Vol. 46, No. 5
Employees who are trained in the 'soft skills' will have the know-how--and confidence--to make a better impression.
I’d never really gone to a nice restaurant before, and here I was trying to raise $100,000 from a bunch of guys who thought nothing of dropping $60 each for lunch. When they suggested a particularly swanky restaurant, I backed out. I freaked. Of course, now I regret it, a lot. I didn’t get the money and probably won’t see those guys again.’
This is the testimonial from one hapless employee who walked away from a potentially big catch because he felt he lacked the polish to close the deal. It’s a scenario that’s more common than many companies realize.
"Many professionals blow it because they don’t know how to present themselves," says Cherys Jenkins, founder of The Wardrobe Studio, an image consulting firm in San Mateo, Calif. "You can have all the great technical skills in the world, but if you can’t get your foot in the door, nobody is going to know about it."
Business is littered with stories of lost sales, eroded relationships, blown opportunities and other "coulda-been" scenarios caused by a lack of know..ledge or application of "soft skills." We’re talking about manners, such as how to introduce your colleagues, how to butter your bread and even how to carry your golf bag.
"This may seem like small stuff, but to the people to whom this matters, it really matters," says Perrin James Cunningham, founder of Ethologie, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based executive training firm and co-author with Sue Fox of Business Etiquette for Dummies (Hungry Minds Inc., 2000).
"If you ignore good etiquette, you run the risk of turning people off," adds Terry Herring, president of T.C. Herring and Associates LLC, in Omaha, Neb., and HR consulting firm. "And that can cost you business."
Although just about anyone can benefit from the polish acquired through soft skills, budgetary constraints often limit the number of employees who receive such training. That’s why many organizations target employees whose image and behavior have the most impact on the company, such as senior executives, managers, sales staff and customer service representatives.
There are literally dozens of soft training programs available. The best ones help employees—and companies—improve the way they are perceived by others. Here are four types of popular soft skills training programs.
Etiquette training brings the rules of Miss Manners into the business setting. Training covers the basics—how to shake hands, make pleasant small talk, write a proper thank-you note and answer the phone.
"For most people, much of this will be familiar," says Ann Chadwell Humphries, president of Eticon, a Columbia, S.C.-based consulting firm specializing in business etiquette. "What they need is some brushing up" on polite behavior.
For example, some of the most common etiquette blunders involve the telephone, according to Humphries. "You’d be surprised by the number of people who don’t return phone calls in a timely fashion," she says.
Other individuals are overly wired to their cell phones. "There are people who will answer them in the middle of a meeting or during a business dinner," says Humphries.
Good phone etiquette is crucial for Hope Aviation, an insurance provider for the aviation industry in Columbia, S.C., because almost all client contact takes place over the phone. Kathy Kenyon, office manager/broker for Hope Aviation, ensures that all new customer service representatives go through etiquette training, and the company also offers regular refresher courses for other employees.
"Many of our people never answered phones before and don’t know how to handle pushy customers," she explains. "The training gives them the tools to handle all kinds of calls."
For front-line employees who deal with customers face to face, one of the most common blunders occurs when they fail to look up and acknowledge a customer. "You see this in doctors’ offices and at hotels," Humphries notes. "What employees don’t understand is that a friendly greeting sells."
Lack of proper etiquette when dealing with customers and clients can have a major impact on business, according to a study Eticon conducted last year. The study found that 58 percent of those responding react to rudeness by taking their business elsewhere.
Bessie Simmons, vice president of quality for Solution.Sourcing.com, a provider of IT talent based in Marietta, Ga., says, "Our com.pany can’t afford to have employees conduct them.selves badly. Our contracts are up for renewal all the time, and we need quality people who can handle stressful situations and conflict appropriately."
At SolutionSourcing.com, all new employees go through a day and a half of general business etiquette training, and refresher courses are offered to longtime employees every five years. "We can’t afford to just be technically smart. We also have to be smart in the way we deal with our clients," Simmons says.
When it comes to managers, proper etiquette covers dealing with staff and not being rude. "A lot of managers have this misconception that if you’re busy you don’t have to be respectful," Cunningham says. "It doesn’t take but a second to add ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and be polite, and it has a big impact on team work."
Yes, that is a fish fork, and yes, it does matter how you use it. That’s the bad news. The good news is that fine dining etiquette may be the easiest to master because there are hard and fast rules that can be memorized and put to work.
The rules aren’t meant to add another level of insecurity and complexity to business relationships; knowing the rules gives employees confidence in handling themselves in a fine-dining setting.
"Knowing the rules makes you and everyone around you more comfortable," says Amy Starks, regional communications manager for Quantum in Colorado Springs. For Starks, whose job involves wining and dining the press, a class in fine dining etiquette reassured her that she was presenting herself properly. "There’s a difference between social etiquette and business etiquette, and I just wanted to be sure I was doing things right," she explains.
That’s wise because a faux pas during a meal can cost you more than a moment’s embarrassment, says Herring. "When you reach a certain level, everyone is going to expect that your people know how to behave at a dinner table," he says. "Bad table manners will hurt business relationships."
Placement of the bread plate (on your left) tends to confuse many people, Cunningham says. But drinking too much alcohol and eating too much food are the two biggest blunders that can blow a business deal.
"You can drink, but stagger your alcohol with glasses of water," suggests Cunningham. "You’re not at the dinner to eat, you’re there to do business." She recommends eating a Power Bar or scrambled eggs, "something that will really hold you" before attending the dinner so you’re focused on the conversation, not the meal.
SolutionSourcing.com sends its tech staff to training in fine dining etiquette "because we don’t want our employees to feel uncomfortable when they go out with clients," Simmons says. "And we certainly don’t want them to be embarrassed."
Tee time is the big time. Just ask Ronley F. Williams, senior marketing manager for Anheuser-Busch Inc., in Norcross, Ga., who was losing business because he didn’t play well. "I was turning down requests to play in golf tournaments and golf corporate outings because of [my] lack of confidence in my game," he says.
When his company offered golf lessons through The Swing Factory, a Cumming, Ga.-based golf school, he signed up, determined to turn his game around. Not only did Williams improve his swing, he bolstered his confidence to the point that he was able to participate in corporate golf events. That was particularly important to a company that sponsors the PGA.
"Everyone wants to improve their game so they don’t have to worry when they play with clients," maintains Don Peterson, president of The Swing Factory. "For beginners, etiquette is really important. Bad etiquette can have a detrimental effect on business."
Companies are investing in golf training because it offers an unparalleled opportunity to spend time with clients. "Today the people who hold the purse strings are as likely to invite you to a golf outing as they are to lunch," says Lynne Terry, an account executive with the Chronicle newspaper chain in the Chicago area, who was sent by her company with other executives for golf lessons.
"Golf gives you time to get to know somebody," says Tess Morael, president of Golf & Image, a consulting firm in Arlington, Va. "Lunch might last an hour, but you’ll spend four or five hours on the golf course. And there are no distractions, no people interrupting, no phone ringing. You can really focus on building business relationships."
That is if you know what you’re doing. "You will be judged by the way you play the game," warns Herring. "As with anything, character counts."
For example, bringing your cell phone to the course is a no-no because it interrupts the flow of the game, Morael notes. Other common mistakes are holding up the game by taking too many practice swings and not taking time to repair damage on the greens. "They’re little things, but people notice them and make a judgment about whether they want to do business with you," Morael says.
One of Morael’s clients, a saleswoman in the high-tech industry, was given golf training because she wasn’t able to develop the kind of relationships that make the big sales. Morael walked her through the basics of the game, including golf etiquette.
"Soon after our lesson, she flew down to Florida to meet a client she’d been trying to land for a long time. He asked her to play golf. Not only was he impressed with her game, but he had a chance to get to know more about her and the company," Morael relates. "The next day he gave her the order she’d be wanting."
Humor and Better Communication
Work is too important to be taken seriously, says Ron Culberson of FUNSulting, a Herndon, Va.-based consulting firm that "balances serious issues with a light touch." For Culberson, the goal of soft skills training is to improve staff members’ communication skills.
"Humor warms people to you, and when they’ve warmed, they’re listening," says Ann Pokora, director of HR for the Charles County government in Maryland, who sent senior managers to a one-day workshop on improving communications through humor.
For sales people, humor can be the key to making the connections that land the deal. Culberson recalls a pharmaceutical rep who performed a magic trick to sell contraceptives to doctors.
"In his hand he’d hold a little foam bunny. He’d close his hand and when he reopened it, there were 10 little bunnies," he recalls. "This guy sold a lot of contraceptives because physicians remembered his pitch and liked it."
Part of understanding how humor can add to business relationships is also being aware of how it can detract, says Herring. "Funny is good, but you have to know your audience," he warns. In other words, it is just as important to know what not to say as it is to know what to say. "There’s no faster way to lose clients than to offend someone with a joke," he notes. "Training will give your staff awareness."
Making staff aware of the good and not-so-good uses of humor also can pay dividends inside the office.
For example, managers can use humor to get the attention of their employees. Cul.berson recalls a manager who had to give an annual presentation on safety. "Nobody wanted to go, and she knew it, " he says. "So, she took photos of her dog in all the safety situations for her slide show and made it really funny. That year, no one wanted to leave the room, and people really got the message."
"I don’t think there’s anything more important than humor in the workplace," says Terry Leitner, deputy chief clerk for the U.S. District Court in Charlotte, N.C., who sent her 30-person staff to a workshop to learn how to incorporate fun into the office. "Everyone works better when you loosen things up a little."
It Pays to be Polite
The positive effect of soft skills training is significant, say the experts, but it can’t necessarily be measured with numbers. No data will tell you definitively that good manners and good communication skills will result in X percentage increase in sales, morale or productivity.
"It depends on what you’re starting out with and how well employees implement what they’ve learned," Cunningham says.
But while statistics may be scarce, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. "Think about it: Everyone likes to work with someone who is gracious and funny and pleasant," says Humphries.
"People who have some polish will make a better impression, and people will want to be around them," says Her.ring. "And people do business with people they like. It’s that simple."
Andrea C. Poe, a freelance writer based in Easton, Md., specializes in human resource and management issues.