12 Dos and Don’ts for Drinking with Clients

Taking out clients for a cocktail or two can build camaraderie and help close deals, but there's an art to it. Here are 12 dos and don'ts to keep in mind.

As any dealmaker knows, few things can set off a boardroom coup d’état or lay the groundwork for a lifelong partnership quite like a client camaraderie session over cocktails. But labor relations libation (has a nice ring to it, right?) is an art form requiring finesse not befit for just slamming pints over shoptalk.

There’s nuance and etiquette to drinking with clients and getting the most out of the meeting – because despite replacing swivel chairs and boardroom tables with bar stools and sticky counter tops, that’s what it is, a meeting with a client – requires a certain sort of savvy. So for anyone who’s interested in making a better impression and closing more deals at the bar, here are some dos and don’ts of the client cocktail confab.

Do: Make it known it’s a drinking affair

It seems obvious but for anyone who’s wrecked a surprise party or shown up to a wedding in shorts (hey, the invitation made it very clear it was a “Garden” wedding) the basics shouldn’t be taken for granted. Make it implicit that libations are the plan for the meeting. That way, if your client doesn’t drink, they can make it known before they show up so you can come up with an alternate plan.

Don’t: Go to a bar you frequent often

Hitting your local with the buds can prove you’re a boss as they shower you with free rail shots, but a potential client, well that’s a different story. Chances are they may be less than keen on the Jagermeister shots that appear in front of you both from the bartender with a wink and a nudge. Avoiding a bar you frequent lets you focus on the task at hand – building camaraderie with a prospective client – without the excess baggage from friendly interlopers.

Do: Pick a bar where you can hear each other

Because, well, that’s the reason you’re there, to talk. Atmosphere is key. You want to pick a place with a relaxing vibe where your client feels comfortable and you’re free to have an open discussion. Storied atmospheres also help – if you know a hip new spot that opened up with interesting cocktails, a diverse beer selection and snacks, it’ll help keep the meeting loose and fun and ultimately build a memorable experience for the client.

Don’t: Sit at the bar if there’s more than two of you

No one wants to chat to a back. If it’s threes company or more, find a table or a booth where everyone is on equal footing and a part of the conversation.

Do: Be a real, live human being

There’s a reason you skipped the boardroom. Come prepared to offer a bit of personal information about yourself. Skip the Jagerbombs, brah, but be prepared to open up a little bit and get to know the client. Ask lot of questions. Subjects to avoid: sex and politics, oh and trash-talking your coworkers.

Don’t: Wait until after a few drinks to talk business

But don’t spend too much time dwelling on the personal that you forget to talk business. And definitely don’t wait until you’ve had a few to bring up the point of the meeting, your business is the middle ground and should be one of the driving elements of the meeting.

Do: Follow their lead when ordering

When the waiter comes to take your order, let your client go first. That way you can gage the overall vibe and thus, what you should be drinking. Not to say you should use the “I’ll have what they’re having” cop out – order your own drink – but don’t go for the pina colada if they’re getting a glass of merlot otherwise you’ll both feel a bit awkward.

Don’t: Order the most expensive drink

Look, we get it; looking like a baller who knows the difference between Courvoisier and Hennessey is a quality unto itself. But even if you’re picking up the tab, the client ultimately knows he’s paying by choosing to do business with you. Once again, follow your client’s lead. If they seem to talk single malts or have a good handle on the upper echelon of the bourbon tree – knowledge you also share – feel free to partake. Otherwise, keep it modest.

Do: YOLO, but not too hard

It’s okay to let loose a little, or even verging on a lot. There’s a lot you can accomplish by developing more relaxed relationship with clients, and having some drinks is one of the best ways of doing that. If the mood calls for it, don’t hold back from getting a little silly – just don’t go overboard, because you aren’t on Spring Break.

Don’t: Make it about you getting smashed

You probably have the company credit card tucked away in your wallet or an expense account at your disposal, but don’t make the night about getting as much free booze out of your company as possible. Not only does that look bad – yes, your boss will know what you’re doing – but it’s not about you, it’s about closing a deal or developing better relationships with existing clients.

Do: Get water on the side or a light snack

As anyone who survived freshman year of college without alcohol poisoning will tell you, water is your best friend. Make sure you’ve always got a glass of the good stuff handy to make sure don’t get a little too buzzed. You also might want to order a light snack to help counterbalance the drinks. Plus there’s something tribal in sharing food.

Don’t: Do shots

If we need to explain this, then you’ve come to the wrong place. It’s a meeting not a contest. Keep the number of drinks on the low end and if you start to feel a bit warm and fuzzy take a step back and switch to something lighter. Know your limit and don’t feel inclined to keep pace. Your ability to drink the client under the table will mean nothing if you flip the table as well.

Do: pay

If it was your idea to get together over drinks, you should probably pick up the tab (glad you skipped the cognac now right?). It’d probably even be worth your while to let your boss know ahead of time that you’re taking the client out, chances are he or she will pick up the tab. Though you might want to know what kind of expense limit you’re working with on the company card, that way there’s no surprises if you forgot your own wallet at home and go a little over-tab.

Don’t: Pay in front of them

There’s no need to open your wallet in front of a client. Just make like you’re hitting the washroom and ask your server if you can pick up the tab. It cuts through that awkward I-got-it-no-I-got-it moment. It proves the clients value and perhaps more importantly, it treats the cost of the meeting as an afterthought, that their time is invaluable and not worth wasting over monetary squabbles.

Andrew Seale

Andrew Seale is a Toronto-based business writer who contributes frequently to Yahoo Canada Finance, The Globe and Mail's Report on Business and The Toronto Star.