Debrett's Academy Director Rupert Wesson discusses how good manners can oil the wheels of business with the Training Journal.
Have you ever had to call a customer helpline? After inputting a mysterious sequence of numbers, then spending a small lifetime on hold, most of us are ready to unleash our frustration on the blameless call handler by the time we finally hear a human voice.
But if that person goes on to apologise for keeping us waiting, uses our name correctly, wishes us a good afternoon and asks whether there’s anything else we need help with, our frustration is soon diffused.
Politeness – simple pleases, thank yous and apologies – can transform a negative client experience into a positive one. It can also sell a product, bolster a brand’s reputation, or forestall a complaint. As Debrett’s managing director, Renée Kuo, said in an interview with City AM, “I can’t think of any business that makes money by treating its customers poorly.”
Good manners are good for business
We’re all familiar with the power of good manners in a customer service context, therefore, but what place do they have in management? Do niceties matter when we’re under pressure to perform? In a high-stakes, commercial environment, common courtesies might seem a waste of time, a throwback to typewriters and carbon paper in an era of emoticons and acronyms.
Manners in management aren’t just about making work more pleasant, however; they make sound business sense too. Good business etiquette goes hand-in-hand with efficiency. Punctual arrivals at meetings ensure no time is wasted, while responding promptly to enquiries can prevent any issues from escalating, saving you money and time in the long run. At a most basic level, this may mean simply paying an invoice on time so that you don’t accrue interest charges or late fees.
Leading by example
As a manager, you may not deal directly with customers, but don’t underestimate the example you’re setting to those who report to you. Adopting a formal, professional approach to business correspondence, for example, even with our closest colleagues, can remind them to do likewise with clients. Asking politely about someone’s weekend, remembering the name of their beloved pet, and inviting them to contribute in meetings, will similarly foster a culture of politeness and courtesy that will have a trickle-down effect on client interactions. Conversely, a curt written or verbal manner, however justifiable due to lack of time, indirectly gives your staff permission to adopt the same approach with their clients and colleagues.
Courtesy equals confidence
Those in leadership roles may worry that demonstrating good manners to colleagues who report to them will undermine their authority, or convey vulnerability or weakness.
In fact, the opposite is the case. Good manners reflect well on you as a leader, demonstrating confidence, authority and trustworthiness. Take a face-to-face business introduction as an example. Manners dictate that we greet new people with a firm handshake, eye contact and a warm smile, all of which also support the image of a confident leader. An understanding of protocol in business interactions – and a sensitive approach to any cultural practices with which we are unfamiliar – implies that we are similarly intuitive and adaptable in our business dealings.
Politeness not only communicates self-confidence, but also instils it in others. Mentioning connections or common ground when introducing two new acquaintances, for example, will quickly put them at ease and facilitate more effective communication.
In the semi-social context of a professional networking event, this same consideration for others – offering to refill someone’s water, remembering their name, and asking interested, relevant questions – can similarly put people at ease, smoothing any awkwardness and ensuring interactions are positive and productive.
Of course, the meaning of good manners is determined largely by culture and context. As it becomes easier to conduct business on a global scale, it’s also increasingly important to understand the cultural expectations of other countries and adapt accordingly. Many of our courses now include modules on international etiquette, teaching clients how to be aware of cultural differences and customs – from appropriate greetings to written correspondence, and from meeting protocol to dining etiquette. Demonstrating this understanding shows the international range and relevance of your business and the people behind it.
Down to detail
Good manners also demonstrate an attention to detail. Understanding the more esoteric rules of business correspondence such as the difference between ‘yours sincerely’ and ‘yours faithfully’, or knowing how to address someone who has been recently widowed, might seem surplus to most of our business requirements. But however subtle, this level of attention is likely to impress others, demonstrating a thorough, organised approach. It also implies that you have the time to be careful and composed, rather than dashing off a hasty missive, which communicates good organisational and time management skills.
From a young age we’re taught to ‘ask nicely’ to get what we want. As cynical as it might seem, this same approach applies when persuading staff to carry out our instructions. Saying please, expressing sympathy for that staff member’s workload, thanking him or her once a task is complete, and providing constructive feedback, are more likely to ensure that a duty is performed promptly and to the best of that person’s ability than a blunt, unqualified command.
At the same time, couching any criticism with courtesy can ensure it is more clearly understood. Delivering negative feedback with sensitivity and encouragement will minimise the chance of a reflexive, defensive response to ensure that he or she takes it fully on board. It will also prevent them from feeling discouraged and disincentivised.
Manners for morale
According to Forbes, ‘bad manners at work can be bad for business by negatively affecting employee morale and productivity’. Practising politeness helps to maintain positive relationships with your staff and gives them confidence in their own abilities, incentivising them to perform well. It also has a positive influence on the atmosphere of an office or department, fostering collaboration, communication, and productivity at large.
A considered, polite demeanour, together with a curbing of temper and frustration where possible, will also make you more approachable, meaning that those who report to you feel able to come to you with any problems. If a staff member is too scared to let you know that he or she has encountered a stumbling block, or made a mistake, that hidden error may soon develop into a business nightmare. Conversely, if they know that any problem they have will be treated with equanimity and respect, they will ask for your input and help, facilitating a swifter resolution.
Good manners also improve staff retention. Last year, Fortune magazine outlined three of the most common reasons employees resign. The first? They dislike their boss. Insensitivity to our staff, even under pressure, can be very discouraging, and may lead to long-term resentment, sending staff members looking for opportunities elsewhere. Showing courtesy and concern in the workplace will see it reciprocated in loyal, motivated employees.
Rupert Wesson is Debrett’s Academy Director and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about Debrett's courses for businesses.