A lot of the time, entertaining a client doesn't need to be alcohol-related. If the client does enjoy boozing it up, there are steps you can take to make your non-drinking less obvious if you think it will be a concern.
The goal is to make the client happy to be doing business with you. That means that entertainment can be anything that accomplishes that goal. The client may not drink either, and prefer a good meal to drinks at a bar. Maybe they would prefer a hike, or golf, or bowling, or any other activity that doesn't necessarily include booze.
The reason so many sales people take clients out for drink is three-fold:
- Most clients drink
- Most salespeople drink
- After business-hours, bars are open and easy
Since you are the one responsible for building relationships with your clients, there is no reason you have to default for the easy choice if you can find a good alternative that accomplishes the same goal. In Japan the old adage about sales is that you need to do 2/3: smoke, drink, or play golf.
Boozing with Clients
Of course, there will always be clients who appreciate a good drink. And if that's what it takes to entertain them, you should do so. There are several ways of boozing with clients even if you don't drink:
- Mix with food
- Order the drinks yourself
- Create a relationship with a local or two
If you mix drinks and food, the focus isn't solely on drinking, and it makes the focus less on the drinks. If you really cannot drink a drop, then it will be much less conspicuous when you're sharing food as well than if you're just ordering drinks. On the other hand, if you can have a beer or a glass of wine, having it with food will make the alcohol pack less of a punch.
Sometimes the client may not want food (due to the timing, or having already had dinner), and you should take them to a proper drinking establishment. Depending on the type of place, you may not order at the table and have it brought over. Since you are the one paying for everything, being the one to get the drinks is a nice gesture and allows you to get whatever you want without being too conspicuous even if it's non-alcoholic.
If you are based in a single place (or the same places regularly), you can also cultivate a relationship with certain locals that fit the type of clients you usually take out. So long as the staff knows what you drink, you can order at the table and trust the staff to give you non-alcoholic drinks without having to state that it's non-alcoholic. Even if you are constantly going to new places on business, after getting seated having a discussion on the side with the staff who will serve you could get the same service if you ask nicely.
Regardless of how you go about things, do not try to give the customer the impression that you are drinking. Not bringing attention to the fact that you are not drinking is fine, but if asked you need to be honest or risk losing trust that won't be replaced by the entertainment value of whatever you're doing. Tonic (or soda) and lime looks a lot like a gin and tonic, but that doesn't mean you should tell the customer you're drinking a gin and tonic. There are also non-alcoholic beers which look like regular beers if you can stomach them. Just don't lie about what you're drinking if asked.
Through my business with people from over a dozen nationalities, I've met very few cultures that this wouldn't work for, and most of them are in Southeast Asia. Just avoid doing business in China or Korea, and you shouldn't run in to many problems!