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Ignoring business etiquette can lead to rude awakening

By Judy Artunian, Chicago Tribune – 09/10/2002 – 12:00am

If you’re running a business, the proper way to hold a customer’s business card is probably the last thing on your mind. But according to business etiquette experts, the devil is in the details when it comes to leaving a winning impression on clients, colleagues and others who might have an impact on your company’s bottom line.

“We all make character judgments in the first few seconds of meeting someone,” said Sue Fox, president of Etiquette Survival in Los Gatos, Calif., and co-author of “Business Etiquette for Dummies.” “You have to keep that in mind when doing business. Good manners demonstrate that you possess self-control, that you are civilized and that you care about others.”

How can something as humble as a business card wield that kind of power? According to etiquette gurus, when someone hands you their business card, you convey disrespect if you simply grab it, give it a quick look and then shove it into your pocket. In Asian countries, it could be downright disastrous because business cards are considered gifts.

The proper business card protocol is to handle the card by its edges, thank the person who gave it to you and read the card thoroughly.

“All introductions should happen on your feet. You should shake hands when you meet, and again when you leave,” said etiquette consultant Jill Bremer, president of Bremer Communications in Oak Park. If you’re faced with the anxiety-provoking responsibility of introducing a group of people to each other, introduce the highest- ranking person first. (This is a departure from social etiquette rules that state that the oldest woman in the group should be introduced first.) If you forget someone’s name or job title, apologize. “Introductions can be difficult,” said Fox. “If you make a mistake, the worst thing you can do is not acknowledge it. Be honest. If you can use humor, it really works.” Don’t be too quick to call people by their first name as soon as you’re introduced. If the person is about your age and rank, it’s acceptable to use his first name. However, if his corporate position is higher than yours, use an honorarium (Mr. or Ms.) unless he asks you to address him by his first name.

Answering the telephone
Whoever answers the telephone at your company should start with a warm greeting such as “Good morning,” followed by the company name and their own name.

Voice mail
Make your outgoing message a positive statement. “People want to know where you are, not where you aren’t,” said Nancy Friedman, president of The Telephone Doctor, a customer- service training company based in St. Louis, Mo. “For instance, say, `We’re open from 9 to 6′ not `We’re closed right now.'” Friedman, who conducts a 90-minute training session on voice mail alone, said: “The outgoing message is too important to just wing it. It needs to be given a lot more thought than most small businesses are giving it today.” While you’re at it, consider how you come across when you leave voice mail messages for others. It’s easy to sound terse and impersonal. “I knew a busy executive at a Fortune 500 company who decided to answer her voice mails at the end of the day,” says Jeanne Herrick, who teaches a business communication and etiquette course at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “People started asking her if they had done something to upset her because she sounded angry in her voice mail messages. It made her realize that she tended to speak more quickly and be more direct than she intended to because she was in a hurry to get home.”

Yes, even a fax can get you into trouble. If it’s too casual–hand scrawled notes are a no-no–you might appear too casual about how you do business. “Faxes get read by a lot of people at some companies. You don’t always know who is responsible for bringing in business,” said Friedman.

Many business etiquette counselors worry that business e-mail has become a throwaway form of communication, with no salutations and too many lower case letters and exclamation points. Like faxes, e-mails might be read by far more people than you realize, and they can be archived for years. According to Herrick, if you’re not careful, the tone you intended to convey in an e-mail message can easily be lost on the recipient. “The worse thing you can do is send an e-mail when you’re upset or in a rush. That’s playing with tone dynamite.”

Do your homework
“By not learning about your client’s corporate culture or the company’s industry, you can easily get off on the wrong foot,” said Bremer. Before meeting with a potential client for the first time, consult the Internet and, if possible, talk to employees to learn the industry lingo, how the company does business and how the company is structured. How does this relate to etiquette? “It influences the way you behave, dress and communicate,” said Bremer. “It will open the lines of communication because people like to do business with people like themselves.” – Thank you notes. Show your gracious side by sending thank you notes after you meet with a prospect, or just to show your appreciation for a customer. But opt for snail-mail over e-mail. “Regular mail is still a powerful tool to thank a customer for his business,” said Friedman.

Conducting business with other cultures
Not everyone conducts business like Americans. Be aware of cultural differences. “Something as simple as making eye contact means different things in different cultures,” said Herrick. “Some people who are raised in an Asian or Latino home, even if they grew up here, may think it’s impolite to look an authority figure in the eye.” There are many resources on the Internet and in the library on etiquette for various cultures.

Your employees
Your employees’ behavior can have a powerful effect on how people feel about your company. Do your employees smile? Do they say “Thank you”? Hold meetings every month to review business etiquette. And remember who their role model is. “It starts at the top,” said Fox. “The president or CEO has to initiate the kind of civility they want at their company.

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