15 Dos and Don’ts for Entertaining Clients

15 Dos and Don'ts for Entertaining Clients. Tips for taking clients for dinner, drinks, golf, and other outings while closing the deal.

When big clients come into town and it’s your job to keep them entertained, there are many things you can do right… but a lot of things you can do wrong, too. Face time between business partners is an essential part of sales, and knowing how to get those special moments right can make or break your career and your business.

A careless blunder or awkward outing can spell disaster for a deal. But no pressure! (Seriously though, don’t screw up.)

To make things easier, here’s a list of 15 essential dos and don’ts for entertaining clients, worth printing out and keeping in your pocket next time you’re out with a big client.

With this guide, you can aim higher than this.

Do have some kind of plan

It’s a bad idea to leave your entertainment choices to the spur of the moment. What if an attraction is closed or a restaurant is under renovation? Make a flexible itinerary and call ahead to make reservations whenever possible.

It also helps to let the restaurant, bar and other venues know that you’re entertaining an important client. Always speak with the manager and highlight your need for exceptional service. Take advantage of relationships you or your company has already built with local venues.

Don’t show up in your sweats

Even if you’re just picking up your client at the airport and driving him or her to the hotel for the night, make sure you keep a clean, professional presentation. You will be judged on your appearance as much as on your ability to entertain.

Of course, always dress appropriately for the occasion. A casual dinner at the steak house is more relaxed than a full-service meal at a private club.

Don’t come dressed like this either.

Do research your client’s interests

With the magic of the internet at your disposal, it’s easy to be a total creep and know virtually everything about someone before you meet. Start with LinkedIn (where you have a profile, yes?) and check your client’s volunteering activities, articles and other semi-professional activities. If they have a blog, spend some substantial time reading it.

Do they head the board of an art gallery? Take them to see an opening of some local artist. Do they manage the annual golf fundraiser? Organize a game in a nice course nearby.

Don’t talk shop unless the client brings it up

Obviously, you have an ulterior motive for entertaining the client. You want him or her to sign the deal.

But think about it: do you like to be sold to this way? It’s like someone asking you to go to their room right after they’ve bought you a drink. You have to build a relationship, and that takes time.

Entertaining is all about fostering that relationship, not hammering close deal. Get to know your client, let them get to know you, and the deal will come on its own time.

However, if your client brings up a deal, be ready to discuss it with expertise and professionalism. Don’t turn down an occasion to make your pitch!

Do keep all the receipts

This seems like a silly reminder, but it’s way too easy to throw out a parking stub in the heat of the moment. Too many entertaining expenses go un-reimbursed because of a missing receipt.

Here’s a tip: clean out a space in your wallet and keep them all in the same place. Keep every scrap of paper from your time with your client, whether or not it seems relevant. Figure it out later with accounting.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Don’t be on your phone all the time

On the topic of distraction, entertaining a client is the time to forget your phone at home or in the car. You need to give your client your full attention, not bits of half-listening in between tweets or emails.

Put it away. Turn it off. Whatever it is can wait until tomorrow.

Do listen carefully

Another thing we do less and less in this constantly noisy world is to listen carefully to what people tell us. Practice active listening; as Stephen R. Covey famously coined, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” It’s called “empathic listening” and it will radically change the way to relate to people.

Don’t drink too much

Another obvious but easily forgotten piece of advice.

Remember you’re doing business, not going on holiday, don’t let loose too much. If you work in a field where drinking is de rigueur (and a study recently showed that drinking in the workplace is correlated with success), keep it light, drink slowly, and eat plenty of food.

That said, don’t make your guest feel uncomfortable by staying stone sober while they relax with some drinks. Keep pace, but maybe stay one drink behind, and always be responsible and in control.

You’re too old to act like this.

Do organize something original

Golf is so overdone. Try something new and original to impress your client.

Live near the ocean? Organize happy hour on a boat! Is your business intricately linked to the history of your town? Get a special walking history tour tailored to your company so your client can learn about your business.

Think local and off-beat. Don’t take them to the same touristy spots everyone else goes to!

Pro tip: While it’s original, don’t set things on fire.

Don’t sit down before your client

An easily forgotten point of business etiquette if there ever was one. In our increasingly casual culture, marks of respect like waiting for your client to sit down before you will impress.

Do be punctual

You hate it when someone is late, right? Newsflash: other people hate it too. This one is self-explanatory. Punctuality is good business etiquette. Leave plenty of time for unknowns like traffic jams. It’s better to be a bit ahead than un-fashionably late.

Don’t wolf down your food

Since you’re entertaining a client, you’re probably going to a nice restaurant. Make sure you enjoy the opportunity for yourself just as much as for your business.

Savoring the meal will help you slow down and be more attentive to your client. (See #8).

If you think you might be very hungry by the time you sit down at the table, eat a snack beforehand.

While not required, it also generally helps if you know classy food terms like “soup du jour.”

Do tip generously

Reward the restaurant staff for giving you and your guest a good time for your business meal (you remembered to call ahead, right? See #1).

Don’t pay in front of the client

It’s the same idea as removing price stickers from Christmas gifts. It’s the intention that counts, not the price tag.

While your client is enjoying his or her last drink, head to the register to take care of the check. Even if the restaurant has mobile payment machines, don’t do it at the table where your client could see a price. It’s just good etiquette!

Do keep it fun

You want your client to fondly remember your time together. Don’t do anything too lavish or expensive (that’s a big target for an audit) and keep it fun and light. Be yourself and take the time to get to know your guest as if you wanted to be friends.

Actually, you do want to be friends—people like to do business with friends, not strangers!

Anabelle Bernard Fournier