Wednesday, January 11, 2006

On Eating Alone

Ever eat lunch alone?

I know, it sounds contrary to the entire concept of networking and approachability. Especially if you’ve read Keith Ferrazzi’s best selling book, Never Eat Alone. But hear me out on this one. Because eating alone (every once in a while) gives you an opportunity to do something you often forget to do while dining out with a client or coworker: observe.

Now, don’t think of it as eavesdropping, snooping or spying. It’s research. And it’s amazing what you can learn about approachability if you just immerse yourself in it, watch, and then listen.

So, I tried it yesterday. I ate at my favorite lunch spot, all by my lonesome. Just me, some gumbo and a book by John Maxwell. The smell of seafood filled the air, dozens of businesspeople talked about their plans for the week and servers frantically hustled around the floor to deliver their guests’ meals.

And here’s what I observed...

  • Two businesspeople seated to my left fumbled through folders and papers. The man in the red tie did most of the talking while the woman across the booth hung on his every word. He asked engaging questions. She gave creative answers. At one point, I sensed confusion in the women’s voice, but then felt reassurance in the man’s voice as he leaned closer and softened his tone. I also heard him say “Heather” three times. Nice. Then I heard laughter. Very nice. And of course, I saw smiles on both sides of the booth. Awesome!

  • At another table I saw two guys carefully examine a spreadsheet. They deeply immersed themselves in the numbers while completely ignoring the poor waitress who worked her butt off trying to deliver their dishes on time. And they barely acknowledged her existence, much less offered a simple “thank you” for their multiple ice-tea refills.

  • I also noticed five women seated around a booth laughing hysterically with their server. One of them wiped away tears of hilarity with her bev-nap, while two others high-fived each other at a joke I sort of wished I heard.

  • And on the way out the door I heard someone’s cell phone go off. Oh no! I thought. Sure enough, I watched a woman gave her client the “Just A Minute While I Talk To Someone More Important That You Index Finger,” while she took the call. Ten seconds later she returned to the conversation and said, “Sorry, what were you saying?”

    I paid my check, took my mint and thanked my server for doing a great job. When I got back to the office I hopped online to see if I could dig up some statistics on lunch meetings. Interestingly enough, I came across a great survey about lunch meeting etiquette developed by The Creative Group. It was conducted by an independent research firm and includes 250 responses from advertising executives and marketing executives among the nation's 1,000 largest companies.

    Respondents were asked, "Which one of the following actions do you think would most hurt a professional's chances of impressing a current or potential client during a lunch meeting?"

    "Displaying poor manners when interacting with the wait staff -- or anyone -- during a business meeting will prompt prospective clients and business partners to question whether they and their staff members will be treated the same," said Tracey Turner, executive director of The Creative Group. "Showing up late is a similar sign of disrespect."

    Added Turner, "The key to a successful lunch meeting is making people feel comfortable. Behaving graciously throughout the meal will go a long way toward forming a positive working relationship."

    That was the word I was looking for: comfort. After all, comfort is the axis upon which approachability rotates. Comfort is the reason strangers become friends, friends become prospects, prospects become clients, and clients become fans. And fans are the people who “love your stuff,” tell their friends about you and maintain confidence in your ability to give them unique value.

    Still, it kind of made me wonder: “What table did I sit at during my last lunch meeting?”

    Was I the engaging businessperson at an enjoyable, yet productive lunch? Did I sit across a table from an inconsiderate cell phone junkie? Was I the workaholic who shunned the outside world at the expense of my server’s frustration? Or was I the group of friends who saw lunch as a much needed vacation from the stresses of a typical workday?

    Either way, Yogi Berra was right. “You can observe a lot by just watching.” So this week, I challenge you to go out to lunch at the most crowded, popular, loud, and packed-to-the-walls-with-businesspeople restaurant in your area.

    And I want you to go all by yourself.

    Now, I know that might sound a bit awkward to you. But trust me, it’s great field research. So just give it a shot! You’ll learn a lot about approachability. And if you want, you can even bring along a good book to read during your lunch. If so, I highly recommend Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone.

    LET ME ASK YA THIS...

    What did you learn last time you ate alone?

    * * * *
    Scott Ginsberg
    Author/Speaker/That guy with the nametag
    www.hellomynameisscott.com

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