21st-Century Business Etiquette

Is a decline across society in manners having an impact on your team? Consider the possibility of team differentiation through a commitment to high-level business etiquette. Obviously, each team has different issues, but every team leader recognizes the importance of revisiting business etiquette in today’s hostile environment. They also agree that civility should begin both at home and within their own team.

Detroit: “I’m concerned that the lack of civility we see constantly from politicians and talk show hosts is rubbing off on society,” commented Jack during one of our roundtable discussions at an Elite Team workshop. “Is anyone sensing that this overall decline in manners is having an impact on your team?”

This led to a spirited discussion ranging from ill-mannered clients, to raising children with good manners, to the media, to the possibility of team differentiation through a commitment to high-level business etiquette.

At this point, one of the team leaders took out his wallet and pulled out a copy of the Ritz-Carlton Credo. The back cover read, “We are Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” To which I responded by pulling out my dog-eared copy of the same credo that I’d been carrying with me for more than 15 years.

Although this had grabbed everyone’s attention, as the leader of this workshop I wanted to transform this conversation into an exercise that led to specific action steps for all participants. To that end I found myself steering everyone away from attempting to create their version of the actual Credo (we made photo copies for everyone), which reads like a mission statement, and focus on the specific rules of etiquette that could be immediately embraced by the teams.

The following is a short and admittedly very incomplete list that evolved as a result of much discussion and deliberation. Obviously, each team had different issues, but every team leader recognized the importance of revisiting business etiquette in today’s hostile environment. They also agreed that civility should begin both at home and within their own team.

1. We are ladies and gentlemen, working with ladies and gentlemen, and treat everyone — clients, colleagues, venders, etc. — as ladies and gentlemen.

The discussion points revolved around being congruent, making certain that everyone was treated with respect in adherence to the Golden Rule (treating other people how you want to be treated). The action step was to make this a discussion point at every team meeting, and to get input from team members.

2. Ritz-Carlton quality service is everyone’s responsibility. Each client should be referred to as Mr. or Mrs. and his or her name should be repeated at least three times during a conversation: “Hello, Mr. Oechsli. Yes, Mr. Oechsli, we will get that to you today. Is there anything else I can do for you today, Mr. Oechsli? Thank you for calling, Mr. Oechsli, and have a wonderful day.”

The discussion points revolved around Dale Carnegie’s classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, where he emphasizes the importance of using the other person’s name since, in his view, it is their favorite-sounding word. The action step was that in addition to being more professionally formal, make an effort to gather more personal information about each client’s family and use that information to deliver more personalized service.

3. Raising the overall dress code of everyone on the team. A handful of the team leaders admitted they had been setting a bad example by letting business casual become the norm. Everyone agreed that business etiquette would be enhanced if everyone dressed business professional every day.

The discussion points focused on how casual attire tended to lead to a more casual business attitude. The feeling was that people feel better about themselves when they pay close attention to both their personal hygiene and their dress.

4. Be kind and courteous to colleagues, management, wholesalers — other professionals outside of your team.

The discussion points revolved around how people outside your team can become distractions, and there is a tendency to be abrupt when confronted with a time waster. It was agreed that whether it’s a manager asking for attendance in a meeting that has no value to you, or a wholesaler entering your office space without an appointment, explaining the “rules of engagement” in a courteous manner is something that could be and should be done.

5. Handling problems and mistakes quickly as a team without assigning blame, then taking the time to transform the problem into a “teachable moment.”

The discussion points focused on the day-to-day pressure and stress of dealing with clients and their money. One of the participants had read an excerpt from P. M. Forni’s book, The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude, (St. Martin’s Press, 2008) which cited the major causes of lack of civility as stress and being overwhelmed. The action step was to continue to clarify roles and areas of responsibility.

I decided to stop this exercise at five items since it appeared that this list could go on forever, which meant that making it a working reality would become increasingly more remote. However, the message was clear: we are ladies and gentlemen, and we treat everyone like ladies and gentlemen.

That certainly has a nice ring to it — let it become your team’s service mantra.

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