While the average American office has become a little more casual, business etiquette shouldn't go out the window when you're meeting with prospective vendors or clients. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to treat your business contacts with respect and professionalism — and that means following certain protocols during business meetings and meals.
Here are some key etiquette tips to follow in a variety of business situations.
In the conference room
Visiting a vendor or potential client in the office? Some of these tips might seem like common sense, but following them will always make a good impression.
Arrive on time, properly dressed and organized. Few things will make you seem more unprofessional than showing up late to a meeting looking sloppy and unprepared. It's important to be on time — or better yet, a bit early — and ensure that you've paid attention to your outfit, neatness and personal hygiene, said Sherry Fox, co-founder, chief business development officer and chairman of the board at LumiWave, a provider of infrared light therapy treatments.
Fox also advised arranging any physical documents ahead of time so you know where all your presentation materials are when you need them.
"Make sure you take all necessary documents and your business cards with you," she said. "The papers have to be well-organized, so when you need to use some pages, you don't spend precious time on searching for a right report or presentation." [See Related Story: 4 Common Business Meeting Mistakes to Avoid]
Greet everyone properly. At its core, all business etiquette stems from having strong interpersonal skills, said John Covilli, senior vice president of franchising at Dale Carnegie Training.
"When meeting any new potential clients or professional peers, the same rules apply: a firm handshake, good eye contact, genuine engagement, respect — mostly just common sense kinds of things," he said. "People want to know that when they're speaking to you, you have a genuine interest in what they're saying, and … that kind of consideration can go a long way."
For global business meetings, it can be a little trickier, since etiquette practices may be different in the country you're visiting. In that case, make sure you are familiar with the appropriate etiquette for your client's culture, so you don't unintentionally offend anybody, Fox said.
Listen and ask (thoughtful) questions. Jon Weston, president and CEO of LumiWave, noted that most people tend to launch into their own agendas during meetings with prospective clients. Instead, you should listen to clients and ask thoughtful, intelligent questions based on what they've said.
"By asking questions, you quickly identify what is important to the prospect," Weston said. "Then you can address how to help them where they are at. People want to be heard."
At a restaurant
Whether it's a formal lunch or dinner, or a more casual meeting at a café or bar, some professional meetings take place over a shared meal.
If you planned the meeting, you should pick up the tab and, if applicable, let your guest choose the wine for the table, said Courtney Spritzer, co-founder and co-CEO of Socialfly social media agency. Fox added that you should be polite to any servers or waitstaff you interact with.
Here are a few additional things to keep in mind when eating or drinking with a business contact:
Choose the location carefully. If you're the one choosing the meeting place, your decision can tell your guests about who you are and how you do business. You want to find the right balance of price, quality and atmosphere, said Fox.
"Choose a well-known restaurant noted for excellent service and food," she said. "Not inexpensive but not extravagant — a restaurant where there is enough privacy and quiet space to have a business conversation."
Fox also advised asking about your guests' food preferences or allergies, so you can take that into consideration when choosing a location.
Remember your etiquette basics. "Wait for the other person to start eating, chew with your mouth closed, don't talk with food in your mouth, etc.," Weston said.
Fox agreed, adding that you should use the proper utensils if you're having a sit-down meal.
"I also suggest always avoiding eating anything messy," said Spritzer.
Keep the conversation polite and professional. Conversations during a meal can tend to be a little more casual, said Covilli, so be sure to keep the dialogue business-related and avoid controversial or inappropriate subjects.
"Have a few nonbusiness topics to indicate interest in the other person, [but] … do not engage in any rude or discriminatory remarks about other patrons, etc.," Fox added. "Stay away from sarcastic remarks and off-color jokes."
Communicating with business contacts
When the meeting is over, it's important to reach out afterward to review and confirm key points that were discussed.
"We always follow up on next steps right after the meeting to show that we are serious about moving forward and on top of moving things along," Spritzer said. "This [also] shows that you stick to your word and are trustworthy."
When you do send this follow-up, be sure to consider when and how you're communicating with your colleagues and prospects. Eric Hanson, vice president of product marketing at Fuze, an enterprise communications platform, said that while technology allows you to text and email at all hours of the day, your round-the-clock dedication can lead others to expect you to be reachable 24/7 — or worse, make others feel pressured to do the same.
"A study conducted by Fuze found that 87 percent of employees think it's OK to call or text others regarding work-related matters outside of standard business hours," Hanson told Business News Daily. "Take time to ... understand [your contacts'] communication preferences, work habits and boundaries so you can be more mindful of when, and how, you choose to communicate with others. By doing so, you'll encourage balance, empower others to do their best work and prevent burnout."
General etiquette rules
Regardless of the situation or location, our sources advised following these etiquette standards during any business meeting:
- Confirm scheduled appointments ahead of time.
- Remember (and use) your guests' names.
- Be respectful of your guests' time and stick to a schedule or agenda.
- Keep your smartphone and tablet on silent and out of sight; use pen and paper if you need to take notes.
- Thank everyone for their time and follow up afterward.
"Etiquette is really all about making people feel good [and] ensuring some basic social comforts," said Fox. "Practice good etiquette in all your business and personal interactions, and they will become good habits over time."