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Who Pays for the Coffee?

Who Pays for the Coffee?

Posted by Jane Carey

on 13/06/2018

A tongue-in-cheek look at the protocol of coffee meetings.

More than ever before we meet for business at a coffee shop. In the past, it was considered an informal way to meet, but increasingly it has become a place where networks are built and deals are done. Most business people have experienced that uncomfortable moment when the coffees have been ordered and each person awkwardly waits for the other to reach for their wallet. So, the pressing question remains - who pays for the coffee? Here is my take on the correct protocol:  

  • The person who requested the meeting pays for the coffee. That is unless the person who requested the meeting is going to give business to the other party, or do them some sort of favour. For example, if you are meeting someone who wants to discuss possible job opportunities at your workplace.
  • If you are in South Australia and meeting a client for who works for local or state government at a coffee shop, you can't pay for the coffee. Due to laws surrounding abuse of public office, government workers cannot provide gifts to clients and suppliers. This includes small items such as coffee, so this instance, they will need to pay. Otherwise you can both have water, but that may make the coffee shop owner grumpy.
  • Do you have to order coffee? In short no - but unless it’s a really hot day it may seem unusual to invite someone for coffee and then not have one. Best to order something to be polite.   What if you don't drink coffee you ask? It is perfectly acceptable to order tea as a substitute for coffee. An iced coffee or bottle juice is also fine; however, it may be stretching the relationship if you expect your meeting buddy to pay for a $10 green smoothie with a shot of wheatgrass. 
  • If you arrive early should you order a coffee? No - unless you really need a coffee fix and are paying for your coffee and your guests. Otherwise you risk looking tight if they arrive, you are drinking coffee and expect them to buy their own.
  • Can I order food? No. Unless it has been pre-arranged that you will both be eating (in which case you have organised to meet for lunch, not coffee) don't order food. Nothing is more awkward than one person eating while the two of you are trying to have a free-flowing conversation.
  • What if the person you invited decides to order food when you get there? That is fine, especially if they are going to give you some sort of business or doing you a favour. If that’s not the case, they just may be trying to get a free lunch.
  • Does it matter where we go for coffee? Absolutely. If you want to be seen out and about having coffee, head for the busiest coffee shops in your local business district. If discretion is important, consider your local McDonalds where the coffee is improving and your audience will be teenagers skipping school and frazzled mums with toddlers.  

I hope this has cleared up some of the potential minefields around coffee meetings.  Here's to the success of your next meeting!

Words by Jane Carey