Many people don't want to believe it, but this is a true story: The senior director of a major (and we mean major) financial consulting firm wanted to make a good impression on a prospective client. He chose a four star restaurant to wine and dine him. Everything was going smoothly until the director, who otherwise had good manners, licked his knife. The client and his $30 million portfolio went elsewhere.
No way! Not fair! Maybe that knife licking incident bore no reflection on the director's financial acumen and technical skills — but guess what? The world of work works this way. Very often it's the little things that tie that brick around your neck — and as you're sinking to the bottom you realize that little things can add up to one huge disaster.
“When I tell this story to the people in my seminars they are horrified — licking the knife is gross,” says Barbara Pachter, author of the book “When The Little Things Count…And They Always Count”. “But losing a $30 million deal because of it is mind boggling. People quickly realize that they are capable of making the same kind of mistakes.”
Pachter is quick to point out that the purpose of her etiquette courses is not to terrify people who have to wine and dine clients as part of the job, but to help them feel confident. Few people, especially an executive dining in a formal or the newest “in” restaurants, will readily admit that sometimes he or she isn't quite sure which water glass to use. “Most of us never had any formal training in this area. We may remember what our mothers taught us — and sometimes those rules don't apply anymore in today's business world.”
There are lots of rules to navigate high-level dining, but here's a crash course on seven of the biggest mistakes executive diners make:
1. Not making a reservation. Don't think just because it's a Monday, the nicest restaurant in town will be magically empty. Always make a reservation when you are hosting a business lunch or dinner. I encourage executive diners to forge a relationship with a restaurant's staff by becoming a regular. They will know you and your preferences, address you by name, give you a better table, and in a pinch find a table for you when the restaurant is booked. Remember to cancel reservations when necessary.
2. Not being in charge. As host, you need to take charge and manage all of the logistics of the meal. If your client is a non-smoker, make sure your table is in the no-smoking section. Direct your guest to the most comfortable or best seat. Make sure your guest's order is taken first and make a wine selection based on his or her preference.
3. Failing to keep the order balanced. If your guest orders an appetizer, so should you. The same is true for drink and dessert. If you don't want alcohol, order a non-alcoholic drink. You don't want to make your guest feel uncomfortable by eating a course alone.
4. Inappropriate small talk. No matter how well you think you might know someone don't discuss sex, religion or politics. You could offend someone without intending to do so. The best time to discuss business is after ordering the meal. This gives you some uninterrupted time.
5. Improper utensil use. People do notice how you hold your utensils! Many business diners are confused as to which way is the right way to handle them — American or Continental. Either style is acceptable; but be consistent and correct in your use. American: Hold the knife in right hand and the fork in your left, tines down. Cut up to three pieces of meat. Put the knife down on your plate and switch the fork to your right hand, tines up. Continental: Same starting and cutting procedure except don't switch your fork to the other hand. Bring the fork to your mouth, tines down. The knife remains in the right hand and can be used to push food onto the back of the fork. Don't wave food on your fork and you've already heard the consequences of knife licking (finger licking is discouraged too).
6. Taking someone else's bread plate or water glass. Here's a trick for remembering which one is yours: “Food” has four letters and “left” has four letters. Bread is food, so your bread plate is on the left. “Drink” has five letters and so does “right.” Your water glass is on the right. As a general rule navigate your place setting from the outside in.
7. Fighting over or dividing the bill. Whoever hosts the dinner pays the bill. Do not, repeat, do not, divide the check or comment about the bill. I heard of a vice president who was paying the bill and said, “Whoa!” when he saw how high the bill was. Comments like that will only serve to make your guests uncomfortable. As a female, if you want to assure that you will receive the bill, arrange it with the waiter beforehand, or leave the table and take care of the bill privately.
BARBARA PACHTER is the author of “The Power of Positive Confrontation” (Marlowe & Co., 2000). She is a speaker, trainer and coach specializing in business communications, business etiquette, and assertiveness issues. Her client list features major corporations and organizations worldwide, including Ernst & Young, DaimlerChrysler, and Nabisco.