The art of the business lunch

(Photograph: Linger Longer Restaurant.)

RESERVE a lunchtime table any weekday at a place-to-be-seen like Linger Longer in Sandton, The Test Kitchen in Cape Town or Butcher Boys in Umhlanga Rocks and you will see that lunch is a vital cog in the wheel of contemporary business.

Linger Longer’s best table might be reserved by some of the cellphone industry’s brightest stars, while an art director, account executive and marketing manager occupy another. At The Test Kitchen, you are likely to spot clusters of editors, account managers and big budget advertisers and smatterings of financial boffins. In Umhlanga Rocks, brand managers might be seen dining with packaging designers and printers, while the CEO of a freight company and her sales manager entertain a table of clients in another corner.

Indeed, while work schedules appear to become more frenzied, the business lunch continues to grow in popularity.

Lunch is considered by many to be an effective way of building business relationships and advancing careers. So useful, in fact, that Robin Jay, an advertising account executive from Las Vegas, wrote a 114 page book entitled The Art Of The Business Lunch – Building Relationships Between 12 and 2.

She claims that she experienced a 2 000% increase in sales due largely to her ability to build strong and lasting relationships by bonding with clients during lunch. Jay is the president of Las Vegas Women in Communication and was the recipient of a national media award entitled ‘Radio Executive of the Year’.

In a recent survey of financial executives, commissioned by a US recruitment company, nearly half the respondents said their most successful business meeting outside the office was conducted over a meal. Dining out, they agreed, is a great way to get to know professional contacts on a more personal level and to turn a potentially boring meeting into a more festive occasion.

Others are more circumspect about the prowess of the business lunch. They say that, if the purpose is to impress, forget it. People who would be impressed by a lunch invitation are not generally the kind of people you should want to impress. And, if you really want to impress senior business associates, it will take a very special occasion. For many, the lunch date has lost its appeal and is an unwelcome interruption of the workday.

Experts concede though, that if the objective is to get to know each other better, lunch meetings can be useful. For more precise business reasons though, preparation is required.

Richard Mulvey, of Durban management consultancy Perception Business Skills, says that lunch meetings, like any other business meeting, should be carefully thought through and tightly managed to be effective and successful.

Planning, he believes, can help avoid the distractions that often derail business lunches. The objective of the meeting should be established before hand. If the goal cannot be determined before the lunch, this should be the first point of discussion as diners settle down at the table.

In her book, Jay recommends that you arrive at the lunch meeting – first, if you are the host – with a list of items to discuss: “Many believe that discussing issues off the top of their head will suffice. Typically, it does not. On the other hand, keep lunch agendas short, simple and focused so you can discuss issues thoroughly.”

She says it is also essential to ensure that the people you invite to the lunch are only those who need to be there and that they are prepared for the discussion. You can send out a memo or a short e-mail that tells everyone what you hope to achieve during the lunch. This will ensure that they do the necessary homework and arrive with the appropriate work attitude.

“Remember too, it is natural to people-watch at restaurants and you need to allow time for ordering, eating and clearing of plates. Do not expect to do business for the entire period. Particularly, if there is a large group of people, you need to allow them some time to socialise and connect.”

Although it might seem obvious, you should ensure that you select a quieter restaurant if you are serious about conducting business during lunch. It is also polite to switch-off cellphones or, at least, if you are expecting an important call, to explain to the others in the party that you may need to answer the telephone.

According to a CNN report by Nick Easen, more than 50% of the 23 000 Europeans surveyed recently said it is inappropriate to have an alcoholic drink during the working day. In Asia, it is unusual to drink at lunchtime. In SA, however, like Australia, business lunches often revolve around a few glasses of wine, particularly on Thursdays and Fridays.

Although there is a strong social element to business lunches, Mulvey believes that too many meals that end at the bottom of a bottle wine end badly: “I recommend avoiding alcohol at business lunches. Alcohol and business do not go together.”

If you want to enjoy a business lunch with a purpose, consider the following beforehand.

• Is it the most appropriate option?
• What do you want to accomplish?
• Who needs to be there?
• Do your guests understand the objectives?
• Is the venue suitable?

(First published in Business Day.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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