Mind Your Manners

Impress clients and prospects with these no-fail rules for business etiquette.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the December 2002 issue of . Subscribe »

You've been taught since you were a youngster not to chew with your mouth open, to always put your napkin in your lap before a meal, to say "please" and "thank you" and to perform all those other niceties that mothers instill in their kids. But did your mother ever tell you when to turn off your cell phone? How much time it should take to respond to e-mail? How to leave a nice voice-mail message?

Feeling less than confident about your etiquette skills in the electronic age? Lucky for you, we tracked down some leading etiquette experts to get the skinny on how to behave properly in the 21st century--how not to offend clients and customers with poorly written e-mails, how to make a good first impression in the first days of your start-up and so on. Now, get your shoes off the table and listen up.

It's those less common etiquette mistakes that can get a start-up into trouble. For instance, you should never shake hands with someone while sitting down--always stand up, says Phyllis Davis, etiquette expert and author of E2: Using the Power of Etiquette and Ethics in American Business (available from Entrepreneur Press in April 2003). Speaking of handshakes, "You never initiate a handshake with a senior executive--you wait for him or her to initiate a handshake with you," she says. Just like it's impolite to ask for business cards from senior executives--instead, wait for them to offer business cards to you. And don't think you can get off the hook by just offering them your business card first--you have to create a reason to offer it.

Once you get your business card etiquette down, take a look at your phone manners. In fact, some of the most common etiquette blunders involve cell phones, says Marjorie Brody, president of Brody Communications Ltd. in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, and author of Professional Impressions: Etiquette for Everyone, Every Day. "With the cell phone," she says, "it's talking at inappropriate times and places, leaving the ringer on when it should not be, speaking too loud and giving out information that shouldn't be given because it's not private." Nothing shouts your lack of respect for other people louder than when your cell phone rings in a busy meeting.

And it's not just cell phones that cause problems--people run into landline issues as well. How about when a customer is at your counter and the phone rings? Who gets priority? Caller or in-person customer? Try to deal with the in-person customer first. If you have to answer the call (you're the only person there, for instance), pick up the phone, say you're with a customer and ask them to hold. Or, get their number and call them right back. "It's being respectful of the people that are in front of you," says Brody. Or if you're on the phone when somebody comes in, be sure to excuse yourself from the call for a second to let the customer know you'll be right with him or her.

It really boils down to good communication and letting the other person know you value their time. "In a start-up situation, everything is urgent," says Brody. "Your resources are limited, and sometimes when you have tasks to accomplish and limited time and limited people, some of what we would refer to as the niceties tend to go out the window. I think that's a mistake." It only takes a few extra seconds to remain pleasant while you go about your duties.

It's considered good form, for instance, to answer your e-mail or voice mail in a timely manner--within 48 hours. Dana May Casperson, an etiquette expert in Santa Rosa, California, and the author of Power Etiquette: What You Don't Know Can Kill Your Career, notes that it only takes a few seconds to ensure that your e-mail is free of grammatical errors and that your telephone voice is pleasant. "That's showing respect to that person--that you value their question or their message to you," she says. "Sometimes people say, 'I don't need manners. What does that have to do with business?' It has a lot to do with [it] because business is about building relationships."

Calling and leaving a brusque message on someone's voice mail is another etiquette no-no. Don't drone on and on, but don't just leave your name and number, either. "Let people know specifically why you're calling and when they can get back in touch with you," says Brody. "Use people's time effectively and pay attention to your tone." She suggests setting up a mirror next to your telephone and have a smile on your face when leaving messages--that way, you'll come across as pleasant regardless of how rushed your day has been.

You're thinking these suggestions are pretty obvious, right? Well, it's not the knowing but the doing that will leave that good impression. In fact, both experts noted that when they speak to groups about etiquette, people aren't surprised by their teachings.just sort of sheepishly guilty. Says Brody, "They know [what's rude] because they don't like it when they're on the other end of it, but somehow they forget when they're doing it."

The mirror idea can work here, too--hold up a mirror to your own actions and see what you're doing that might offend or put off others. Do you instant message a colleague during a meeting? How would you feel if your employees did that while you were speaking? Do you pick up your cell phone while in conversation with a client? How do you like that when someone does it to you? "It's a matter of shifting some behaviors and thinking about the environment and thinking about others, not just yourself," says Brody. "You can control your own behaviors if your start looking at them."

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