Written by Wendy Lalli
Something happens when you share a table and a breadbasket with a business contact that can never happen in an office with a desk or conference table between you. Eating together in a neutral restaurant encourages a feeling of equality impossible to achieve in the other person’s office. (In fact, the balance of power lies with you since you did the inviting and will be picking up the check!)
Although your luncheon companion may be in a position to hire you, the purpose of the meeting isn’t to interview between bites. It’s to build a personal rapport with someone who can connect you with opportunities within your industry. Your goal is to show your tablemate that you’re bright, fun to be with, and knowledgeable about things that interest him or her on the job – and off.
Start by making it a point to listen more than you talk. Remember, laughing at another person’s jokes is the quickest way to earn a reputation for being a witty raconteur. People will automatically assume that you’re funny because you “get” their sense of humor.
Channel Barbara Walters, and ask intelligent leading questions that prompt an exchange of ideas. Ask about special challenges your guest may be facing on their job. The idea is to spark a friendly conversation between two industry peers. Listen carefully to the needs and concerns of the person you’re lunching with. And, if you can, show that you not only understand the problems that he or she is facing, but have successfully dealt with them yourself.
If the person resists talking about business altogether, take it as an opportunity to connect with them on a personal level. Since people hire their friends (and they do!), consider this a unique chance to move a professional interaction to a personal level immediately. Ask about their family, their hobbies, their childhood, and their favorite forms of entertainment. If they love fly-fishing and you’ve never been, ask them to how they got into it, how often they go, what’s their most exciting fish story, and the details about the fish that got away. The worst that will happen is that you’ll learn something new. And I can guarantee you that your luncheon companion will be wowed by your interpersonal skills and appreciation for “intelligent conversation.”
At the end of the lunch, indicate to the waiter that you want the check and pay for both of you. If your guest objects, tell them that they can pay for you the next time you have lunch together. Should they absolutely insist on paying their own way, (perhaps due to company policy), figure out what you owe and hand over the bill along with your payment including your share of tip and tax.
As you leave, suggest meeting again in a couple of weeks to continue your conversation. Carry through on the assumption of equality established during lunch and frame the request as one peer connecting to another. If they “owe” you lunch, as in “You can get the next one” ploy referenced above, you’re already halfway home. You can also propose a follow-up meeting at their office. When you do, you’ll again be connecting as one peer to another and hopefully it will lead to introductions to other people in the company.
Remember, this isn’t just about one meeting. This is part of a long-term strategy to build a vibrant, successful career. In my own experience, such meetings have frequently led to assignments to do short-term projects, interview for full-time jobs, and meet others who were leaders in my field. Think of lunch as a quick and enjoyable way to jumpstart a long-term relationship with a business contact you can build on for years to come. Bon Appétit!
To help you get started on lunching your way to the top here are some fine points to keep in mind:
1. Plan to meet at 11:30 am or after 1:00 PM to avoid the worse of the lunch crowds.
2. Pick a place that is close to your guest’s office so it won’t take them long to get there. If you want to take them to a special place that isn’t within walking distance, offer to pick them up at their office and to bring them back after lunch.
3. Check out the noise level of the place you choose. You don’t want to have to shout to be heard.
4. Make sure the seats are comfortable and that the tables offer a certain degree of privacy
5. Check that the menu offers something for vegetarians and dieters as well as burger lovers.
6. If you can, eat there before you invite a guest to join you. See how fast you’re served, how long you had to wait for a table, if they take credit cards, and, of course, the quality of the food.
7. Confirm the time and date of your luncheon the day before by email. Give clear directions on how to get to the restaurant or offer to meet your guest at their office and escort them there.
8. If your guest has a last minute change of plans and can’t meet you at 11:30, reschedule for the same day after 1 PM or the same time, the next day. If worse comes to worse, you can agree to meet on the first available date after that.
9. If during the course of lunch you promised to send an article, email a link, forward on a contact’s name and number or whatever – make sure to do it as soon as you get home! It’s a great way to demonstrate that you’re reliable, responsible, and concerned about others.
10. Send a personal, light-hearted e-mail to thank your guest for joining you and that you’re looking
forward to lunching with them again soon.
11. You can do all of this at a breakfast meeting too – just earlier!
Wendy Lalli consults on marketing projects through her own agency, Wendy Lalli Ltd. and is CD of Crux Creative, a marketing agency in Wisconsin. She also mentors other marketing professionals in transition and wrote on job search for the Chicago Tribune and 25 newspapers in the Chicago Sun Times network.