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Tennessean Column- Sunday, November 15

Posted on: November 17

Author: Tom Black
Tennessean Column- Sunday, November 15

Rules for Doing Business at the Table

America has always done business at the table.  It’s a tradition!  And after recently reading “Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s” by Charles Cerami, I was further inspired to share the lessons I have learned at the “salesperson’s table.”

It was pointed out to me recently that I had actually spent millions of dollars on meals and entertainment for prospects and clients through the companies I have owned and the salespeople that worked for those companies.  I am still spending money on meals and entertainment for prospects and clients of the companies I am involved in.

The question I have come to ask and that you should ask is, “Am I getting any more benefit meeting over a meal or at an event than I would in the prospect’s office?”  For most salespeople the answer would be no.  No significant advantage was gained by paying for a prospect’s meal.  However, that doesn’t have to be the case.  With proper planning, thought and execution, you can literally get “a bang for your buck.”

The first step to making a productive meal is to determine its purpose prior to even inviting the prospect to lunch or dinner.  Ask yourself, “What are you really trying to accomplish?”

  1. Build a better relationship
  2. Understand your prospect’s business better
  3. Identify needs for your product or service
  4. Sell your product or service
  5. Solve existing or potential problems
  6. Introduce new members of your team

Whatever the goals, it will not hurt to write them down.  You are going to spend somewhere between $40 and $500 dollars, so you better have a solid purpose not to meet in the prospect’s office.

The next step is to set the appointment.  Be sensitive to the prospect’s time constraints.  Do they only have an hour for lunch?  Is an early lunch better than a late one?  If it is dinner, is early better than late?  Does the prospect need to get home?  Once I have a prospect’s agreement to meet, I let them lead by asking questions about their availability.

Next, pick a restaurant.  Your time limits will help here.  I usually pick a place that is close to the prospect’s office or home.  I always ask, “Do you have a favorite place?”  If they do, we go there.  I call and make the reservation.

Always make a reservation; nothing is worse than getting to a restaurant and having to wait. Ask for a table in the back but not by the kitchen.  Sometimes you will have to be persistent with the restaurant, but you are in sales.  Get what you want.  Control the atmosphere in which you are meeting.  You do not want to be near the front door or the kitchen.  There will be too much noise and foot traffic.

Next, if you are meeting the prospect at the restaurant, be a few minutes early.  Do not let the prospect get there first and wait on you.  When you sit down, you should face the wall.  You want to be focused on the prospect, not everything else going on around you.

When you order, follow the prospect’s lead.  This is not about you getting what you want.  If they order a salad, you get a salad.  If the prospect gets two or more courses, you get two or more courses.  The food police will not punish you if you don’t eat it all, but your prospect will if they feel uncomfortable.  I usually don’t order alcohol at lunch, however, I will if the prospect does and then I don’t drink it.  One of your goals should be to bond with the prospect and to build your rapport.

If I pick the restaurant, I consider the following items: location, budget, atmosphere (quiet is good), menu and service.  Each has an impact on the meeting.  Remember, you are having a meeting that you are paying for.  It should be a place your prospect will enjoy.  Your pleasures should be an afterthought.

Finally, don’t talk business while you are eating.  I have seen salespeople try to cover a PowerPoint while food was being served or on the table.  I have seen salespeople talk with their mouths full and ask a prospect a question while the prospect’s mouth is full.  Any serious business discussion should take place after the meal or back in the prospect’s office.

From now on, try to think of a meal with a prospect as a meeting with food.  Keep your standard of excellence high and control the meeting as much as you can.  Do not meet over a meal unless something can be accomplished at a meal that cannot be accomplished in the prospect’s office.

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