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Client Etiquette

Margaret Mead once said that "we use manners so that we may get along with people we do not like." Though this might apply in some circles, in the business world we use manners to show respect for — and cultivate a good relationship with — our clients and customers.

Whether you need a refresher course or an etiquette overview, the following sections will help guide your interactions with clients.

The tone of client relations

Assess the tone of client relations in your office. Is it formal? Familiar and conversational? Or if you're starting a new business, ask yourself what kind of tone you would like to establish. The tone of client relations will determine the degree to which you adhere to strict standards of business etiquette.

Whatever the tone, remember that the relationship is, at root, a business one, and when you interact with clients you are representing your business.

Nevertheless, it is appropriate to see your client socially, provided you make it clear there is no romantic subtext.

Gifts

Sending gifts is an appropriate gesture, as long as they are not too extravagant or personal. Marjabelle Young Stewart, author of The New Etiquette, advises that a gift "should reflect the business–like nature of your relationship." For this reason, pens, calendars and electronic organizers are great options.

If you are more familiar with your client, fitting gifts include wine, liquor, food baskets, gift certificates, and tickets to sporting and musical events. In the world of e–commerce, gifts tend to be unusual and off–the–wall (such as Pez candy dispensers and hand–held video games).

Sending an extravagant gift has its risks. If you're marketing your business as an affordable provider of services, expensive gifts send the wrong message. At the same time, it can sometimes be appropriate to send higher–end items to long–time and valued clients.

Notes and letters

A personal, handwritten note often makes a stronger impact than a letter. Something like "enjoyed our lunch" or "look forward to working with you" is both thoughtful and respectful of your client's time. Monogrammed stationery is too formal for notes. Use a small card instead — and remember to write inside the fold.

Letters are for transacting business with your clients and for expressing thoughts and reflections that can't be contained in a note. Typically, letters are more formal, but if you would like to add a personal touch they can be handwritten instead of typed.

Be sure to avoid grammatical errors. If grammar is not your strong suit, write a draft and ask a colleague to proofread it.

Condolence letters

If a client suffers a family tragedy or a death within their office, it is appropriate to send a condolence letter or note. Though a business condolence letter is the only condolence letter that can be typed (not faxed or emailed!), a handwritten one is preferable.

Mary Mitchell opines in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette that a condolence letter should accomplish three things: "Acknowledge what a terrible loss the death is for the bereaved and that you sympathize with their suffering to some degree, convey a sincere desire to help in some way, and praise the accomplishments, character, and devotion of the deceased."

Meetings

When entertaining a client outside of the office, choose a public setting. If you're both on the road, meet in the hotel bar rather than in your hotel room, even if it is stocked with food and drinks. If you invite a client to your home, specify whether the invitation includes their spouse or significant other. Home invitations, however, are most appropriate when you and you client have an established business relationship.

Answering your cell phone and talking in front of a client might make it clear that you're a busy person, but it also makes it clear that your client is not your top priority.

Paying compliments

Political correctness has had a chilling effect on compliments in the workplace. In some respects this is healthy. Comments that could be construed as sexually provocative, racist, or sexist shouldn't be made even if the tone with your client is relaxed or the atmosphere of your office permissive.

Compliment clients on their work or senses of humor instead. And don't ask them where they bought their clothes or how much they paid for them, advises Mary Mitchell. Boasting about your own clothes or possessions is considered similarly gauche and impolite.

Making introductions

When introducing clients to colleagues or staff, present the most senior person first—without being too eager to establish rank. Mary Mitchell suggests saying "Bill and I work together" instead of saying "Bill works for me."

When you are being introduced, stand up and step from behind your desk. The only time you should remain behind your desk, Mitchell says, is when you plan to fire someone.

Opening doors

This simple gesture has been made a tortured one by political correctness. The simple solution: if you reach the door first, open it, regardless of your gender. If you're walking with your client or boss, open the door for him or her, but not if it means racing ahead of them and creating an awkward situation.

Meals

This is the biggie—the 300–pound gorilla of business etiquette. The lunch or dinner table, after all, is where business transactions often take place. Remember that you represent the company and not just yourself. Divulging company secrets or speaking off the record, in other words, is not acceptable. Other guidelines to adhere to include picking a good, but not flashy restaurant, using a credit card to settle the bill (rather than rifling through your wallet or jingling your change), and saving the exchange of business cards until the end of the meal.

The following is her list of Top Ten Dining Skills:

  1. Don't immediately place your napkin on your lap. Wait for the host/hostess to pick up his/her napkin to signal the beginning of the meal.
  2. Don't touch anything at the table until the host/hostess picks up his/her napkin or takes a sip of water.
  3. Don't eat your neighbor's salad or drink from his/her glass. Remember, your solids are on the left and your liquids are on the right.
  4. Use your napkin — never lick your fingers.
  5. When leaving the table during a meal, never place the soiled napkin back on the table. Place it on your seat as a silent signal to the waiter that you're returning. When finished with the meal and leaving the table for the final time, place the napkin to the left of the plate, loosely folded.
  6. Never drink after a toast made in your honor. (It's akin to applauding for yourself.)
  7. Dip your soup spoon away from you and sip from the side of the spoon.
  8. Use a knife to cut vegetables and meat — do not use the side of your fork. Please note that in European countries the salad is never cut with the knife. The knife is used to help "fold" the lettuce into small "packets" that can be speared with the knife.
  9. Break your bread into bite–sized pieces and butter the bread one bite at a time.
  10. Know the proper way to handle your flatware and subtle signal placement when you are resting or finished with the meal.

Be sure to hold your calls! Answering your cell phone and talking in front of a client might make it clear that you're a busy person, but it also makes it clear that your client is not your top priority. If you're forced to cancel the meal at the last minute, be sure to follow up with a call and a personal note of apology.


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