No one dislikes socializing with clients more than I do. I cherish my personal time. Most meal situations have far more downsides than upsides. (You're often invited after a sale has been made, so you can only ruin things!)
I'm being perhaps unduly cynical, but nevertheless here are some guidelines for those occasions when you're eating out with client personnel (buyer or not).
- Don't drink alcohol, even to be "sociable." You'll say something you don't mean, or become much too friendly. It's poor taste, for example, for the client to tell an off-color joke, but it's catastrophic for you to do so.
- Refrain from ordering finger food. Spareribs, burgers, and tacos are otherwise appealing, but they'll dribble all over you and prevent you from taking notes, cleanly passing the bread, or supplying a business card.
- Learn to use your silverware correctly. You may choose to utilize "American style" or "European style," but each has its own protocol. Understand which knife and fork to use for each course, where your bread dish, napkin, and water glass are placed, and if you're unsure of how to eat a common entrée simply watch the host. There are few things as damning for a partnership as to watch someone use a knife like a dagger or eat the main course with the salad fork.
- Stay away from spaghetti (though other pasta dishes are fine). It's hard to eat properly even when you know how. (Hint: If you see someone cutting pasta or salad with a knife, there's trouble in River City.)
- Keep your mouth shut, especially when there is food in it. Your job is not to be the affable host but simply to be pleasant company, the requirement for which is mainly to listen to others. Begin conversations with those on either side and/or across from you by using a few provocative questions, but then spend more time listening than speaking.
- It's all right to offer to pay if there are small numbers, but be aware that many organizations have a policy against accepting any kinds of favors from those supplying services to the company. So your offer is gracious, but you may have to just as graciously withdraw it.
- This sounds crazy, but it happens regularly: If your client has crumbs on a lapel, lettuce in some teeth, or elbow in the sauce, say something. The reason is that you would want to know yourself, and if you don't do it and they walk into a meeting with the problem later they'll be more than a little upset that you didn't think enough of them to warn them of the potential embarrassment.
- After the meal, when you're alone, make some notes about anything important that was discussed which needs to be captured, while your memory is fresh. Also, consider a confirmation letter or email to the client reinforcing what was said and agreed upon so it doesn't disappear into the ether.
- I generally ignore lower level comments and gripes. That is, I don't "rat" and report back comments of underlings who might have had too much to drink or are feeling a surge of ego. But I do report anything which is unethical or potentially harmful to the client's well-being: harassment, bias, thievery, sabotage, etc. These transcend any aspect of being "out with the crowd."
- Leaver your cell phone off and in a pocket. It's rude, you're not a brain surgeon on call. If others use theirs, just keep eating.
As a rule, breakfast is safest (people have to get to work and there is no alcohol), lunch is second best (people usually have to get back to work and most won't drink), and dinner is worst (people have a tendency to relieve stress and "let go").
My advice: If you must have a meal, go to the company cafeteria. It's cheap, visible, and hard to get into trouble.