this series covers wining and dining clients and working with them on a day-to-day basis.

Alternatively, you may be the one to suggest an after-hours meeting in a pub or other drinking establishment – even if you aren’t working with the client every day. One business friend of mine regularly takes his clients out and makes sure that alcohol is never lacking. He is a major wit and an all-around good guy so going out for a drink with him is a pleasure whether he’s buying or not. The upshot is that his clients seem to love him: taking them out is not just a chance to network but also shows a level of commitment to the client over and above the call of duty.

This scenario begs an important question: if the client takes you out for a drink (or vice versa), does this count as a client meeting in the usual business way? And if it does still count as a client meeting, what (if any) is the correct way to handle this event? Here come your hints and tips…

  • Firstly, who is inviting who and how? If, for example, you’re asked out by the CEO of the client company who is hardly ever in the country and has 2 PA’s then you are safe assuming that time is at a premium and that the chat is unlikely to turn into an all-night drink-athon. This still falls under the category of a client meeting. If, however, the team of people that you work with every day at the client-side invite you to join them in the pub on a Friday night because one of the staff is leaving, you can expect things to be a little more informal. Client meeting? Probably not.
  • If you’re the one who’s doing the inviting, make sure that the client knows what you have planned for the evening. If it really is an informal affair, you DO NOT need to send out invitations with an RSVP – a simple telephone call will suffice. Tell them the venue, date and time and what the situation is. “A quick drink”, “a quick drink and maybe something to eat afterwards” or “some drinks, a club and a kebab” will immediately convey your message. The general rule is that if at any time during the evening you or your clients are expecting to talk seriously about work then it becomes a client meeting and all of the protocol that comes with it falls back into place.
  • If you’ve established that this is definitely NOT going to be a client meeting, what then? Well, on the one hand, you can relax, have a drink, let your hair down and chat to people as you would anyone else that you’d recently met. On the other hand, there are a number of things to be wary of.

    First, as I’m sure you’re aware, alcohol can do funny things. Well, they might seem funny at the time but not so hilarious in the cold light of day. An ex-work colleague of mine called the Marketing Manager of his client firm a “lazy bitch” to her face. Similarly, one of my ex-managers was arrested for being drunk and disorderly whilst out on an evening with clients. Two words: alcohol – careful.

    Second, remember that in our adult lives, most of the friends we have at any one time are the people we meet at work and as such, work forms a major part of our conversation. Going out with clients, even if you haven’t been drinking can put you in a position where you are asked about your opinion of, or even encouraged to badmouth, certain individuals within the client firm. What to do? I’m not suggesting that you become a master spin doctor but remain neutral or alternatively, obfuscate. Say that you don’t know the individual well enough to have formed an opinion of them on a personal level. Even if you’re asked for your professional thoughts, be watchful – anything you say can be used against you. The boundary between night on the town and client meeting can be very thin.

  • With the warnings out of the way, you can now concentrate on the good stuff. Most of the time, going out with clients is a rich and rewarding experience. After all, you’ll probably be making new friends and business acquaintances who one day may change the course of your career by offering you a new job, providing you with a reference or recommending you for a position to a head-hunter. But just in case you’re asked out and find that your clients are just as boring in the evenings after a couple of beers as they are during the day, have a backup plan. Particularly the first time you go out with them, tell your client that you have to leave at a certain time to go and hook up with other friends / your mother / your therapist (kidding). That way, if things are not going according to your plan, you have an easy escape route. This also means that should the evening be joyfully surpassing your wildest expectations, you can pretend to cancel your later appointment and stay on a little longer. If you’re the one that’s taking the client out, make sure they know that the evening will end at a pre-set time unless you cancel your later meeting.
  • Again, the question arises, who pays? If you invited the client then you should at least get the first round in. After that, it’s really just about playing it by ear. The client may offer to buy the next drink and it’s up to you whether you want to let them or not. The best way to ensure that you pay for all the drinks that evening is to run a tab at the bar. Beyond that it’s just a matter of social niceties – you offer they accept, they offer you accept and everyone’s happy. The rule here is that the less formal the evening is, the more you can get away with expecting the client to buy their fair share of beverages.
  • Try to match the venue to the weight of the discussion. Million-pound business deals should be confined to the cigar-fuelled atmosphere of a drawing-room, not played out in the spit-and-sawdust of your local boozer.
  • Needless to say that if you want to have a chat with the client, either on a personal or professional level, don’t take them somewhere where there is loud music or football playing in the background.

    6. Sleeping with Clients

    It’s almost inevitable that over the course of your career, which may last 40 years or more, you’ll meet a client that you fancy or that fancies you. And as with all love affairs, you’ll either feel that spark of attraction instantly or the desire will be one that grows over time. In many cases, these illicit thoughts will never be aired and you’ll only enjoy the frisson of sexual tension without taking any further action. But on some occasions, you’ll find yourself irresistibly drawn to a path where your passions can be consummated. In short, what happens if you end up in bed with your client?

    I have no intimate knowledge of this area but through discreet enquiries and a lot of drinks, I did find some business associates who admitted that they had been in this situation. Here then are the rules, inasmuch as there are any rules:

  • Don’t feel guilty, it can easily happen. You can’t legislate for love and passion and even if you’ve been holding out on your desires for some time, you may eventually give in and let yourself go. The important time, from a business point of view, is immediately after you’ve slept with the client – the next day or the next few days.
  • The main thing to do is to re-establish business contact as soon as you think you can. This may just entail a quick phone call to say hello and to update the client on what’s happening with the project. Alternatively, if you’re already working with the client on a daily basis and they need no updating, you could call and set out an agenda for your next business meeting. Of course, this contact also gives you the opportunity to gauge your paramour’s feelings toward you now. It could be joyous – they fancy your socks off and intend to see you again / take you out for dinner / propose marriage without further ado. Alternatively, they could be non-committal and feign indifference. If this happens, you may feel confused and want to talk to them about it. Obviously, it’s your call about how you want to handle this but I’d suggest that you maintain your business relationship separately from your personal one.
  • If things are going well between you and the clients as lovers, the next question you may need to ask yourselves (after a certain amount of time) is whether to tell anyone about it. If you’re a lawyer, a doctor or a psychologist, your code of ethics may strongly discourage you from having personal relations with a client and indeed this is applicable in many other professions too. On the other hand, and if you’re not in any of these industries, your colleagues and the client’s workmates may start to notice signs of intimacy between you and gossip may start to circulate. Again, it’s your choice to make the relationship public or not but provided you maintain a healthy working relationship without overt displays of favouritism or bias, it shouldn’t matter too much. Be careful, even if it’s cool with your peers, your bosses may not be too pleased. This is something you’ll need to consider.
  • Have a good time. As long as everything remains good on a business level, sleeping with the client should not be (or affect) a big deal. Enjoy it!
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