How to Handle Client Meetings – Part Two


3. Taking Clients to a Restaurant

Gone are the days, back in the 1980s, when the popular culture had it that important deals were clinched over a £500 bottle of Margaux and rum truffles, à la Wall Street, in a swanky restaurant in downtown New York, London or Hong Kong. Nowadays, taking clients to lunch can leave you open to accusations of “corporate bribery”, with clients fearful of appearing to take back-handers before appointing a favoured supplier.

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

Part 1 of this article was published on Wednesday this week and covers Taking Clients to a Restaurant and Working with Clients on a Day to Day Basis.
Part 3 was published on Friday and covers Socialising with Clients After Hours and Sleeping With Clients.

This, my business contacts tell me, is the reality right now. But deep down, I believe it’s all bullshit. Everyone likes to be wined and dined, not least potential customers. If you play things the right way, the contract will be signed quicker than it takes the chef to cook a good duck a l’orange with all the trimmings. So, here are some ideas to digest before taking clients to a restaurant:

When you first invite the client, DO allow them to choose the restaurant if they have a preference.

If the suggested restaurant is out of you or your employer’s price range, gently suggest another one by asking if they like a certain food (e.g. Indian, Italian, etc.). Mention that you have read positive reports about this secondary venue or that it has been recommended to you personally. Now all you have to do is hope that the place is up to the anticipated standard! If you know the client well enough and want to surprise them by choosing your own favourite restaurant, ensure that you ask the person’s PA / Secretary / colleagues beforehand about any specific dietary requirements.

DO call the restaurant in advance and enquire about the dress code and average cost per head for a meal and drinks.

If you are not familiar with the place. A guide such as Square Meal can be helpful in this respect.

Once at the restaurant DO NOT smoke unless the client lights a cigarette first.

Similarly, you should always try to match the client’s choice of drink. This does not mean that if they order a gin and tonic that you should order one too. It means that if the client has asked for still water you shouldn’t order a pint of lager with a whisky chaser.

The wine list

Personally, I have very limited knowledge of wines. I can probably distinguish between a Chardonnay and a Pinot Grigio, between a Burgundy and a Medoc, but I would have to read the label to be really sure. So, if you are given the wine list and find yourself stuck, your best bet is to tell the sommelier that you’ll be eating fish / chicken / aubergine (or whatever) and ask them for a recommendation. The good news here is that the wine guru will often suggest a good, middle of the range bottle for you, one that is neither too expensive nor too cheap.

Related:  How To Handle Client Meetings - Part One
In these situations, DO NOT pass the wine list to your client and ask them to choose.

What if the client doesn’t know their grapes either? You’ll only make them feel awkward in your place. Only give the client the list if you suspect they know their stuff and would delight in showing off. Incidentally, if the client is definitely paying and you’re still given the wine list, choose a mid-price bottle or refer to the sommelier or maître d’, as above.

Again, DO NOT get drunk. Judge your limit and stick to it, particularly if you’re drinking at lunchtime.

Getting the bill

Next, the question of who will pay for the meal? I don’t think there is a definite etiquette for this but the way I do it is to consider who invited who. Invariably, it seems I’ve suggested it to the client and so it’s usually up to me to pay. If the client wants to take me out, they’ll pay. On the other hand, if the meal has gone well and the client has really taken a shine to you, they may offer to pay. In this instance, you should always offer to pay too at least once, but preferably twice. After that, if the client insists on parting with their cash, you should gracefully accept. Be careful that the whole corporate bribery thing isn’t turned around so that you owe the client something in return. For example, a follow-up lunch because the client fancies you, or some trade secrets.

Down to business

Unless you’re taking the client out as a thank you, there’s probably something specific that you want to discuss. Perhaps you need to talk about next year’s budget or the introduction of a new product? At what stage do you start talking shop?

When I was learning sales technique, I was told that you should leave this topic until last: either until you’re partway through the meal or if you’ve got a presentation to make when all the food’s been eaten and the table has been cleared. Bearing in mind the practicalities (you don’t want to dip your laptop into your oyster sauce do you?), this makes sense. The client is heartily fed and receptive to you alone, so it may be the best time to start your pitch. This doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about work before then – just skirt around the issue, keep it conversational rather than presentational. Discuss the client’s industry and the competition before you get to the main meat (so to speak). Who knows? Once the table’s been cleared, you might even be in a position where all that remains is a signature at the bottom of the contract… but don’t expect this.

4. Working with clients on a day to day basis

Before I joined, I was an account manager at an Internet consultancy. This meant that as well as selling our services to client companies, I was responsible for looking after a group of existing clients. I had to ensure that any work we were doing with them ran smoothly and on time.

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Sometimes I would work with the same client every day for a couple of months. We’d talk on the phone daily and I spent as many as three days a week at their offices. I and the other account managers had to remain professional, ensuring that proximity didn’t lead to a drop in standards. This was more difficult than it sounds. How do you keep your guard up when you’re seeing clients every day? How do you make sure that you do not swear out loud, as you would in your own office? How do you take a ten-minute cigarette break every hour, a ninety-minute lunch and still justify the cost of the client hiring you? These are all vexing questions that I hope to answer below:

DO NOT let yourself go. Ultimately, the client is paying for your time with them so you have to be able to justify your actions.

Behave exactly as you would if you were normally in the office: don’t start falling into bad habits like being late, looking sloppy or taking long fag and lunch breaks.

Be sociable and adaptable

When you first start working at the client’s place, it’s entirely possible that the only person you know over there is the person who is your original client contact. Over the next couple of days, you’ll either be forced to meet new people who you’ll be working with or you’ll choose to meet new people because sitting alone in the canteen is turning you into a social recluse and you can feel the larynx shrivelling through under-use. Go on, get out there! Meeting new people can be stimulating and fun and who knows what kind of friendships and relationships can develop over the coming weeks / months (see also Sleeping with Clients, below).

Inevitably, working with a client every day means that, to all intents and purposes, you’re actually working for two companies – your own and the client’s. When your company was bidding for the client’s business, it was useful to have some background knowledge of the client, their history, industry, ethos and competitors. Now that your company has won the job, this kind of information becomes invaluable. You have to absorb the company culture so that when they talk to you about something, you know what they mean.

So, to get yourself up to speed, DO some basic research on the client’s history and ethos.

A company handbook often contains the stuff you need to know. Look at the company’s web site – its “About Us” section is usually a rich source of information.

DO read up on the client’s industry by acquainting yourself with important trade publications and web sites.
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Don’t hesitate to ask about who the client’s main competition is so that you can swot up on the gossip. If possible, try every day to take a piece of information to the client about their industry / competition that they didn’t already know. Before you know it, you’ll be understanding and even making in-jokes and the company chairman will have anointed you the David to his Saul.

Coping with politics

Depending on your role and the project in hand, you may find that you yourself are chairing project management meetings with the client’s staff. If this is the case your communication skills are really going to have to come to the fore. Internal meetings, especially during the high pressure stage of completing projects, can be pretty fractious affairs. Almost always (whether things are going well or not), one party or department will be blaming another for slowing the project cycle down, producing incompetent work, mismanaging tasks or not communicating progress.

Alternatively, you may find that you are chairing a meeting between your own company’s staff and that of the client as similar accusations fly around. Be especially careful cautious and diplomatic in this situation. Try not to get involved in office politics and above all,

DO be objective.

Personally, I like to do things by consensus (or, at least, I like to give that impression). Get all the parties to air their feelings about certain issues before deciding on a preferred course of action. I look at the overall aim of the meeting first and the project second. What actions best allow these aims to be fulfilled?

DO NOT allocate blame. Take note of past actions, take stock of where the project is right now, TODAY, and what will need to be done and by whom to bring it to a successful conclusion.

Reporting progress

You may be having briefing meetings with either the client’s or your own company’s managerial team or even the board of directors. Here, the purpose is to communicate progress to the senior tier of management.

As ever, DO first have an objective in mind, whether that be a simple project update or a request for more time or money.

For either of the latter, you’ll probably need to have some reasons why you’re asking for these additional resources.

Second, I would always suggest that for set-piece meetings like this one, where you know that you’re selling a proposition (asking for more money or time because…), you practice and rehearse just as you would with any other sales presentation. All the elements are there: the creation of desire, the pitch itself, the benefits, the ability to handle objections and the closing of the deal. My old chairman, a guy who I didn’t like much but who I (grudgingly) ended up respecting, always told me that the more I practised, the easier it would be to take meetings and make presentations and speeches. He was right.

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