Image: Paul Goyette
You already know "you are what you eat." But can you know who your clients are simply based on what or how they eat? As you head indoors this fall, consider the restaurant. The dinner table, with its public displays of personal etiquette, has unsung gastronomic clues to the future professional habits of your potential clients. Its venerable surface a stage really, there to teach you how to translate some of their behaviors into client-relation predictions.
While these aren't hard-and-fast rules of course, they might be guidelines. Or even trade secrets of the dinner crowd. Even if only one applies to you, here are some starting points to consider at your next meal:
1. The Loyalty of a Reservation
It starts before it begins with the reservation, or lack thereof. Was there a reservation made ahead of time? If so, recognize this foresight as a respect for your time. It might also suggest your foodie companion's a "regular" here, and he or she is deft at relationship building. Keep an eye out for whether or not he or she is on a first-name with the maître d' to see how much of a regular you have on your hands. And if the client was on time as well, that counts, of course, a lot. Loyal clients with a punctual and organized mind are ones you might be interested in working with.
2. The Confidence of Tap
The choice of water has recently become oddly complex: sparkling, tap, iced, bottled, local. Let your companion order the water to observe. The "sparkling" choice, unless your companion truly enjoys extra bubbly carbonation, may reveal a couple of things: first, a non-U.S. backgroundsparkling water is the norm outside the United States and therefore will reveal nothing; or second, a desire to impress you. This second item is a red flag. The frilly choice of sparkling water is the formal script-y typeface of the dinner tableexcessive and unnecessary. Those confident enough to order tap water are most likely authentic and confident, not afraid to be themselves. Note it and move on.
3. The Paradox of Choice
If there is to be alcohol (and there may not be, in which case, skip ahead to "4"), there are several ways drinks can unfold, depending on the client's background, the attitude of the restaurant, or what sort of deal is on the table. Anything "on the rocks," "straight up," or even a classic cocktail is the cleanest. It suggests this person is focused on you, rather than spending time on the drinks menu. Perhaps there is a history with the drink, again suggesting a loyalty to a thing or a brand. You might say that alcohol may not be the best loyalty to have (and I see where you're going with that), but consider a consistency with people, brands, and environments, and you have a strong potential client across the table from you. Wine is complex in its red/white, bottle/by the glass choices, but safe. Wine reveals a stable comfort with the meal and the relationship. Then of course, there is simply "beer" and "not beer." Enough said. Most of all, you can be confident that if there's cola alone at dinner, it's clear this may not be a good client.
4. To Salt or Not to Salt
There are a few dozen Emily Post rules about what the client should or should not have done with the napkin and his or her elbows before the food comes, but none is as important as what the client does with another two objects: the salt and pepper shakers. When the food arrives, does your client salt and pepper the food before he or she tastes it? If so, this is a clear sign that your client is potentially closed-minded, not open to new ideas, or set in his or her ways. If your client first tastes the food, and then adds salt or pepper, tremendous. This suggests your client has opinions, and is not afraid to exercise thembut only after the voice of the "creator" (in this case the chef) has been fairly given a chance first.
Other things to note: is the food allowed to touch, or does the client work to keep the food in separate, tidy areas? If the former, the client is comfortable with status quo and relaxed. If the latter, it suggests an orderly mind, and one that has a place for everything. Does the client eat a bit of everything, or does he or she eat all of the same food type at once, then move onto the next food type? If the former, your client is a good collaborator, interested in the way disparate ideas work together. If the latter, your client may be a good at building skills sets of individual groups.
Although much of this table analysis is my own creation, you can use it as a starting point to pay attention to small details. Next time you're headed to a dinner with a client, consider opportunities to learn beyond the conversation. Recognize each stage as a small opportunity to try out what you might know, and test that against what you learn about your clients over time. As Julia Child says, "Moderation. Small helpings. Sample a little bit of everything. These are the secrets of happiness and good health."