The basics of business etiquette

Oct 02, 2017

Poor etiquette could lead to lost business, so here are our business etiquette essentials.

Etiquette may seem like an antiquated, old-fashioned idea with many thinking of business etiquette as simply knowing which fork to use at a business lunch.

Modern business etiquette, however, has an important and relevant role to play in the business environment. Whether networking with fellow industry professionals, conducting a business meeting, trying to win new business or working with international-based clients, effective business etiquette can have a tangible impact on business performance.

Networking etiquette

Networking is one of the most common ways to make new contacts. It can also be an excellent way to get to know fellow industry professionals as well as building professional – and social – relationships that have the potential to be mutually beneficial. It is important to make the most of these opportunities and applying good etiquette can help to develop effective networking.

Successful networkers don’t just turn up and show their face. Advance planning is required, starting with defining your goals. If you are going to an event, do some advance research to find out who is going to be in attendance so that you can decide beforehand who you need to make contact with. Know what you want to say to them, and what impact you would like to make.

There is a general perception of networking as ‘working the room’, but this approach does not constitute good networking. Working the room is a scattergun approach and while it is better than not showing up at all, it doesn’t allow you to make a genuine and effective connection with anyone. If you just work the room, you will either make no impact at all or, worse, you could leave a negative impression as being superficial and unfocused.

Good networking, on the other hand, is targeted. You focus on seeking out and connecting with people you want to talk to and build a genuine relationship with. It is important to remember that networking isn’t just a one-way street; good networking also involves being generous with your own time and talents. It builds relationships with others and is mutually beneficial and supportive.

Never underestimate the importance of a good handshake as it will set the tone for the conversation. A firm handshake gives an impression of someone who is authoritative and credible while conversely, a poor, limp handshake leaves an impression of someone who is insipid. However, it is important to get the balance right – a handshake which is too strong can feel overpowering and comfortable, and won’t make a positive impression.

Good interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence are important considerations when networking. Look the other person in the eye and smile, projecting warmth. You need to be interested in the other person, so ask them insightful questions about themselves and their work. Try to find common points of interest.

You can also prepare yourself for networking events by being well-read and aware of current affairs. The more you know your audience and what they are interested in, the better you can converse intelligently with them. Adopt a lightness of spirit, and be pleasant rather than too intense. 

The networking opportunity should be viewed as the start of the relationship. Take the opportunity to suggest meeting again in an appropriate location, whether it is meeting for a coffee or a visit to your workplace. Throughout the process, be genuine and sincere, and you will find that you will recognise it in other networkers, helping you to generate beneficial new professional relationships and business opportunities.

Meeting etiquette

Understanding and demonstrating good meeting etiquette is a highly effective way of enhancing professional development. With ever-increasing demands on our time, it can be easy to forget an appointment. Ensure this kind of situation is avoided by emailing your contact the day before to confirm the meeting. It doesn’t take long to do and can avoid time being wasted on missed appointments. Your email prompt may provide a vital reminder at the right time.

It is important to show that you value the other person’s time by arriving at least five minutes ahead of the scheduled meeting time. Arriving a little early also allows time to check your appearance and make sure you are appearing well-groomed and professional. If you meet your contact looking dishevelled, you will create an impression of someone who is not at the top of their game. Your contact could potentially infer that your sloppy appearance reflects your work.

Some accountants have a great eye for value and the bottom line, and can wear suits well beyond their use-by date. A recent Etiquette School of Ireland client who works in the accountancy sector arrived at a meeting with a frayed collar. Needless to say, his appearance didn’t inspire confidence. On the other hand, other accountants might dress in suits and ties but you couldn’t accuse them of being well-groomed. Often, the suits may have been chosen for their industrial grade ‘serviceable’ fabric, and can look like they haven’t seen a dry cleaners or steamer this month or last.

A more professional approach would be to keep a couple of well-cut, quality and contemporary suits, shirts and ties for making presentations and meeting clients. Leave the ‘serviceable’ suits for office days when no meetings are scheduled. And don’t forget to ensure that shoes are well polished and in good shape, not ‘down at heel’.

Of course, your personal presentation is only one aspect of meeting etiquette. How you behave in a meeting also benefits from good etiquette.  As the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a good impression and this is certainly true at business meetings. Observing good etiquette when conducting introductions focuses on ensuring that everyone at the meeting feels respected, acknowledged and comfortable. 

Individuals of a “lower” standing should always be introduced to those of a higher status. Ensure that the responsibilities or connections of the parties to the person who is making the introductions is highlighted, so that everyone present is clear on roles. If you are meeting with a new business acquaintance, it is inappropriate to use a first name until you are invited to do so.

Be friendly and efficient when at meetings. Spend a little time at the beginning of the meeting building rapport and then move efficiently through the substance of the meeting. Remember that most people are aware that the clock is ticking, and they are probably being charged billable time for every moment with you. At the end of the day, your performance at the meeting will impress if you are organised, efficient and knowledgeable.

Post-meeting etiquette recommends that you always follow up a meeting with a thank you email and a summary of outcomes, either the same day or the next. For good time management, it is useful to hold meetings on your premises. If you do, ensure that visitors are greeted warmly when they arrive and offered refreshments in stylish cups, saucers and glassware that reflects the impression you are seeking to make. This may seem obvious, but I once attended a meeting where the host arrived with a cup of coffee in hand, and proceeded to drink it throughout the meeting, but no offer of refreshments was made to the guests.

Business card etiquette 

Always have your business card at hand to exchange at meetings. Not having a business card to hand out comes across as unprofessional. As the business card represents you, ensure that your card is presented in pristine condition. Handing out a crumpled business card will reflect badly on you, particularly if you are trying to make a good first impression.

When handing out a business card, present it so that the person receiving it can read it without having to turn it around. If you are receiving a business card, making a comment about the card places value on it. Complementing the logo, noting the business address or some piece of information featured on the card can work well.

Good etiquette dictates that you should always hand out your business card using your right hand. This is something which is particularly important if you are doing business internationally. Finally, make sure that the information on your business card is up-to-date. It is not good etiquette to just cross out an old number and write in the new one.

General business etiquette

Good etiquette can have a beneficial impact on developing relationships in a business environment. As always, interpersonal skills have an important role to play. The ‘likeability’ factor is critical in the workplace. When speaking to people, be pleasant and smile rather than being blank-faced or prickly, and always seek to put the other person at their ease. Be a good listener. People feel valued if you listen to what they have to say. Don’t interrupt or cut across them; instead show interest and ask pertinent follow-up questions. Then you can weave your point of view or key messages into the conversation seamlessly. Always follow through on an action you have promised, and let the other person know you have done so. Keep in touch. The most effective business relationships can benefit from regular contact, so think about what you can do to build the relationship.

If conducting business internationally, there are many cultural and religious aspects to consider. For instance, in Japan, how you present your business card and receive cards is extremely important, and shows respect or lack thereof. A contact of mine told me of a recent experience he had at a meeting with some Japanese business associates. The Japanese businessman had presented his business card to a group from Ireland. During the meeting, one member of the Irish group took the business card from his suit pocket, and proceeded to use it to pick his teeth! The Japanese businessman was understandably offended.

Enhance business performance

Whether in an office environment, at a meeting or in a networking situation, applying good business etiquette practice can help professionals enhance their business performance. Modern etiquette training recognises the importance of having strong interpersonal skills in the business environment. By practising good etiquette, you can project a professional, confident and assured manner in professional and social situations, resulting in genuine – and beneficial – connections that will have a positive impact on business performance. And that’s something that won’t go out
of fashion.

Orla Brosnan is CEO of the Etiquette School of Ireland, which will host its next workshop on 26 October in the Merrion Hotel, Dublin.