(As in previous years, I will only be posting once a week in July and August.)
The word etiquette has a dated, your-great-Aunt-Martha sound. Not that etiquette, itself, is out of date; the need for it is greater than ever. But the word is seldom used today, replaced by the planer manners, or by some circumlocution. Etiquette is no longer taught in school, though behavior or conflict management sometimes is, and a good hunk of that subject turns out to be etiquette, barely disguised.
So, I was surprised to find speaker, Rachel Wagner, listing herself as an etiquette coach on the agenda of a meeting of the SMPS Oklahoma Chapter. Can one actually make a living using those words to describe yourself, I wondered. I also reflected on the importance of etiquette in selling professional services. When you are selling professional services, at the very least it:
• Ensures you show all you deal with appropriate respect,
• Helps you get through potentially awkward situations,
• Shows you to be a socially adept, considerate person.
This made me want to talk with Ms. Wagner, even more. (I would normally have called her simply Wagner at this point, but because I am writing about an etiquette, I decided to err on the polite side and include the Ms.) In this post, I will share our initial interview. In a second, to appear in about a month, I will present her with several potentially awkward selling situations to see how she would react with no time to prepare. After all, an etiquette expert should be able to deal with unexpected, tetchy situations with aplomb. She, good sport, has accepted the challenge.
Q: How did you get interested in etiquette and become an expert in it?
Wagner: Etiquette has always been a topic of great interest—my office bookshelves are proof! So, after a successful teaching career, I traded my 8th grade classroom for the corporate training room. My ultimate goal was to attend the Protocol School of Washington (PSOW) in Washington, D.C. which I did in 2006 and received certification as a Corporate Etiquette and International Protocol Consultant. I consider myself a continual learner in all areas of business etiquette, and I work hard at keeping up with the most contemporary, universally-accepted business etiquette, especially in fast-changing areas like on-line communications.
Q: How does etiquette differ from manners?
Wagner: Manners is really all about “being mindful” of others and making them feel respected and valued. Etiquette is more or less the “how to” of manners—knowing what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. To illustrate, let me give you several examples. We all know it’s “good manners” to make business introductions. The “etiquette” is to say the name and firm of the most senior person first. It’s good manners to give a handshake. The etiquette is to extend your hand with the fingers out and thumb up and connect web to web with two firm pumps (no limp fish handshakes!). It’s good manners to entertain a prospect for lunch. Proper etiquette includes seating your guest correctly (to the right of the host), navigating the place setting (start with the outer silverware and work in), making menu suggestions to discreetly show the limits of your hospitality, and insuring that your guest’s order is taken first.
Good etiquette skills are vital for any firm to be competitive—to get new sales and to enjoy strong repeat business. These are the skills that set professionals apart and firms apart from their competition, no matter what service they offer.
Q: Do the terms professional etiquette and sales etiquette have any special meaning to you and to what extent does each differ from regular old etiquette?
Wagner: Professional etiquette and sales etiquette are both subsets of business etiquette. Especially in today’s economic climate, it’s vital that every member and associate of a firm have a fully equipped tool box of business etiquette knowledge. “Professional etiquette” refers to ways you deal with others in your profession, such as the way an accountant, whom a client has replaced with another firm, provides information on the account to his replacements. “Sales etiquette” refers to how you manage sales interactions, such as how you talk with a prospective client whom you meet at a social gathering and who is not looking for a sales pitch. “Regular old etiquette” is vital for a polished image, and includes sending appropriate thank you notes, standing for a handshake, and knowing when and how to offer your business card.
Q: Can you cite an example where etiquette made a difference in the sale of a professional service?
Wagner: I chose not to use a certain financial planning firm after my initial phone inquiry did not result in a timely call back with the information requested. Not only that, another associate of the firm was repeatedly unresponsive to my emails. In fact, I finally had to call and ask if my email questions had been received. Of course, this is poor service, but it is also inconsiderate. Even if a professional isn’t interested in a person’s business, proper etiquette dictates that the person receive a prompt and polite response. Poor “tech etiquette” resulted in a poor first impression of this firm. I’m sure they would have done a fine job of managing my portfolio, but that initial first impression kept them from having the opportunity to prove themselves, because few of us will knowingly select an inconsiderate person to do costly and sensitive professional work. Little things, such as timely tech-communication skills, do matter in giving a positive image of a firm!
Q: Do you think professionals are held to a higher standard of etiquette than other business people?
Wagner: I think it’s assumed that anyone wearing a suit has a high etiquette IQ—and most do. Because professionals are highly educated, expected to be intelligent, and are perceived to hold high status positions, lapses in etiquette can be seen as arrogance or patronization. You don’t want to get labeled as a stereotypical arrogant, elitist, self-absorbed professional.
Not everyone who climbs the professional career ladder in a firm is necessarily equipped with the etiquette and social skills to match their new level of influence and leadership. For example, at a Chamber of Commerce event, I observed professional higher-ups with less than impeccable table manners. These same professionals also rudely pecked away on their BlackBerry during the meeting and in a face-to-face conversation with someone.
Q: What rules of etiquette would you most want a professional about to attend an association event to remember?
Wagner: Research shows that approximately 75 percent of us have anxiety about attending an event in which we must meet and greet and make small talk with others. These four rules of etiquette can help make association events less stressful and can enhance your visibility, credibility, and profitability.
- Remind yourself that you go to the event as a representative of your firm, a walking, talking demonstration of what it might be like to work with. Yes, greet your peers, but don’t hang out with them all evening. Remind yourself that it is your responsibility to make sure the people you talk with come away feeling good about you and the firm. This is usually more a function of asking them questions about something they are interested in, addressing them by name, making sure that everyone in a group has a chance to be heard, than saying something profound yourself.
- Prepare for the event. There is proper etiquette for introducing yourself and others, for starting conversations, for breaking into groups, for taking your leave from a conversation, and for dinner table conversation, as examples. Look into how to handle these things if you are unsure. My e-newsletter, The Savvy Professional (which you can sign up for at www.EtiquetteTrainer.com), covers many such topics and there are a number of good books on the subject.
- Don’t head straight to the food and beverage area when you arrive. First mix and mingle. The food is secondary. And when you do go through the food line, never pile your plate. It’s better to eat something before you go than to appear too hungry. An additional tip is to hold your food or beverage in your left hand so that your right hand is always free for a handshake when you meet or greet others.
- Afterwards drop quick notes to people you met, showing that you remember something special about them.
Q: How do you determine appropriate etiquette in fast changing areas like the internet and social networking?
Wagner: You have to observe, read and research. (A good book on the subject is The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You by Mike Song, Tim Burress and Vicki Halsey.) I have three suggestions that will help you steer a course even in this rapidly changing area:
- Don’t be misled by the reputation that email and other forms of electronic communication have for informality. They are rapidly gaining formality, at least in business circles. When in doubt, err on the side of more formality for a positive image of your firm’s brand–in your emails and on professional networking sites such as LinkedIn.
- Recognize which of two kinds of exchange you are engaged in, either a conversation with a lot of rapid back-and-forthing or a more deliberate correspondence. The latter requires more formality. But, good writing style is mandatory in all business emails, including proper spelling (that includes no texting language), grammar, and punctuation.
- Don’t mistake informality with lack of personal consideration. Always begin an email with a salutation, if only the person’s first name. As a best practice, include “dear” or “hello” before the person’s name, especially to business associates, prospective clients, and clients. Except in rapid exchanges, such as when you are back-and-forthing over a meeting date, always include at least a brief personal note, such as It’s good to hear you are doing well or Congratulations on the … or Give so-and-so my best or the like. Always close with your name. There are many more tech etiquette rules and the number of those rules is expanding rapidly.