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Downsizing The Business Lunch

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By James Geneau

Have you heard it? Listen carefully. It is the distinctive and chilling sound of harsh cold metal slicing through plastic. Three weeks ago I started hearing it along Bay Street in Toronto and I could have sworn I heard it as background feedback during an episode of Squawk Talk on CNBC last week. What could this sound be you ask? Why scissors cutting through corporate credit cards of course! It is often accompanied by the distinctive sounds of mild whimpers, beads of sweat dripping onto a boardroom table, or the frantic keyboarding of an executive cancelling lunch with the client. These are the sounds of recession, the business lunch’s worst enemy.

As a former dot-com guy who lived it large on company expense accounts and clients flooded with cash, I know the sound too well. Back in 2000, my world fell apart much like the one traders and deal makers on Wall Street are experiencing today. Lavish lunches, ten cocktail client birthday parties, and impromptu $500 a person dinners vanished within a matter of days when the bubble burst. A scenario repeating itself as we deal with the worst global financial meltdown of a generation. I learned many lessons from the dot-com burst of 2000, particularly when it comes to company expenses, client entertainment, and making an impression on a budget. It now looks like everyone else needs to learn a few tricks to stay in front of the client without breaking the bank. Gather round young Wall and Bay Streeters, put down the crackberry, and grab a pen and paper.

The goal of client entertainment is to make you stand out from the competition. The price of the entertainment has nothing to do with the impression you make. After all, it is not like you fax them a copy of the receipt afterwards to show them what you spent. I remember being taken out for lunch a few years ago and the guy trying to win some business from me actually made a comment about the bill when he signed it. He said “Wow James, that steak you had was about the price of my mortgage payment” and flashed me a smile and a wink as if to say hey buddy, aren’t you glad I bought you such a great expensive meal. To which I immediately replied “That’s ironic because it was about as enjoyable as chewing on one of the shingles on your house.” Needless to say the guy turned beet red and was stunned, but I hope I proved a point to him. The price of the meal does not always warrant quality nor does it impress the client.

So if the price of the meal isn’t the key, what is? How about the experience? After all, nobody really remembers one steak from another when all they do is eat steak all day, every day, with different people trying to win their business. Trying something new on the other hand, that is where things can get interesting. The best part? There a million things you can do with a prospective client that is fun and entertaining and not going to break the bank.

If you want to bond with the client and build a long term relationship, what better way is there than a wine or spirits tasting? Why not score two $20 tickets and invite a prospective client to a wine tasting? There are tons of them happening in every major city each week. Meet them there, walk around to the booths, and sample some wines. Discuss them, see what they like or dislike, and learn something together. The best part, you have ample time to talk shop while you walk around the floor. At the end of the evening ask them which one was their favourite and a few days later, send them a bottle of it with a follow-up note to make a presentation. Your client will remember something like this more than a steak and it will cost you $60 maximum for both of you.

Another thing I have always found amusing is how people think that a formal dinner is in order to close a deal. Most likely, your prospective client has a family or personal commitments outside of work. Unbelievable I know but it is true apparently. Do you want to be the one responsible for the lecture when they get home about how they spend too much time at work and not enough time at home or with their children? Why not meet the client directly after work for a cocktail and a charcuterie plate? Make it a 4:30pm engagement and keep them for an hour only. They can then be home to have a formal dinner with their family but still have an enjoyable hour beforehand listening to your pitch. Be upfront with them about it and say that you only want to take a small piece of their time so they can get home to their family. They will respect the offer, as will your expense account.

Early bird clients can also be entertained in an economic manner. Breakfast is essentially eggs, bacon, and bread with a splash of potatoes and a slice of crappy fruit. There is no need for it to cost $40 each. Why not ask if they are free for coffee and bring it to them. You can make a bigger splash with a client and their company by bringing breakfast for their entire department. I once brought a Starbucks 20 serving traveller pack of coffee to a client along with twenty fresh Danishes from a great specialty bakery near my home. It cost me $30 in total but the client and their employees talked about it for months. I became known as Mr. Danish by reception whenever I called. Needless to say, she always tracked down the client for me when I needed to speak with them. It was a simple and cheap gesture that made me stand out from the crowd, and it made everyone’s Monday morning.

My last suggestion may be a little unorthodox and I would only recommend this if your client has been a long-standing partner for your business over several years. And that would be inviting them over for drinks at your place. What? Am I crazy? Well, given the current economic climate it may just be the most cost-effective way to impress your client. A quiet night getting to know them along with the spouses is a great way to bond for little cost. Go out and get some great wines, artisan cheeses you can discuss as you enjoy them, and sneak out back for a cigar on the patio to talk shop. You don’t need to make it a dinner engagement, just some simple evening drinks and conversation. Feeling really adventurous? Invite a work colleague to join or make it a party with several clients. The later may be a bit risky but the key here is to make an effort to really show your client that they are not just a source of revenue, they are a friend. And after all, everyone loves to show off their knowledge of local cheeses and wines.

The underlying theme here is that the cost of the entertaining does not translate into the degree of the impression you are making. Sure, it is fun to get wasted on champagne with private bottle service at a swank club but does it really bring you closer together with your client? Food and drink is an integral part of client entertaining but it does not need to be an expensive one. The more unique the experience, the more you will stand out. Sharing a unique experience with good food and drink is a great thing. Unfortunately, many people miss this and focus on the price and the glamour of entertaining instead of the core goal – making an impression and building relationships with your client.

There you have it. Pencils down. Now stop sobbing, come off the ledge, get to the ATM, grab $30 bucks, and get those Danishes!


A fabulous piece. Even 10 years ago, the extravagant lunches were rampant -- and expected -- and I was knee-deep in them! In recent experience, when entertaining clients, I find they shy away from offers of high-end fare in favour of a taste of the eclectic. Now, I'm always challenged to show people the hidden treasures across the city -- I truly believe that they will finish up, leave satisfied and happy, and remember an experience versus dollar signs. Their time is precious too -- if you're hosting, you need to make it memorable -- they are conflicted being away from work, but can justify it if it was something that affected them personally. It doesn't need to be costly, just different, convenient, casual.
Post Reply By Vicky in EAST YORK on 11/12/2008 1:13:18 PM

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