Weird Dinner Experience
May 4, 2009
During the RSA conference I was invited to have dinner by a friend and industry colleague. The dinner was set up by representatives (sales people) from a large software company, which provides software and services to my friend’s company . I think that it is safe to say that the company does between 7 and 8 figures worth of annual business with this vendor, and my friend is a key advocate of the vendor.
From what I understood when receiving the e-mail invitation, my friend was given the liberty to invite industry colleagues and other potential “customers” to this dinner to forge relationships and potentially develop new business opportunities. I believed that I was added to the guest list for some broad perspective of the security market which would have been beneficial to all in attendance.
The dinner was initially to be attended by somewhere between 9 or 10 people, however for one reason or the other – jet lag, previous plans, not wanting to begin dinner at 9PM PST, the final number in attendance was 5. The final roster included me, my friend, his co-worker, and two representatives from the vendor.
The vendor chose a San Francisco favorite, Scoma’s, an Italian/Seafood restaurant located at Fisherman’s Wharf. After a round of drinks, we sat down at a table. It became very evident to me, whom the most senior member of the vendor team was, as he interacted with the waiter, received the wine list, and quickly accepted the role of “table captain.”
The conversation at the table was free and easy. We spoke about our families (even showed some pictures), sporting events, our college experiences, careers, the economy, and other topics. We did not even begin to discuss Information Security, their products, or anything relative to traditional business.
As this was going on, the “table captain” took the reigns and began to order. He ordered appetizers for the table, an extra course of salad for himself, a main course, and selected the wine. As a guest, I followed his lead. Shared the appetizer, did not select a salad, chose a main course within five dollars of his choice, and had a beer instead of wine. As the meal came to a close, he ordered himself a desert, coffee, and asked everyone if they every had port wine – and ordered himself a glass, I passed on dessert and coffee – but took him up and the port wine. I am not really a wine drinker, but I was up for the experience – and at his encouragement, I thought I would take him up on his suggestion.
The conversation continued throughout the meal, and everyone became more relaxed during the time, and people were obviously comfortable. The one single person discussed his current dating dilemmas, one spoke about raising a special needs child, we even touched on the standard no-nos, religion and politics. But that was the level of comfort, it was really a great dinner, until…
The check came!
The table captain left the table at the end of the meal to seek out the waiter and to call a cab. In his absence the waiter appeared and handed me an itemized copy of the bill and stated “Everything else is taken care of. This is for you.”
I did not know how to react at first. There were many items going through my mind, but I chose to just stare in disbelief for the first couple of moments. My first inclination was to go to see the waiter, and pay for the entire check – just our of principle and make the “table captain” feel uncomfortable, my second thought was to just reach in my pocket, pay cash, and leave on my own, the third option was to refuse to pay, and create more discomfort. The remaining three other people, including the person who invited me, were obviously uncomfortable and this created a very awkward moment.
After the awkwardness subsided, I reached for my money but was interrupted by the other member of the vendor team. Obviously embarrassed, he reached to his wallet and paid on the corporate credit card. It was also obvious to me how embarrassed my friend who invited me was. He remarked to me after how impressed he was on how I handled the awkwardness of the situation.
As we waited for the cab, the “table captain” returned to an much different table. The subject of business took hold and I can tell from the reaction of the two “customers” they were not nearly as engaged as they would have been, if the “table captain” would have just paid the entire check. The actions of the “table captain” gave off the impression that he was only concerned with people who could make him money. Personally, I think this spoke loudly for his character and I believe that I would reconsider sending any additional business in his direction. But that is just me!
There are a number of things we can learn from this. First, if you are going to invite someone to dinner, the expectation is that it is your meeting and you are going to be responsible. Second, it is always a good idea at a business meeting to follow the lead of the “table captain”. Your ordering pattern should mimic theirs. Third, never take advantage of a good gesture. If everyone is ordering $20 items, do not order the 4lb lobster that costs $80 – that is just rude and says a great deal about your character. Also, think before you speak. Know which topics are fair game to discuss, and which ones are a bit taboo for the subject. Finally, never make anyone feel insignificant. In the situation above, if the waiter produced five separate checks, I would not have had any issue. However, singling me out made me feel like a second class citizen, even though throughout the dinner I was treated like an invited guest.
Just remember, people are judging and evaluating you in many different environments. Your are always interviewing.