Client meetings require more than preparing a good pitch or presentation. Following proper etiquette is essential to holding productive meetings and building a solid foundation for your client relationships. If you embrace decorum, you can foster a long-term relationship based on respect and understanding. This can help you secure deals and develop a strong roster of business contacts.
Many business etiquette practices may seem like common sense, but a little refresher can help you excel during your next client interaction. Following specific best practices is especially important when you consider the range of settings where you may meet with a client. After all, communicating with a client in a restaurant is very different from meeting with them on Zoom.
Certain meeting locations call for unique etiquette, while some behaviors are appropriate for all client meetings. Below, we break down what you need to know and do in different settings.
Visiting a vendor or potential client in the office? These tips will help you make a good impression whether you’re in your own conference room or theirs.
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 essential to be on time — or better yet, early — and ensure that you’ve given attention to your outfit, neatness and personal hygiene, said Sherry Fox, regional business development manager for Ideal Protein of America.
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 searching for the right report or presentation.”
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, professional conduct can be trickier since international business etiquette practices depend on the country you’re visiting or where your clients are from. When traveling internationally, familiarize yourself with the appropriate customs for your client’s culture so you don’t unintentionally offend anybody, Fox said.
Listen and ask thoughtful questions.
Jon Weston, head of business development and interim CFO at Enzyme by Design, noted that most people tend to launch into their own agendas during meetings with prospective clients. Instead, 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.”
Don’t fret about technological issues.
Tech issues are no rare occurrence, but how you handle them reflects on your patience and attitude. It’s best not to get angry or flustered.
“For meetings where you have a presentation prepared and you can’t get the technology working, don’t make it into a bigger deal than it needs to be,” said Colton De Vos, marketing and communications specialist at Resolute Technology Solutions. “Even if it’s not your fault, it’s usually better just to keep going without trying to get laptops synced, Wi-Fi connected, cables working, etc. Just power through; get a second person who isn’t leading the meeting [to] try to fix it and send them the presentation afterward if worst comes to worst.”
The more you prepare, the smoother your meeting will go. Make sure all of your presentation materials are well organized so your meeting stays on track.
Some professional meetings take place over a shared meal, whether it’s a formal lunch or dinner, or a more casual get-together at a cafe or bar.
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 CEO of Socialfly. 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 added. “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. [Want to make it easier for clients to schedule meetings with you? Check out how shared calendar apps and programs like Microsoft Bookings can help.]
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.
Choose a “safe” meal.
While you don’t want to come off as a corporate robot, be aware of your manners in this setting. Much as you would on a first date or at dinner with the in-laws, consider avoiding any food that can become problematic.
“Despite the desire to get the most delicious item on every menu, food that splatters or is difficult to eat can get stuck in your teeth or end up on your shirt,” said Ada Chen Rekhi, co-founder and COO of Notejoy. “Smelly foods can [also] be off-putting for clients.”
Keep the conversation polite and professional.
Conversations during a meal 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 non-business 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.”
De Vos advised staying on-topic for the most part and not letting the food distract you.
“Pay attention to the time you’re taking as well,” he said. “Many clients can have a hard stop right after lunch — meaning keep an eye on the clock and plan accordingly.”
Regardless of the situation or location, our sources advised practicing the following etiquette standards during all business meetings.
“Etiquette is really all about making people feel good [and] ensuring some basic social comforts,” said Fox. “Practice good etiquette in all of your business and personal interactions, and they will become good habits over time.”
Before any client meetings, Chen advised sending out your agenda so everyone is prepared and on the same page.
“That ensures everyone has the opportunity to assemble the right people or data to cover those topics and get work done,” she said.
After the meeting is over, it’s similarly critical to touch base 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.”
As you prepare this follow-up, consider when and how you’re communicating with your clients and prospects. For example, if you’re reaching out via email, abide by appropriate email etiquette in your follow-up message.
Eric Hanson, chief marketing officer at OneSpan, 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.
“Take time to … understand [your clients’] communication preferences, work habits and boundaries so you can be more mindful of when and how you communicate with others,” said Hanson. “By doing so, you’ll encourage balance, empower others to do their best work and prevent burnout.”
Learn how your client likes to communicate so you can follow up with key points in a way that will grab their attention.
If you want to grow your professional network, having a good handle on business etiquette practices is crucial. That can include knowing the most effective words to use in a meeting as well as how to follow up afterward. However you practice it, good business etiquette is essential for customer retention. Use these tips in your next client meeting to build — and strengthen — successful business relationships.
Natalie Hamingson and Nicole Fallon contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.