You’re an expert in your field. You offer excellent value and prices. You wage highly effective marketing campaigns. But do you make time to practice basic business etiquette?
You should, because it can be a small-business owner’s secret weapon, says etiquette expert Jodi R.R. Smith. “People do business with people they like,” notes Smith, an entrepreneur and author of The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners.
Simply put, treat your customers well, which is what business etiquette is all about. Good manners can be every bit as effective as a good ad campaign (and a lot cheaper).
Here are five ways that business etiquette can give you a competitive edge:
- Listen more than you talk. Nothing annoys potential clients more than an overly talkative salesperson or supplier. Chattiness impinges on your customer’s precious time. Also, clients want to be sure you’re hearing them tell you what they need. Smith suggests offering high-level answers to your customers’ questions when you’re meeting or talking by phone. Follow up with questions like, “Would you like me to explain more?” or “Am I answering your questions?”
- Treat all clients — and their employees — like VIPs. Of course, you’re personable and accommodating to the client who’s a senior vice president. But be sure you’re equally pleasant and responsive to her administrative assistant or bookkeeper. Support staff may recommend you to others within the company — and they’re often the people who make sure you get paid on time.
- Remember the value of a hand-written note. In today’s email-oriented world, a quick card sent by mail is a nice gesture and can set you apart from your competition. Keep it simple and genuine: a thank-you for a chance to bid on a job or a note of appreciation for a referral.
- Be tangibly grateful. Gifts for referrals or big jobs are a nice touch — and they don’t need to be limited to the holidays, Smith notes. Keep in mind that corporate clients are sometimes prevented from accepting large gifts, such as food baskets, or must share them with their staff, so ask an administrative assistant before sending anything expensive. If you’re unsure, a gift certificate to a favorite coffee shop or restaurant is easy to include in a card. It’s also lower-profile, so your client won’t feel pressured to share it.
- Ask: What helps me keep you as a customer? Smith often asks clients this question informally, but you can also send a brief survey through a service like SurveyMonkey or Zoomerang. Ask customers what you do best for them, why they continue working with you instead of your competition, and if there’s anything they wish you’d change about your business. This might sound like marketing, but it’s an etiquette move, too: You’re telling your customers you value their opinions and are open to suggestions. A bonus: Your customers’ answers might surprise you. They could even help you improve your business in ways you may not have considered otherwise.