Proper business etiquette will never go out of style. No matter what industry you're in, how old you are or whom you're speaking with, you should be professional and appropriate when handling all clients. This will foster a relationship based on respect and understanding, and it can help you to secure deals and develop contacts.
Here are valuable etiquette tips to follow in a variety of business situations, from meetings to meals.
In the conference room
Visiting a vendor or potential client in the office? Some of these tips might seem like common sense, but following them will always make a good impression.
Arrive on time, properly dressed and organized. Few things will make you seem more unprofessional than showing up late to a meeting looking sloppy and unprepared. It's important to be on time – or better yet, early – and ensure that you've paid attention to your outfit, neatness and personal hygiene, said Sherry Fox, co-founder and CEO of LumiWave, a provider of infrared light therapy treatments.
Fox also advised arranging any physical documents ahead of time so you know where all your presentation materials are when you need them.
"Make sure you take all necessary documents and your business cards with you," she said. "The papers have to be well-organized so when you need to use some pages, you don't spend precious time searching for the right report or presentation." [See Related Story: 4 Common Business Meeting Mistakes to Avoid]
Greet everyone properly. At its core, all business etiquette stems from having strong interpersonal skills, said John Covilli, SVP of franchising at Dale Carnegie Training.
"When meeting any new potential clients or professional peers, the same rules apply: a firm handshake, good eye contact, genuine engagement, respect — mostly just common-sense kinds of things," he said. "People want to know that when they're speaking to you, you have a genuine interest in what they're saying, and … that kind of consideration can go a long way."
For global business meetings, it can be trickier, since etiquette practices differ, depending on the country you're visiting. When traveling internationally, familiarize yourself with the appropriate etiquette for your client's culture so you don't unintentionally offend anybody, Fox said.
Listen and ask (thoughtful) questions. Jon Weston, president and CEO of PhotonPharma Inc. noted that most people tend to launch into their own agendas during meetings with prospective clients. Instead, listen to clients and ask thoughtful, intelligent questions based on what they've said.
"By asking questions, you quickly identify what is important to the prospect," Weston said. "Then you can address how to help them where they are at. People want to be heard."
Don't fret technological issues. Tech issues are no rare occurrence. But how you handle them reflects on your patience and attitude, which is why it's best not to get angry or flustered.
"For meetings where you have a presentation prepared and you can’t get the technology working, don't make it into a bigger deal than it needs to be," said Colton De Vos, marketing specialist at Resolute Technology Solutions. "Even if it's not your fault, it's usually better just to keep going without trying to get laptops synced, Wi-Fi connected, cables working, etc. Just power through; get a second person who isn't leading the meeting try to fix it and send them the presentation afterward if worst comes to worst."
At a restaurant
Whether it's a formal lunch or dinner, or a more casual meeting at a cafe or bar, some professional meetings take place over a shared meal.
If you planned the meeting, you should pick up the tab and, if applicable, let your guest choose the wine for the table, said Courtney Spritzer, co-founder and co-CEO of Socialfly social media agency. Fox added that you should be polite to any servers or waitstaff you interact with.
Here are a few additional things to keep in mind when eating or drinking with a business contact:
Choose the location carefully. If you're the one choosing the meeting place, your decision can tell your guests about who you are and how you do business. You want to find the right balance of price, quality, and atmosphere, said Fox.
"Choose a well-known restaurant noted for excellent service and food," she said. "Not inexpensive but not extravagant – a restaurant where there is enough privacy and quiet space to have a business conversation."
Fox also advised asking about your guests' food preferences or allergies, so you can take that into consideration when choosing a location.
Remember your etiquette basics. "Wait for the other person to start eating, chew with your mouth closed, don't talk with food in your mouth, etc.," Weston said.
Fox agreed, adding that you should use the proper utensils if you're having a sit-down meal.
"I also suggest always avoiding eating anything messy," said Spritzer.
Choose a "safe" meal. While you don't want to come off as a corporate robot, you should be aware of your manners in this type of setting. Much like on a first date or at dinner with the in-laws, you might consider avoiding any food that's bound to make a mess.
"Despite the desire to get the most delicious item on every menu, food that splatters or is difficult to eat can get stuck in your teeth or end up on your shirt," said Ada Chen Rekhi, founder and COO of Notejoy. "Smelly foods can [also] be off-putting for clients."
Keep the conversation polite and professional. Conversations during a meal can tend to be a little more casual, said Covilli, so be sure to keep the dialogue business-related and avoid controversial or inappropriate subjects.
"Have a few non-business topics to indicate interest in the other person, [but] … do not engage in any rude or discriminatory remarks about other patrons, etc.," Fox added. "Stay away from sarcastic remarks and off-color jokes."
De Vos advised staying on-topic for the most part, rather than getting distracted by your meal.
"Pay attention to the time you're taking as well," he said. "Many clients can have a hard stop right after lunch – meaning keep an eye on the clock and plan accordingly."
Communicating with business contacts
Before the meeting, Chen advised sending out your agenda so everyone is prepared and is on the same page.
"That ensures everyone has the opportunity to assemble the right people or data to cover those topics and get work done," she said.
After the meeting is over, it's important to reach out to review and confirm key points that were discussed.
"We always follow up on next steps right after the meeting to show that we are serious about moving forward and on top of moving things along," Spritzer said. "This [also] shows that you stick to your word and are trustworthy."
When you do send this follow-up, consider when and how you're communicating with your colleagues and prospects. Eric Hanson, vice president of product marketing at Fuze, an enterprise communications platform, said that while technology allows you to text and email at all hours of the day, your round-the-clock dedication can lead others to expect you to be reachable 24/7 – or worse, make others feel pressured to do the same.
"A study conducted by Fuze found that 87 percent of employees think it's OK to call or text others regarding work-related matters outside of standard business hours," said Hanson. "Take time to ... understand [your contacts'] communication preferences, work habits and boundaries so you can be more mindful of when and how you communicate with others. By doing so, you'll encourage balance, empower others to do their best work and prevent burnout."
General etiquette rules
Regardless of the situation or location, our sources advised following these etiquette standards during any business meeting:
- Confirm scheduled appointments ahead of time.
- Remember (and use) your guests' names.
- Be respectful of your guests' time and stick to a schedule or agenda.
- Keep your smartphone and tablet on silent and out of sight; use a pen and paper if you need to take notes.
- Thank everyone for their time and follow up afterward.
"Etiquette is really all about making people feel good [and] ensuring some basic social comforts," said Fox. "Practice good etiquette in all of your business and personal interactions, and they will become good habits over time."
Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.