The $25,000 Lunch

Posted on December 3, 2009 09:56 AM by Joel Comm

Branding is more than just getting your logo right and coming up with a catchy slogan for your company. While these things are obviously very important, branding can also include things like the outward appearance of you or your employees, and how you comport yourself in all the various details of business dealings. The following story is something that actually happened to me, and proves the saying that truth is stranger than fiction. In retrospect, I am glad that it happened, because I think it contains an important lesson on how branding must extend to your business dealings.

I was introduced to a gentleman who wanted to have lunch and speak to me about corporate coaching. He knew that we are in the process of growing our business, and he was in the business of helping executives strategize and plan and look at the big picture. We scheduled a lunch, and when he came by the office and introduced himself, he seemed like a nice enough guy.

We picked a little Mexican dive, and over lunch he began asking me questions about my business and some of my goals. I asked him some questions about what he does, and he dropped some big names of people he's worked with. He also dropped a dollar amount. He said about $25,000, which I gathered was to get coached by him for a six to twelve month period to help me figure out what I wanted and how I was going to get it. I was initially interested, because I feel that that type of input is valuable.

We spoke for a good long while, had some lunch and a few laughs, got to know each other, and then the check came, and the check sat there. Now I am of the mind that when you invite someone to go to lunch, you buy. And remember, he invited me. We sat for awhile longer. For about fifteen minutes, the check just sat there on the table between us. When we concluded and stood up from the table, he pointed to the check and said, "Do you want to split that?"

This is not about the money. The check came to $16.88 for our two lunches.

This was just a huge turn-off on several levels. One, when you invite someone out, you pay. It's just etiquette and common sense. Two, he said he was coaching these high-profile executives and he's wanting me to invest with him and do business with him, and he's asking me to pick up my half of the $16.88 check? So I did what any respectable business person would do: I picked it up myself, and I paid for it.

I just knew there was no way I could do business with this man after the impression this made on me. If you don't have the good sense to buy lunch for a potential client whom you're asking $25,000 from, then you are not someone I want to be coached by. When he wrote me his follow-up email, I wrote back and I said, "Hey I really appreciated our time together yesterday; you gave me some good things to think about that hadn't occurred to me. Unfortunately, I don't think we're a good fit at this time and I wish you the best."

Some people might see this as petty, but I think his actions that day exposed his character and called his credibility into question. If this man is really commanding the kinds of fees he was talking about with the kinds of names he was throwing around, and is still concerned about splitting a $16 check, then I have some serious reservations about his character. And I'm way more interested in character than what you've achieved professionally. I may want what you've achieved professionally, but if your character is such that you don't have integrity or common sense, then all the professional achievements in the world won't help you.

Seen through the perspective of branding, this gentleman's mistake was that his actions did not jive with the story he was telling about himself. And that violates one of the cardinal rules of branding: you must deliver a consistent message across all platforms. At the end of the day, that mistake ended up costing him $25,000.

I would love to hear your comments, so please enter them below.


This article appears in the October 2009 edition of The Top One Report. To receive a trial edition for just $1, visit Joel Comm's Top One Report

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63 Comments For This Post

  1. Jay Leishman Says:

    Good call Joel. No brainer. Maybe he reads this. I would have done the same thing. A guy who can't cover a $16 bill when he invites? gez. Something doesn't add up right.

  2. Luke Etheridge Says:

    Haha Now that's a good story! I couldn't agree with you more on that one! I've been in a similar position and it's just down right rude. You were right in not investing in his time and coaching skills if he can't even be bothered to pay for a $16.88 check for a dinner that he had invited you to!! Great post bud

  3. Janet Thaeler Says:

    So let me get this straight. He invited you to a sales pitch over lunch for a very high end product ($25k coaching) and he didn't pick up the tab? In other words you probably spent at least an hour of your time and it wasn't worth about $20 to him?


    You did the right thing.

    It seems like with your name and connections you'll get some referrals from people you trust for someone who's worth the cash. I'd be curious who they are.


  4. Ramir Camu Says:

    So true. People forget that branding is not just about their logo, business cards and collateral materials.

    Every interaction of an employee of that business with customers, potential customers and the community in general is ultimately representing the brand.

    You were right on in deciding to not do business with that individual.

  5. Tim Stone Says:

    Apparently this person is not investing in his business. Your observation is well founded. The guy wants to build a professional relationship, for his benefit, and yet he obviously placed tension on the table by his inaction. He should have handed the waitress a credit card when she approached the table with the check. That would have kept the focus on the conversation. If he doesn't understand this basic principle, can he really give you good business coaching ?

  6. Mike Says:

    You were spot on. Him not picking up the check says everything about his integrity, also about how his approach to "Coaching" would be stingy, miserly and unfulfilling. Mike

  7. Jeremy Shepherd Says:

    What sort of business coaching can command $25,000 from someone who does not understand the basics of business etiquette 101? Then again, those who can do. Those who can't...

  8. Joe Dunham Says:

    Big..... Red...... Flags!!

  9. Fred Says:

    Joel, that's a brilliant post!

    I was reading a Seth Godin's post that made reference to the same kinf of situation. E.g the home insurance guy that tries to push a sale and when you ask him what kind of home insurance does he have? The answer is not the one supposed to be ;-)

    This is happening everyday unfortunately but only very few people would detect that and take it as a deal-breaker.

    All the best

  10. Mike Sweezy Says:

    I'd be glad to buy you lunch some day.
    You might give some great advice that would help me to help more veterans with combat stress or PTSD.
    Great lesson on how to be congruent and to operate with integrity.

  11. EllisTweet Says:

    Actions speak louder than words. You were spot on, and probably saved yourself a heck of a lot more than $25,000.

    Lunch: $16.88
    Personal credibility: priceless.

    Carry on, my good man!

  12. Mandee Says:

    Good post, Joel.

    Just this past week I turned down a big offer I'd received. It wasn't being handled in a professional or respectful manner, and even though it was a great opportunity, I really felt the need to decline. I just hold myself to a higher standard of integrity and I felt if I had accepted that it would not necessarily result in a positive change.

  13. Sandi Krakowski Says:

    This is great insight Joel! If he was worth his weight in salt he'd have paid the tab & left a $ 20 bill as a tip to bless the person who served you! :)

    Blessings on all you do,
    Sandi Krakowski

  14. Jill Porter Says:

    Great post Joel. Absolutely agree with you; I would have done exactly the same.
    It all goes to his integrity and sense of good business relations.

    Well done

  15. Chestin Salisbury Says:

    Wow...what a doofus!! This guy obviously missed sales training the day they taught this stuff, although even then, it seems pretty common sense to me.

    For his sake, I hope he does read this post and learns from it. If not, he apparently missed class the day they taught about doing due diligence on your target market.

    Great stuff and thanks for sharing!

  16. Brian Says:

    great story - it's always a good decision to just eat the tab, and consider it the cost of eliminating that person from your pool of prospects. Spending $20 to quickly identify and eliminate a potential $25k waste is a great investment.

    something almost as bad is when "they" do pay, but pay in ALL CASH -

  17. That Sneaker Wearing Entrepreneurial Cartoonist Internet Guy Says:

    Wow! When I attend a business lunch I actually try to pay the check no matter who did the inviting. Give me a shout if you ever get back to Enid and I'll buy you lunch. Wow!

  18. Andrew Fox Says:

    Yo Joel!

    Just right! Do ya remember when we grabbed a bite to eat at a seminar about 4 years ago. It was something like an $8 pizza but you offered to pay

    (I think I bought the beer :-) )

    Split the tab ... ha ha.. Im laughing. You made the right move!

    Take it easy,


  19. Patricia Reszetylo Says:

    Seems to me he lost a lot more that just $25,000. You're the kind of person who could send him a lot of business - I'd conservatively estimate he blew off a $250 - $500K or more...

  20. Becki Noles Says:

    I am shocked by the attitude of this coach...I mean really. As I was reading your post, I was thinking, "I seriously hope that Joel didn't do business with this guy."

    Do I think you were petty? Absolutely not. If I invite anyone to lunch I pay because it's etiquette. If I invited someone to lunch to pitch a $25.00 product/service, I'd pick up the tab, so you better darn well believe that if I pitched a $25,000 service/product I'd pay. The audacity that some people present never ceases to amaze me.


  21. Gudrun Smith Says:

    Joel you are so right with turning him down.

    He showed you that you can not trust him. Branding and building a successful Business comes back to trust that you deliver what you promise.

    He already made the commitment to pick up the bill when he invited you, but without picking up your part of the bill you can't trust him anymore and sure not for a $25k coaching program.


  22. Will Buckley Says:

    Great post Joel. I am in complete agreement and other than the usual gut feeling about someone would have done the same thing. I like that you pointed out that you liked him and would have done business with him. In the end he made a bone head mistake and paid dearly.

    By the way where would you like to have lunch? On me of course :).

  23. Twicat Says:

    it is so easy to lose, and they are number of
    "business gurus" around doing same thing
    losing potential clients over "change"

    I will do the same,

    thank you, for sharing storey


  24. Trish Says:

    Great read. Had an all morning meeting with a potential new business partner yesterday. We ate and drank our way through $28 and at the end, as he reached for his wallet I said, I'll get this. The guy at the counter said, he can get the next one. And there is no doubt he will, or not.
    You know Joel, some people just don't get it (yet). Maybe you could be generous with your feedback, tell him the truth and help him transform HIS business. And then send him an invoice for $25,000.

  25. Jonathan Says:

    I'm glad you ran the other direction.

    I relayed the story to Carrie and she said (without having read your post), "He lost $25,000 over what?"

    I like the comment about "Big... red... flag" as well.

    I was once out to lunch with some of the people from the DIMwits (you know the group), the day that we went to Starbucks and Frank Garon was in town, and we went to a Chinese dive, but being the youngest, least experienced, and probably earning the least of the group, I picked up the tab for the group, figuring it was the very least I could do to thank them for including me.

    Thanks for sharing the wisdom contained in this post Joel!



  26. Michael S. Copeland Says:

    You made the right choice. If you're supposed to be "high profile" and don't even know common basic etiquette then something is an immediate RED FLAG!

    I have taken potential clients out to lunch and picked up the tab 10 - 15 times that amount. The thing is, like you said, it's not the amount. It's his actions.

    If he's "cutting corners" and being "cheap" no, make that "frugal", then what is he going to do in his training?

    Your first impression is the key to moving a relationship forward. This is no matter if it's in person on on the social media landscape. Don't fluff yourself up. Be real; be honest; and most of all, be yourself. You ARE your brand, now act like it!

    - Michael S. Copeland

    (oops, started going off on a tangent there, lol)

  27. hypotheekrente Says:

    Haha how did he respond when you picked up the bill and paid. Usually these kinds of types don't even get the message.

  28. Tina Says:

    A successful business owner is created from character and many people don't realize this. The one who gives the most at every level of their business is the one who comes out on top.

  29. Gary A. Parenti Says:

    Hey Joel,

    This sounds like a great guy
    to take on a hunting trip.Show
    him a little bit of Colorado.

    Cheap Bas????

  30. Wilma J. Brown Says:

    I agree with the way you handled this individual.
    I was immediately turned off by his mention of the clients he had worked with and making mention of a dollar figure.
    He sounds like a 'name/number dropper', one who is only interested in impressing you instead of to impress upon you a person of character and integrity.
    We do learn from our experiences and I will truly learn from yours.

  31. Linda Says:

    Wow, I can't believe that he invited you to lunch and then sat there 10 to 15 minutes waiting for you to pick up the check? Good call on not giving him $25,000 to coach you on business etiquette.

  32. Nancy Houtz Says:

    Excellent example of Branding, and the need for consistency in all we do.

    I've gotten a lot of my business (and kept them) from persons who had companies with good credentials manage their Pay Per Click accounts...only to find little or no communication or customer service followed once they got the account and received the check.

  33. Crystal O'Connor Says:

    It is truly unbelievable that this guy is doing business with anyone! People never cease to amaze me with their lack of common sense. The fact that he doesn't know how to play with the Big Dogs is a common mistake of business people struggling is sales. I have seen it time and again. Being a tight-wad will always be a turn-off to the ideal client. Etiquette is a big part of gaining a person's respect, trust and eventually their business. He needs to learn a few things from my kids. My own grade school children would know that much!

  34. khairul Says:

    Wow $25k check for personal coaching ^.^ nice one dude


  35. Dan Says:

    Sounds like you were going to be his first client, Joel. :-)

    I seriously doubt he could have garnered all these other high-profile clients if he had treated them in the same fashion. Perhaps the key phrase was "people he's worked with" (past tense -- and even then, "worked with" is such a nebulous phrase. Someone like that would have no problem claiming he's "worked with" Warren Buffet even if that only actually meant he owned a fractional share of Berkshire Hathaway while never having even met the man himself). In any case, he was a loser extraordinaire. He proved in that one meeting that *he* is the one who needs coaching.

    I've always found the ones who talk big like that are the most likely to actually be an absolote zero when the truth comes out.

  36. John Naismith Says:

    As you said Joel, branding is not just about logos and the like, its about consistency in all your activities. Its so often the little things that interrupt that consistency, as per your experience with this guy.

  37. Jerry Vining Says:

    Incredible! Integrity in business is what it's all about. I can't believe he was that bold to even ask such a thing. Yes, you did the right thing.

  38. David Lockett Says:

    It is all a matter of perspective.

    I have had plenty of con artists offer to buy me lunch in order to secure a contract with my company. However, I always insist of paying for my own lunch, believing that anything else is unethical and could possibly be construed as a bribe.

    It seems to me that Joel possibly missed out on dealing with an honest man who was obviously not attempting to buy his favour. Any con artists out there who are angling to win a contract from Joel now know that they need to first buy him lunch as that no doubt strokes his ego and makes him feel important.

  39. Anna Johnson Says:

    Hey Joel, thanks for the story. No doubt, this is exactly why you should have lunches like these in the first place - so you can find out who you are really dealing with! We're all giving out signals all the time, so let this be a reminder to us all about what we're communicating to others by what we say, do and don't do :)

  40. Walter Gavurnik Says:

    Joel, YOU are a gentleman, this "person" you referred to as "gentleman" several times is NOT! Never invite to dinner, lunch, etc without expecting to pay for it. I would have been less polite and picked up the check much sooner with a comment such as,"You obviously can't afford the lunch so I'll pay this time!" I now know there will never be another time...

    Kudo's for remaining the gentleman. That's tooooo cool!

    God Bless
    Walter Gavurnik

  41. David King Says:

    Good call joel, that's what I would do as well!
    his brand wasn't consistent throughout his life and he obviously was talking more than he was doing.

    Thanks for the blog post! I look forward to learning more from you!

    take care!


  42. Rowland O'Connor Says:

    In terms of building a foundation for an ongoing business relationship, this is a schoolboy error by this guy and is not consistent with his claims of previous experience in building branding.

    You not only saved yourself $25k but the inevitible extra time & hassle in rectifying further "errors of judgement".

    We've always found that an initial meeting sets the tone for the ongoing business relationship. Sometimes this has meant walking away from potential "clients" as we've felt the ROI is just not worth the effort weighed against the high maintenance of certain potentialy "difficult" customers.

    You did the right thing.

  43. mark Says:

    What a loser... anybody that won't cover a petty $16 check for a potential $25,000 is a very shady person. Sounds like a lawyer who wants to squeeze the last dollar he can out of anyone he trie's to do business with.
    Your right on Joel..the guys not worth dealing with.
    Whats his bank account look like compared to yours?
    Probably very very small compared to you Joel.
    Take care,
    Asta Lavista Baby!!

  44. David Says:

    Good Call..I would have done the same thing only in the reply I would have stated "I enjoyed our lunch and your input, but I don't think we would be a good fit because you have a serious character flaw." I couldn't resist leting him know he lost a client over a $16.00 tab. maybe I have a character flaw..(smile)

  45. Rob Says:

    That's kind of like asking "May I mail you some information about our services?" and then following it up with "Can we split the postage?"

  46. Rick Ng Says:

    I am a Malaysian Chinese, and from our standpoint, this is just not the "right way" to do business. This is no-brainier, I definitely won't do that. In Chinese, this is one of the way to built "Guan Xi" (meaning relationship) with your customers. I will do the same Joel. :-)

    From Penang, Malaysia.

  47. John Komatsoulis Says:

    Great post Joel and this was the best decision you could have ever made.
    I am really curious if this guy is legit, so keep us posted.

    Lets get together for lunch and we can brainstorm some ideas.
    My treat :)

  48. Mayling Says:

    Definitely agree. It would be a totally different story if it were lunch with a friend or something. And it's not even the fact that it was a business lunch between two businessmen. It's the fact that he was pitching to a potential client. What was he thinking?

  49. Jim Berry Says:

    Good post Joel! Sadly, this occurs often.
    Last year, I was speaking to a local fellow about doing some webmaster work for me. He called one Saturday morning and asked if we could get together one day. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to bail on the 'honey do list' and said, "How about some lunch?"
    At the end of the interview, I picked up the tab and tip. he had a very confused lookabout all this. Leaving, he said, "nobody has ever done that before!" I suggested that this example might be used as a future client screening tool.
    Be well!

  50. Uyi Abraham Says:

    Hi Joel, sorry for the embarrassment. If i took you out for lunch, i will pay. After all, i am the CEO of (Zofaa Communications), a premier provider of voice broadcasting, phone messaging, automated dialing system, email & text marketing in America. Verify me @

  51. Hamster Says:

    I was thinking a little bit otherwise. At first, my feeling was to totally agree with you about it costing $25,000. However, I began to imagine if I were that person whom invited you to lunch, there could be a few deductions in my mind that makes me lose pace..

    1) Business is business, lunch is lunch, lunch can be personal, and since it is the first casual business lunch, maybe he did not want to rush in to business so soon? Maybe he plain wants to get down to earth and make the first genuine friendship, he calls fairness irregardless of the amount?

    2) Maybe he is afraid of offending you or feels himself out of place by treating you to that lunch? Maybe he was thinking "I am sure he would think that I have to buy him lunch to get that business" which is what he does not want you to think as such. Or buying you $16 dollar lunch aint just not good enough?

    3) He knows you are not the type simple enough to please and a $16 dollar lunch can not win him that $25,000 business. And he is the type rigid enough to want to do things with a lot of reasoning?

    4) He forgot to bring enough money because he was too excited rushing out his door in the morning or something?

    5) He thought you would not mind splitting because you have been a very successful man.

    Business can be so tactful that one small mistake is going to make you lose big. But is not that what business is all about, you either win or lose and nothing too personal? :) :)

    Maybe he should have added in the reasons why he would prefer that you split and not just plain ask for the split causing such huge disappointment, embarrassment and the likes..

  52. Eejam Says:

    Joel, he might have just started to approach you as his first client! who knows..But luckily due to $16 check, you've known him better..

  53. Suzanne Says:

    What a great call. Why would you give $25k to someone who can't even pick up a $16 lunch !!!! It sounds like he could do with a bit of coaching himself. His loss, your gain.........
    Keep posting Joel.
    You're the man !!!

  54. Dr. Erwin Jay Says:

    Right on. Do yourself and your readers a favor, re:this same subject. Get a copy of the book (and maybe send a copy to the person you are writing about) so he can learn, too. Title: "The ART of the Business Lunch", by Robin Jay. It is now in twelve languages, because people from other countries want to know how to do business with Americans and of course a lot of AMERICANS Also wnt to know how to do more business.
    The author also owns the Las Vegas Convention Speakers Bureau and you can see a lot by viewing one of hr websites, Then you can decide for yourself if you want to recommend any of your many viewers to her. Thank You and I believe you will find it fascinating. PS I am her father. Dr. Jay

  55. Greg R. Flores Says:

    In the Philippines, normally, when you invite someone out for lunch or dinner , the inviter foots the bill- unless he /she says beforehand to split the bill. We would "lose face" (be embarrassed) if we invite someone and ask him/ her to pay unless we ask him/ her beforehand.

    The guy lost $25,000 and much much more plus referrals and your goodwill over a $16 investment. The fact that you have given him time to meet with you means you were interested to invest in him. But apparently he was just thinking of himself...

    Joel and your company, thanks very much for sharing this experiences, plus all the information and insights you shared with us your subscribers!!! God bless you all!

    Greg R. Flores,
    Bacolod City, The Philippines

  56. Tom Justin Says:

    Your point is right on and I couldn't agree more!

    I'm actually sorry that you are publicizing this. Anyone who doesn't have that much common sense (unless they're just broke) shouldn't be told this, they should know it. At least if their over 25 years old.

    I had a similar experience several years ago. I was referred to a potential client to do some copywriting and consulting on their web presence. They were a significant company and my quoted fee was $12,500.

    It was a good lunch, he asked me three specific questions and then our conversation was general. Then he asked for the check. I had already arranged for the hostess to use my credit card, so no check was even presented. He acted almost shocked.

    On the way to valet he said, "I'll have a check for you in the morning." It was my turn to be shocked as this was our first meeting.

    He told me later that my lunch tab action was what sold him on me. He'd already seen a lot of my work but I was up against 4 other people/companies. He said it seldom anyone else ever picked up a meal tab. Hard to believe, but profitable for a $45 lunch!

    No free lunch? That's okay by me! I'll buy in return for $12,500 any day.

    More power to you,

    Tom Justin

  57. Robert Geczi Says:

    Here in China, that guy would be the talk of the town for sure. People here do NOT like others who don't pay the bill, if THEY are the ones that invited the other person in the first place. That is just so wrong on many, many levels. I also get turned off by people who don't have something common at all these days, common sense.

    The world needs more of it, especially after reading this post.

  58. lee Says:

    I think you read waaaayyyy too much into this. Was he a born and bred American? If not, it may well be that - as another person mentioned above - he was wary of being misinterpreted as attempting to build a business relationship based upon quasi-bribery.

    Who chose the restaurant? You, Joel? If so, you would be seen as the host in many cultures - not him. Regardless of the original lunch arrangement.

    Don't be too quick to judge over an 18 buck meal.


  59. Karen Says:

    Joel, I so agree with your decision, and the comments, about what a poor choice this man made. He cheapened himself in your eyes such that you would not want to do business with him. Hopefully he has been reading this blog and has learned a valuable lesson.

  60. Debra Matthews Says:

    Setting aside any potential cultural differences, having lived and worked in UK, Spain, Italy, Germany and the US - if I am meeting with anyone and they spend their time listening to me attempt to persuade or convince them to do business with me, I would expect, in fact insist, on picking up the tab as a means of showing my respect for their time and attention, regardless if they did do business with me or not. It's just that basic.

    I don't get the "bribery" comments at all.
    Joel you did the right thing and celarly many agree you did.

    One quick note re CASH though - wait staff appreciate tips paid in cash because some restaurants pass along credit cards fees thus reducing what the waitperson actually receives regardless of what you intended them to get.


  61. Leon J Says:

    If one can't deliver on $16.00 lunch, who's to question if that same person is capable on delivering on 25K coaching.

  62. Linda Rae Sanchez Says:

    Joel- Thanks for sharing.
    A reminder to practice what you preach.
    Amazing. He recommends, you invest in your business, yet he is not willing to do the same for his. Hmmm. I think you made a wise decision passing on that one.

  63. Douglas Mack Says:

    Greg R. Flores (Philippines) was the only one who observed that the guy lost out on the tremendous referrals he could have received from you, whether or not you engaged his services. Not only did he seem oblivious to good sense, he was unaware that now, he'll get negative referrals from you. Not to say you will go out of your way to bad-mouth his professional services, just to say you will not be enthusiastic to recommend him should anyone ask you if you know any coaches you would like to refer people to.

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Joel Comm is an Internet entrepreneur who has been online for over 20 years. In 1995, Joel launched, a family-friendly portal to the web which enjoys thousands of visitors each day. Joel is the co-creator of, which was acquired by Yahoo! in 1997, and now goes by the name Yahoo! Games. Since then, Joel's company, InfoMedia, Inc., has launched dozens of web sites which offer online shopping, free stuff, website reviews and more. Joel is the author of many popular books, including the NY Times Best-Seller, The AdSense Code. He regularly makes appearances at Internet marketing conferences and seminars.