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Why You Should Mind Your Manners

These eight tips prove that courtesy does count for small businesses.

Believe it or not, minding your ps and qs really does make a difference in business these days. To illustrate: A client who recently hired us told me that he had spoken with a number of potential firms and that while every one of them could do the job, in the end, they picked us because our team had the best manners by far. He added, and I quote, "We always hire for manners because everything else can be learned on the job."

It's an interesting hiring strategy, to be sure. Wouldn't your mother be thrilled? (I know mine was.) Who would have thought that the unique value proposition in the deal would be manners? Although business protocol wasn't actually taught in any business school I considered, maybe they should start.

So what can you do to incorporate a little Emily Post into your daily routine? It's not as hard as you think.

1. Focus on the present. We've all turned into multitasking machines: We talk on the phone, check e-mail, travel to the next meeting and eat lunch--all at the same time. But juggling tasks is overrated and frankly unfulfilling for all involved. The person on the other end of the line can tell your mind is wandering as your voice trails off, the clicking of the keys in the background is annoying and distracting, you're about to sideswipe the guy on your left, and food is meant to be shared and enjoyed, not shoved down your throat as fast as possible. Slow down, focus and put your full attention into everything you do. People notice and appreciate your interest.

2. When you're on the phone, smile as you talk. Smiling almost forces you to articulate more--it's harder to mumble and slur your words when you smile. And a smile comes through in your voice and tone. I find it also helps to stand up or sit up in your chair because your voice projects better and sounds clearer. We once worked with a company that put millions of dollars into a fancy customer relationship management (CRM) system to help them "touch" their customers in meaningful ways. The funny thing is, when you call their main number, you get put into a phone tree that never seems to end. It's frustrating, and they no longer let you push "0" to reach an actual human being. They overrode that feature in the system since so many people were using it (which should have been a clue). You actually have to listen to several minutes of "Press 1 for X, press 4 for Y." My first recommendation for them was to have a real human being--preferably one who smiles--pick up the phone at least during normal business hours. They can hire a lot of people for all the money they spent on the CRM system upgrades and training. Call me old-fashioned, but it really is nice when you can reach a smiling human being on the other end of the line.

3. Listen to your phone's outgoing message. I know a professional whose cell phone message barks, "I'm not here. Don't leave me a message on this phone!" And he's in sales. Would you buy from him? Not likely. Make it easy for people to find you and follow up with you, especially if you're in a people business. It's perfectly acceptable to say that you're traveling and unable to check messages regularly or that you prefer people to leave messages at another number or even to set your cell phone so that it doesn't accept messages at all. Announcing that you don't welcome voice messages makes you seem unapproachable and cold. Neither are desirable qualities in business.

4. Apologize when you make a mistake. It's the cover-up or denial, not the screw-up, that ultimately gets you in trouble. I once had two people not show up for scheduled meetings in the past year. One made excuses and said he would get back to me with dates for a lunch to make up for it (I'm still waiting for his call), and the other sent the most beautiful flowers I've ever seen and called the following day asking when and where we could meet again. Everyone has emergencies or technology snafus. It's how you handle these situations that show your character. People can become more loyal than they ever would have otherwise if you rectify a bad situation by addressing the problem and making amends. "The dog ate my homework" didn't work in high school, and it won't work in business. Come clean and make good on your promises.

5. Let the call go into voice mail. Turn off your cell phone when you're in a meeting and forward your phone into voice mail when people are in your office. If you start responding to every incoming missive, you send a message that the person you're with just isn't important. People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care, so give them your full attention and be engaged in the conversation that's right in front of you. In a movie theatre, before the movie starts, they always show the "inconsiderate cell phone man" ad to remind people to turn off their phones. Do we really need to stoop that low in business now, too? Before I give speeches or workshops, I always ask everyone in the room to silence their phones, and I let them know that I'll collect $10 for every phone that rings and donate the money to a local charity. That usually does the trick.

6. Practice positive e-mail etiquette. I call it The New York Times test: If you wouldn't want to see it on the front page of the newspaper, then don't send the message. It's amazing what gets passed around the office and left on the printer, and you can be sure that information will fall into the wrong hands. So before you hit send after a heated interchange, take a walk, get a cup of coffee and then read it one last time to make sure you really want that message to go out.

7. Acknowledge gifts. A simple thank you is sufficient. It's embarrassing for both parties to have to follow up to make sure a gift was received. The person who sent the gift isn't fishing for a compliment--they just want to be sure their package was delivered. And the recipient knows they should have responded sooner. Save everyone the hassle, and just drop a quick e-mail saying it arrived. A corollary to this one is that if someone is responsible for helping you find a new customer or getting you a meeting with an influential person, you should let them know you appreciate their help. A customer or a meeting is a gift in many ways.

8. Don't take it out on the receptionist or cashier. When things aren't going your way, don't let the first person you come in contact with take the brunt of your anger. It reflects badly on you, and it's likely that whatever went wrong wasn't their fault. So take the high road--you'll attract more bees with honey anyway.

Maybe all good manners just go back to the Golden Rule: Do onto others as you would have them do unto you. You may in fact find that good manners will turn into good money--I did. So listen to your mother and mind your manners. It's the little things that add up to making a great impression with every encounter. Focus, smile, listen. It doesn't take much these days.

Paige Arnof-Fenn is the founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a strategic-marketing consulting firm whose clients include Fortune 500 companies as well as early stage and emerging businesses.

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