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Good etiquette is good business


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 2000

Ethics and etiquette

Chapter 1

Editor's note: Welcome to the St. Petersburg Times' Newspaper in Education page! This year's series is about something we all love and wish we had more of: money. Throughout the school year in this space you will find fun and informational stories about how to earn, keep and save money. Developed by the Florida Council on Economic Education, the series explores such topics as personal finance, business etiquette and ethics, making decisions, managing your time and money and more, all geared toward you, not just your parents! We hope you enjoy this economic adventure.

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[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]
This is the big day. You have been saving for many months for an expensive stereo. You have spent hours reviewing your needs, comparing features, reviewing equipment and studying brands. You have narrowed your decision to three models, and now you are ready to go to the store, talk to the salesperson and make the purchase. The money is in your pocket. You plan to leave the store with one of the three expensive models.

Think about how you will feel as you walk in that store. There is a normal feeling of some power, some anticipation and some expectations. You can actually see yourself discussing features with the salesperson, then trying out each of the models before you make the purchase. This is a big moment for you, and you face it with excitement.

As you enter, you see two salespersons at the register talking to each other. They look up, see you, then return to their conversation. You walk to the aisle and stand before the models. You wait. And wait.

You go over to the register and request some assistance. The salesperson looks very bothered to have to stop the conversation and reluctantly follows you back to the aisle. To your every question, the only response is, "I don't know. Want me to look it up?" Or worse, "Try it out, here's some stuff," as he or she throws a heap of glossy brochures at you.

What is business  etiquette?What are your feelings now? You have changed from a person in a position of power to a nuisance. Your expectation of being taken care of while you make a major purchase has turned into an awkward disruption in the salesperson's day. Your expectations have been frustrated.

Think about your reaction. You probably will feel extreme disappointment, frustration and even bitterness. What you expected to be a fulfilling adventure has turned sour. If you buy anything at all, you will likely leave that store feeling demeaned, stupid and very angry.

One thing is for certain, you will not come back to that store again. You have been the victim of bad business etiquette.

What is etiquette?

Etiquette is the rules about how people treat each other in formal situations. The more common name for etiquette is manners, the simple behaviors we agree to show each other that convey respect. Over the history of our culture, we have developed some simple ways of treating each other that let us know we are valuable people. Some of the most simple and yet most effective manners are using words such as "please," "thank you" and "sir" or "ma'am." One of the most powerful behaviors for showing manners and respect is the handshake. This is not high tech.

Why do we care about etiquette?

Over our cultural history, we have learned that everyone wants to feel respected or valued. No one wants to be put down, ignored or made fun of. To be certain that no one is accidentally insulted or put down, society has come up with some simple behaviors that let people know we respect them and, in a social situation, we will treat them with dignity.

Think about it just a moment. What would make you feel bad in the above example? First, you entered that store with some expectations based on your beliefs. One of them is that if you are going to give someone money, they owe you something in return besides just electronics. They owe you respect for choosing their store over the others you could have gone to.

When you entered that store and the salesperson ignored you, you rightfully felt that he or she did not respect you as a customer. Further, as the salesperson continued to show little interest in your purchase, you continued to feel insulted. You had an expectation that you would get useful information in helping you make a decision. Instead, you were faced with behavior anyone would consider rude and demeaning.

In every social situation, we have certain expectations. The top one is that people will treat us as another human with needs and wants. Every person has those same expectations, and the key to being a successful salesperson, or a successful person in general, is to use proper etiquette to let other people know that they are valuable and respected.

How do we want to be treated?

Whenever a survey is taken of customers about their satisfaction with a business, the way they were treated comes out No. 1. Time and again customers say that if they are treated respectfully by a business, they will go back to that business, even if they have to pay a little more!

This shows that etiquette has a value in addition to the goods or services a business might be selling. In the example, you felt you should get something in addition to the electronics when you entered that store. When you give that extra something, people are willing to pay for it.

So what does etiquette look like?

Money Stuff: Get it! Spend it! Keep It!

Introduction and previous chapters

Think of an alternative to the first example. You walk into the store and immediately the salesperson walks up to you, makes eye contact, smiles, shakes your hand and says, "Welcome, how can I help you?" You feel affirmed and recognized. You instantly know that this business will be respectful to your needs and help you make a good decision. How do you know that?

In our culture, walking up to someone sends the message that the person is important. You have broken your routine to pay attention to the person, because he or she is important to you. Also in our cultural etiquette, eye contact and a smile are signs of trust and respect. When someone greets you warmly with a smile, research shows that you will react positively, with more trust.

The importance of a handshake is frequently overlooked. In our culture, a handshake conveys trust and connection, a sign of respect. While smiling and eye contact are simple to learn, a handshake can frequently be done incorrectly. Etiquette dictates that the hands should meet near the thumbs of each other's hands with palms touching, and the shake be firm but not crushing. The point is to convey respect, not bring the other person to her knees!

We may have heard the myth that the handshake evolved as a way to show our enemies we were not holding weapons. In truth, a handshake does give the other person the message that we respect him and can be trusted. That message is part of the power of etiquette.

Now that you have been greeted with proper etiquette so that you know you will be respected, what would etiquette look like during the rest of sales experience? The salesperson would address you in a proper form, either "sir" or "ma'am" to give you the message that she or he will continue to show respect during the entire time you are in the store. The salesperson would answer questions in the positive. If you wanted information the salesperson did not have, he or she would get it for you, rather than hand you brochures. The salespeople would indicate, with "please" and "thank you," that they appreciate you. And even if you leave without making a purchase, you would have positive feelings about the store and would go back again for a different purchase.

Treat customers right

Service businesses only sell service

In our area of Florida, the service industry is a big business. No matter what service you give people, whether you change their oil, mow their yard, serve their meal or help them shift position in their wheelchair, etiquette will let these people know you respect them as fellow humans.

Think about how you feel when you are a customer in a service business. For example, you received a gift certificate for a car wash and wax for your birthday. You take in your car, which, no matter what make and model, is your pride and joy. You come up to the counter, only to find yourself waiting for a long time without anyone acknowledging your existence. When the person finally waits on you, he or she looks distracted, spends more time looking at the paperwork than at you and has to be reminded twice which car is yours. Will you have faith this place will do a good job on your car? If the employees do not respect you as a person, what will happen to your automobile when they get their hands on it?

People who come in for a particular service are very sensitive to how they are treated. This is because they receive the service first, then pay for it. If they feel insulted or disrespected, there is nothing they can do about it until it is time to pay. With all the competition from other service providers, you can bet that an unsatisfied customer will never be back.

Everyone feels just like you

If you feel angry, disrespected or frustrated by these kinds of bad etiquette, that is exactly how customers will feel if you use that kind of behavior toward them. When you enter a service business and the people at the counter smile, make eye contact and reach out to shake your hand, you immediately trust that they respect you and will do a good job. If they are interested in your requests, take time to actually listen and make certain they understand exactly what you want, you will want to return again. And you will probably tell your friends about the service as well. That is the power of etiquette.

Why doesn't everyone do it?

Good question. How hard can it be to smile, shake hands, be polite and use proper etiquette? These behaviors are very simple, and very powerful. Yet, we find time and again that people we deal with in business do not use them.

Part of the problem is that people have not learned etiquette. It is hard to use behaviors that have not been taught. Many people have not seen etiquette in their own lives and therefore do not feel compelled to use these behaviors with others. However, when anyone comes in contact with good etiquette, he or she immediately appreciates the feeling of respect that comes with it.

If you want to be successful, it's simple

Do you want customers to buy your merchandise or service? Do you want them to give you a tip? Do you want them to treat you with respect and appropriate etiquette? Then treat them the way you would want to be treated. Use the power of our common social agreement, etiquette. When you use etiquette and manners in your business dealings, everyone comes out a winner.

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-- George Sherman, behavioral specialist at Walsingham Elementary School in Largo, has taught in Pinellas County schools since 1986. He serves on a University of South Florida/Pinellas County schools task force developing ethics curriculums for grades kindergarten-12.

About the Florida Council on Economic Education

Money Stuff was developed by the Florida Council on Economic Education and project director Fonda Anderson. The council is a statewide non-profit organization founded in 1975 to educate K-12 teachers and students about the free enterprise system and to instill in them an appreciation for a market economy. For more information on the council's programs for teachers and students, please call (813) 289-8489.

About Newspaper in Education

The St. Petersburg Times devotes news space to NIE features throughout the year, including this classroom series. The Times' NIE department works with local businesses and individuals to enrich the classroom experience by providing newspapers, supplemental guides and educational services to schools in the Tampa Bay area. To find out how you can become involved in NIE, please call (727) 893-8969 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 8969.

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