Business Proverbs

Mind Your (Business) Manners
by Steve Marr

Many of us struggle to keep our business manners intact in today's fast-paced business environment. A recent survey by Public Agenda, a New York research group, documents that 80% of the public believes a lack of courtesy by business people is a problem. The #1 frustration is the fact that phone calls, letters, and e-mails go unanswered or are belatedly returned. This reinforces customers' beliefs that business has lost any personal touch.

The key is to balance the pressures of business with efficient customer service. Practically speaking, we may not be able to respond to everything immediately, but here are three key principles that will help maintain an effective customer perspective:

#1-keep your priorities by organizing your messages by client and by level of importance. Decide whom to call first, second, third, etc. Effective sorting is the most important.

#2-manage expectations as to when calls will be returned. For example, I tell clients that I endeavor to return calls and e-mails within 24 hours. With my travel schedule and other commitments, I may not be able to respond quicker, and most people understand that, but advance communication is always helpful. I'll even return a call to an office late in the evening and leave a message so a person won't feel forgotten.

#3-set a specific date to respond when necessary. If you won't be able to respond promptly, at least leave a message (phone, e-mail, fax, etc.) saying that you will be able to get back to them by a specific time with the necessary information.

In regards to mailing letters, though they may not demand immediate attention like e-mails, placing mail in a "dead letter file" will only cause difficulties. I immediately sort letters into four piles:

those requiring a prompt response (2 days),
those that can wait a week,
those that don't require a response but do require processing, and
those that don't require follow-up.

This helps me focus on priorities without neglecting the less urgent.

If you aren't going to be available due to a vacation or business trip, use the extended greeting to advise when you will return and when a response may be expected. Also, if possible, suggest an alternative contact if service is required immediately. Many e-mail programs can be set with an automated response informing the sender that you will be gone, alleviating possible frustration.

When you are tardy in responding, start with an apology, not an excuse. Customers don't want to hear your story, but a proactive, genuine apology will go far in soothing ruffled feathers. Proverbs 28:13 instructs, "He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion".

If you tell a caller when you will return a call or respond to a request, the key is to remember that every commitment is a promise and you are obligated to keep every promise you make. As King Solomon instructed "It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay." Develop the habit of stating a longer time frame to return messages than to make promises and not be able to keep them. The key is to "let your statement be, 'Yes, yes' or No, no'" Matthew 5:37 by consistently doing what you say you will do.

Another issue is whether you elect to return every call or e-mail. I choose to return every message, even from salespeople, but I don't receive 200+ phone calls or e-mails each day like some people do. Responding to that many phone and e-mail messages would make you a full-time message responder.

Your commitment to responding to your messages will help distinguish your business from others-and will be the key ingredient in your winning or losing customers.

Steve Marr is a business/ministry consultant and author of the book Business Proverbs. His daily radio feature, "Business Proverbs" is heard on 1,000 radio stations. He is the former CEO of the fourth largest import-export firm in the United States. Website:

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