Your take on business etiquette can make or break your corporate career. By Silke Colquhoun
Where do you seat a guest in your boardroom? What’s the correct percentage of eye contact to hold during a business meeting? What topics should be avoided in a professional environment? What is the most common faux pas that South African executives commit?
If you know the answers, you may well have attended a business etiquette course. You may also possess high levels of what Koos Jérard Louw of The Service Protocol Institute in Pretoria has trademarked ‘BQ’ and ‘SQ’ (business and social intelligence quotients). The licensed corporate etiquette and international protocol trainer coaches his clients – including captains of industry, high-net-worth individuals, diplomats and VIPs – on how to behave correctly in various business situations.
He says, ‘Many business professionals and business owners have not properly developed their BQ and SQ within a business environment, and may very well wonder why they have reached a ceiling.’
Invest in yourself
Charlotte Youens, who is the founder of Johannesburg-based training consultancy The Elegant Touch, says, ‘We spend an absolute fortune on technical training and university degrees, but so little on improving ourselves otherwise: on what comes out of our mouths, or how we carry ourselves.’
That’s where corporate training comes in – to assist professionals in branding themselves and building successful and sustainable business relationships to advance their careers.
For instance, the question of seating arrangements in the boardroom can make or break deals. Louw gives the example of a South African CEO who missed out on a multibillion-dollar contract because he was perceived as ‘lacking respect’ for his own team and that of the other company. When the two executive boards met to seal the deal after months of negotiations, the CEO had placed himself at the head of the boardroom table and left his guests to their own devices. He only addressed the businessman seated directly opposite him, mistaking him for his counterpart CEO – who had seated himself towards the centre, facing the door.
Louw explains what went wrong: ‘It’s business etiquette for the host to seat his guests, even at a boardroom table. A client or VIP is traditionally seated to the host’s right-hand side.
‘Business etiquette dictates 55% to 65% eye contact during a meeting with everyone around the table, not just your guests, but your colleagues too. When breaking eye contact, always look down towards the table or papers – never into the air or over a person’s shoulder. When talking to the person next to you, it’s best to turn your whole upper body towards the person, not only your head.’
There are many pitfalls for those who don’t understand how to play by the etiquette rules. Making small talk is one of them, as invariably you have to talk to clients or network with other executives.
Kane William Pretorius, who works as an etiquette consultant at The School of Etiquette in Sandton, says, ‘Being a good small-talker is absolutely crucial to your professional success. It is the precursor to any relationship-building.’ He explains, ‘The most charming conversationalists speak the least, ask the most questions, and listen intently.’
Louw agrees that asking questions is a good idea. Topics to focus on include sports, feel-good stories and positive newspaper articles, travel and destinations, or suggestions for good restaurants. He advises avoiding negative or potentially controversial topics, such as load-shedding, traffic, politics, religion, racism, sex, death, finances, age and appearance; and gossiping or discussing your competition.
And while you’re talking to someone, stay clear of your cellphone. This omnipresent device is the pet hate of etiquette consultants and the area where most faux pas happen.
‘You may not answer or scroll through your phone during a business meeting; this is the height of bad manners and sends a terrible message to your counterparts’, says Pretorius. ‘If you are expecting an important call, inform everyone beforehand that you will have to excuse yourself.’
Youens says: ‘Switch off the phone completely in any social or business situation. Put it away, not on silent in your pocket so it vibrates, as that’s also a distraction.’
Louw advises that there should not be any personal items on the table during a business meeting: no cellphone, but also no keys, sunglasses or handbags. He adds: ‘Only a good-quality folder notebook and pen should be placed on a meeting table.’
Most people judge others subconsciously within the first seconds of meeting them, and that opinion often lasts for life. Following the correct business etiquette can help to create a good first impression.
This starts by arriving on time. It’s considered as much bad manners to arrive early for a meeting as it is to arrive late, says Louw. Regarding dress code, he recommends dressing one level up, as it’s easier to remove a tie, scarf or jacket than to add items.
When greeting someone, the handshake is crucial. Youens explains, ‘The way you shake hands says something about your personality. If you do the “bone-crusher”, people think you’re trying to be more dominant. If you give a limp handshake, they think you are aloof and insecure.’
Clients and higher ranking people extend their hand first for a handshake, according to Louw. ‘But if they don’t know this protocol, wait three seconds and extend your hand for a handshake. Repeat the other person’s name, and remember never to look at the hand you’re shaking.’
One common complaint from staff is that executives treat clients exceptionally well, but show indifference towards their own employees. Youens says, ‘Senior management should listen to staff and greet everyone, including lower ranks, such as the security guard at the boom, the gardener clearing the leaves and the person making tea.’
Louw sums up: ‘Don’t confuse arrogance with confidence. Rather “talk up” to people than “talk down”. Never embarrass anyone. Be humble and respectful.’
Etiquette experts agree that, even in today’s business environment, good manners will open doors that the best education cannot.