As I travel around the country and work with clients coast-to-coast, the number one complaint that I hear almost every single week is about thoughtless behavior and lack of manners of others. It may be their own internal employees in the company or the hapless vendors that they’re working with. But it is always a topic of passionate and heated discussion. Everyone is frustrated.
Here is what I am hearing almost every week:
- “People don’t call me back.”
- “People don’t respond promptly to my email.”
- “People don’t show up on time.”
- “People don’t return the voice mail I leave them.”
- “People don’t follow up as promised.”
- “People don’t say please and thank you.”
- “People yell into their cell phones when I’m standing by them.”
- “People check their e-mail and voicemail in the middle of my discussion with them.”
Here is what I want you, the leader, to think about and to consider. I believe that every week you are losing new business, losing existing customers and losing incremental revenue, and you don’t even know that it is happening. The key reason that it is happening is ironically one of the areas that is most easily improved. You see, esteemed leader, your people are failing on the skills that are the most fundamental of all, simple, ordinary manners.
In this article I will outline a whole host of tips and guidelines to help your employees develop business etiquette.I believe that your business is not your products or your warehouses or your equipment or software. I have always believed that a business is simply a collection of people that have a common vision and goal. If that is the case, then the people are your business and that is what you need to focus on more.
Please take this article, cut it out, duplicate it, post on the company bulletin board, stick it in the company newsletter or tape it to the rude employees forehead, so you can start to win the battle that you don’t even know that you’re losing.
Let’s open our business Bible start with our first section—the phone.
Even though voicemail has been around for some time and is not a brand-new technology is still continually being abused and misused. So let’s start with the simple fundamentals:
#1 — The clock is ticking. If I call and leave you a voicemail asking for you to return my call you should call me back within 24 hours at the latest. There are no excuses for not returning calls including, “I’m sorry I have been really busy (who isn’t?) or “I have been tied up in meetings for the last three days.” I’m sorry, that’s not an excuse either as all meetings have breaks. So let’s just say unless you’re dead there’s no excuse for not calling me back. By the way, your competition is returning my call—now.
#2 — Message mess. When you call me back your message should be as clear as possible, not a rambling Shakespearean monologue. “Hello this is John and I’m calling in response to your voicemail on Wednesday at two o’clock. Please feel free to give me a call I will be in my office the rest of the day up until 7 PM.” See how easy that was? By the way if your voicemail to me lasts so long that you have to record a second one then you were not being succinct.
#3 — Voicemail of the dead. When I call your voicemail, your voicemail should sound professional and to the point it should also sound as if you love your job. Often times I call someone’s voicemail message and it sounds like they are near comatose or worse has not been updated since last Christmas. I want you to think of your voicemail as part of the branding of your company. You should also say when and if you will be available.
The phone call/texts
#1 — Broadcast your life. If you are in a public place and your phone rings you should walk away to a private quiet area to receive the call. You should not be talking loudly on your phone in a restaurant, a grocery store on a train plane or an automobile if other people are present. Several months ago I was having breakfast in a hotel restaurant, and a man was walking around the restaurant talking on his cell phone very loudly. This resulted in several harsh glares from people trying to eat their breakfast quietly which were of course ignored by Mr. Manners. This is why Amtrak added “quiet cars” ( train cars were people are not allowed to speak) – because loudmouths were on their phone talking incessantly about their life stories -driving everyone else in the train car crazy.
#2 — Meetingus Interruptus. If you are meeting with someone and your phone rings that call should not take precedence over the live meeting that you’re having. Ever.( Yes this also includes breakfast lunch and dinner meetings ) The person you are meeting with considers it to be the height of rudeness if you answer your phone while you are meeting. You know how that feels it means that what you are saying is less important than the phone call the person is receiving. Then you have to sit in their office listening to their conversation pretending like you don’t hear what they’re saying. The only exception to this rule would be if you said to the person you are meeting with “before we start our meeting I wanted to let you know that I’m expecting an important call from Europe which I may have to take briefly. I apologize for the inconvenience in advance.” When a call like that happens say “please excuse me” and walk out of hearing range of the other person to take the call privately.
#3 — Sound system . If you receive a call do not put the caller on speaker unless you get the permission of the caller first. “Hey Ted yes it’s good to hear from you. I have Steve here in the office with me do you mind if I put your call on speaker?” Then do it only if you have received permission. If you work in an open office environment (otherwise known as cube world) any calls going to be on speaker should be taken in a conference room or a private office not in the middle of 27 cubes where everyone has to hear the entire conversation. It is enormously distracting.
#4 — Text test. The same rules apply for checking text messages and e-mails on your phone. If we are meeting and you reach for the holster on your belt and pull out your Blackberry and start texting with your thumbs-then we you will be viewed as a manner less Neanderthal. You are signaling that I don’t matter and the message on the phone does.
#5 — Ring ring. If the ring tone on your phone is a popular song by Lady Gaga or a rap by Fifty Cent, or some 70’s hairband, your reputation as a business professional is going to be damaged. Have ring tones that are quiet and professional and don’t seem like the soundtrack for VH 1’s on es Behind the Music. Recently when boarding a plane a woman in front of me had a large bag, which apparently contained a very distraught cat that was meowing and hissing. Much to my surprise she reached into her bag and pulled out her cell phone. Her ring tone was that of a cat in despair. Really?
Yes I know it seems as if some things are not worth really getting into. But believe me this is one of the other areas I hear about the most.
#2 — Format please. Let’s start with the very basics. Your e-mail should be in a businesslike font, not one that looked like it was written by somebody from the local craft store, in some strange calligraphy style font in various bright colors. Emoticons ( those cute little faces made from various pieces of punctuation marks : ) should never be used.) It makes people think that you are in junior high. You also should not download animated faces smiley faces or animated characters that sit at the bottom of the e-mail and wink. It’s just immature and unprofessional, and a little creepy.
#2 — Background information. The background of your e-mail should not be so distracting that it distracts from the message of your e-mail itself. I have many business people who send me e-mails with various college teams, SpongeBob Square Pants, NASCAR or other highly unprofessional wallpapers in the background. If you want to do that at home that is fine but not in the workplace where it’s highly unprofessional. Besides it makes the e-mail that much harder to read. One client was a fan of a particular college team sent me a bright orange background e-mail with white lettering. This retina destroying color combination was not appreciated.
#3 — What’s my line. E-mails that have no subject line get deleted. Your subject line should be as specific and clear as possible and outline the purpose of the e-mail. Don’t be lazy and just bounce your e-mail back to the person who sent it to you without changing the subject line. If you do that they end up with 15 e-mails that all have the same subject line which is very confusing.
#4 — The hourglass. The same rules apply to responding on e-mails as they do to responding on phone calls. There should be some sort of agreement in the organization as to how long we have before we respond to an e-mail. Many people that I talk to tell me they send e-mails and never get a response, and then have to send a second request or a third request which is very irritating. Even if you do not have an answer within a certain amount of time you should e-mail the person who contacted you to let them know that you received their e-mail and you’re working on an answer.
#5 — Use discretion. Unfortunately e-mail has become the default method of communication. Often when an e-mail is sent it would’ve been more well-suited as a verbal conversation, a meeting or a phone call. Because e-mail is open to interpretation and misunderstanding of both content and tone, sometimes it would be a good idea to pick up the phone or meet instead of sending an e-mail. An additional part of discretion is deciding who to CC or BCC on an e-mail reply. As a general rule most people over do this practice, and drive everyone nuts when they hit “reply all.”
#6 — It’s not geneology. It is just plain rude to include irrelevant CC history in an e-mail. It is the mark of laziness to forward reams of former recipients who may have received some variant of a message in the past. Unless there is specific reason for an address to be affixed to a mailing you have an obligation to remove it before forwarding. In fact, it is worth affixing some variant of this signature-message to all group-forwarded email. On that note, also please stop CC’ing every one on everything- unless they need to see it. It is driving them all crazy.
If you forward this correspondence, PLEASE delete the forwarding history, which includes my email address! It is a courtesy to me and others who may not wish to have their email addresses sent all over the world! Erasing the history helps prevent spammers from mining addresses and viruses from being “ fed”..
Face to Face communication
Perhaps one of the most important forms of communication is when we are meeting with people face-to-face. Here are some quick tips to enhance the effectiveness of face-to-face communication.
#1 — Chain of command. Yes overly ambitious college graduate I know you want to impress the CEO, but realize if you go above your bosses head on a regular basis it will be considered bad form. Yes there is an open door policy but that does not mean you should abuse it and it’s not going to help your reputation in the company as someone who does not respect the chain of command. It just makes you look bad.
#2 — Network nudge. Anytime you are networking or meeting with more than one person, introductions may be needed. If you are talking to someone and someone else walks up to join the conversation you should introduce them to the person you’re talking to. “Oh hello Valerie- good to see you. I wanted you to meet my friend Stephen. Stephen this is Valerie this is Stephen. And before you object- yes it is your job to introduce them. Besides it makes you look like a gracious host. It’s under “other duties as assigned” on your job description.
#3 — The waiting game. If you have planned to meet with someone at a scheduled time and you’re going to be late, call or text or send a smoke signal to let them know where you are. If someone is waiting in your lobby to meet with you and you’re running late, have someone go and tell them that you’re running late and how soon you will be available. In the business world is often a sign of power if someone makes you wait. I think it’s just plain arrogant and a sign of poor manners.
#4 — Gracious me. Go out of your way to be gracious in showing appreciation for people’s time and energy. A thoughtful hand written note after a productive meeting with a client or a vendor is a nice classy touch. It does not take long and makes a remarkable impression that you took the time to write a short note. When people are visiting your office or organization make sure to go out of your way to make them feel like a guest whether they or an internal employee or an outside vendor and supplier. People will always appreciate being treated with hospitality and made to feel welcome.
What does a leader do about it?
OK what can you do about bad manners? Except for your own home there is nothing you can do about how other parents raise their kids. It’s not likely the schools are going to suddenly start teaching values. So it is up to you and your organization. It comes down to three things: 1) Standards 2) Training 3) Leadership.
#1 — Standards– Your company should have defined written behavioral standards. They should address how your folks communicate with customers and with each other. For example you can say “All emails will be responded to within 24 hours.”Yes- I know..before I get a storm of emails- that not everyone can return emails in a certain amount of time and some ( like, say your CEO) should never do that it is not a good use of her time. You need to define who and which departments or positions this applies to ( i.e.sales, customer service) If you do not set standards of guidelines then communication will suffer.Who sets it and who defines it is up to you to wrestle with.I just want someone to return my call.The standards should be observable, tangible or measurable, that way a leader can hold their direct report accountable to the standards. Remember that expectations with accountability get results. If you don’t have standards then assemble a cross functional team and get them written. Soon.
#2 — Training- Teach people the skills and knowledge they need in order change their behavior to meet and exceed the standards. Besides it will not only help them at work it will help them in life as well.
#3 — Leadership– Leadership must possess the skills of common sense and courtesy. They need to walk the talk. None of this “do as I say not as I do” nonsense. They must always teach and guide their team, and hold them accountable for successes as a well as doing course correction. Leaders should attend client meeting and meals and give people private feedback afterward on what they saw.
So those are some basic fundamental manners for the business world. If they weren’t needed we wouldn’t be talking about them but sadly we are. It could dramatically change how your business is perceived in the marketplace.
Photo: Getty Images