Don't just expect proper business etiquette from your employees - teach it to them!

Are you old enough to remember Emily Post and her guidelines for manners and social graces? If you do, I'm sure you also remember your parents and schoolteachers relentlessly quoting those rules every time you forgot one. Of course, you realize that millions of Americans in today's society have never even heard of Ms. Post or proper manners and etiquette.

Back in the "good old days," no lady would have to reach for a car door or pull out a chair to sit down at a table when gentlemen were present. Anyone sitting on a bus or train would automatically get up and offer that seat to an elderly person or a young mother with a baby. Whenever one made any kind of mistake that might offend someone, he or she always said, "Excuse me" or "I'm sorry." Above all else, sincere appreciation for any gift or good deed was expressed by a verbal "thank you" and followed up with a handwritten thank-you note in the mail.

Missing Manners

Respect and concern for other people's feelings cost absolutely nothing and are never outdated or out of style. Why, then, did good manners disappear from our society?

Most people blame it on broken homes, latchkey children, deteriorating school systems and the lack of religious morals. Regardless of who or what is the cause of this, we must face one unfortunate fact - bad manners is definitely bad business! You cannot afford to have any of your employees offend your customers - or any of your other employees.

In the construction industry, another factor contributing to this absence of proper etiquette is our informal dress code. With one major exception (company uniforms) the majority of our construction workers wear "work clothes" that get dirty, greasy and torn. Since these employees work in and out of our offices, that informal look is also quite acceptable there, as well as at jobsite meetings.

We also bypass formal etiquette by addressing superiors or elders by their first names or nicknames. Most professional people get that respectful Miss, Mrs. or Mr. before their given family names. Almost every other industry expects or even demands that anyone in authority be addressed formally. Craftsmen from any trade or any company - foremen, project managers, engineers, architects, secretaries and clerks - will call others Fuzzy, Shorty, Pete, Red, etc. They even bypass Uncle, Aunt, Dad or Mom when addressing close relatives. And in our atmosphere, right or wrong, I like it! I always felt that anyone who called me Mr. Ridilla was maybe not friendly. Some of the laborers that worked with us in Pennsylvania and the majority of our jobsite employees in the southern states call me Mr. Paul. I particularly enjoy this because it shows a friendly respect.

The downside to this informal working relationship is that it has opened the door to the omission of polite phrases, including "I'm sorry" and "sir."

On The Road

I'm not insinuating that every plumber, fitter, service tech or sheet metal mechanic should carry around an Emily Post handbook in his pickup. However, you might install a small sign on the dashboard or sun visor that says, "Impress all those potential customers" - especially when your company name is on that truck. I also like those "How is my driving?" signs on the rear of vehicles with the company phone number. However, if you do not train your employees to drive courteously you should consider putting your competitor's name on your trucks.

With regard to the other vehicles on the road, you cannot overlook "road rage" and dangerous drivers. They will pull out in front of you from a side street, cut in front of you in traffic, tailgate you with bright lights in your mirrors and relentlessly blow their horns trying to make you change lanes so they can pass.

Instruct all of your employees to overlook any of this abuse and avoid any type of confrontation. It is far better to have the road-rage driver in front of you than alongside or behind you - and you really won't lose much time if you allow him or her to pass. This is definitely a case where you have nothing to gain and everything to lose if you insist on maintaining your right-of-way. The driving schools call this "defensive driving," and it certainly makes good sense!

Customer Care

I can remember back in the 1940s and 1950s when most of the retail stores had signs at the cash registers stating, "The customer's always right." This is another good business philosophy that should be drilled into each employee. Your receptionist should make every visitor feel welcome and glad that they came to your office or shop. Likewise, a pleasant telephone greeting should welcome everyone who calls. And, when customers are asked to hold a moment, don't let it drag into five or 10 minutes!

I saw a sign on the wall in the office of one of my clients that said, "How can you get upset over a customer demanding service when you are in the service business?"

Another idea that will definitely help remind service techs about the critical importance of good customer relations is a comment card for the customer to fill out. You can ask several pertinent questions about the technician such as:

    A. Was he on time?

    B. Was he efficient?

    C. Was he courteous?

    D. Did he respect your premises and clean up?

Many contractors keep score of these comment cards to reward their best performers with raises and incentives.

As strange or amazing as it may seem, the first item - timeliness - is the area where the most problems are found. Remember, a late start can overshadow the entire service call:

    1.It is an outright insult to anyone to make him or her wait for you. Punctuality is definitely good manners!

    2.When a tech is late, your customer is upset or angry before the service call even gets started.

    3.There are a hundred acceptable reasons for being late, but there is no excuse for not telephoning the customer to explain the problem and change the appointment if necessary. Most contractors will have their dispatcher stay in touch with the service tech and relay the accurate scheduled arrival time to the customer.

    4.You should always allow extra travel time to compensate for traffic delays. There is no problem if you arrive early. Even if the customer is not there yet, your tech can unload his tools and be prepared to work when he arrives.

Telephone Etiquette

Another problem area for contractors involves simply returning phone calls. Primarily due to our critical craft shortage, we have customers desperately calling contractors to come to their site in an effort to get their job completed. Some of these calls end up on voice mail, and the customer never receives a response. Some actually reach a real live person that promises to have someone return your call, which never happens. You can call this poor manners, a lack of respect or just plain ignorance. Regardless of what you choose to call it, it is definitely bad business.

How much effort would it take to be honest and respectful and just tell the truth? Instead of being kept in the dark, wouldn't you rather receive a message such as:

    A. I'm sorry, but we won't be able to come to your job until next week.

    B. We have you on our schedule, but if we lose any more rain days, I'll call you to reschedule.

    . We are so jammed up that I'm not sure when we will get there. If you can find someone else to do that job, we will help in any way we can.

This will save a lot of frustration and embarrassment for you and your employees and also maintain a positive relationship with that customer for future projects.

You probably run across examples of poor business etiquette every day. When you stop a moment to consider the consequences, I'm quite certain you'll agree that good manners is good business. I think you will also agree that you cannot merely expect proper etiquette from today's employees, you have to teach it!