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Passion, People and Principles

How Polite Are You?

post # 279 — January 10, 2007 — a Client Relations, General post

A friend let me know that he wanted to find out how well one of his seminars went, but after the work was done, he couldn’t get the client to return his phone calls. That happens to me, too, and it got me to wondering about people’s sense of business manners.

I think the best way to test what good manners are would be to identify what think we should do, not just what we want others to do to us.

So, think about this: In which of these circumstances do you return the phone call?

a) You have used someone’s services, and it was OK — not great, not disastrous, OK. They want to telephone you to discuss their performance. Do you take (or make) the call?

b) You have used someone’s services and you were disappointed. They want to telephone you to discuss their performance. Do you take (or make) the call?

c) You have asked someone for some detail about their services, with a view to considering hiring them. You decide that they are not someone you want to proceed with. Do you call them to tell them why, or just not respond to emails, letters and telephone calls?

d) You receive an enquiry by email about your services from someone who doesn’t fall within your “strategic screen.” (ie, they’re too small a company, too low level, the wrong type of topic.) They want you to call them to discuss hiring you. Do you place the call and tell them why you don’t want to work for them, or do you just not bother?

e) Someone wants to work for/with you as an employee and places a call. Do you return the call to explain why you don’t want to consider hiring them? Do you send a brush-off email? Do you just not reply?

f) Someone is interested in exploring a joint venture or alliance with you, something you have never wanted to do. Do you return the call either on the grounds of being open to new ideas, or on the grounds of being polite?

What are your policies?


Eric Brown said:

David – I would hope that I would call the other party in every situation. I would want others to do the same for me.

That being said, I have just realized that I have sent a few ‘brush-off emails’ (as described in ‘e’) in my day to people who were looking for jobs at the company I was with. In retrospect, a call would have been more professional and courteous to them.

posted on January 10, 2007

breakingranks said:

While all my courtesy instincts say that you should always respond to a social gesture (such as a call or email), when I took a step back from this, a question occured to me. For the employment inquiry, how did he or she get my phone number? If I form a connection with them by returning a call, then I’m giving them an advantage over all the people who don’t have that access. It may give the caller an edge over someone who could actually do a better job for the company.

posted on January 10, 2007

Stuart Blake said:

This is a great reminder for the use of better manners in all business relationships. I do think a phone call is appropriate in all of these instances but I am also reminded of instances when I have chosen the easier and more informal e-mail to communicate. As a service provider, I often wonder about prospective clients that are not responsive and whether it is worth the time and effort to work with them at all.

posted on January 10, 2007

Duncan Bucknell said:

Make the call – firstly because you should take the small amount of time required to help someone out. Haven’t you been similarly helped a 1000 times already? It’s very fulfilling – that’s what you want right? – a fulfilling life?

Secondly, there are always opportunities waiting for you at the other end of the line. It may be an indirect referral to a fantastic new client, another business connection, or more ‘buzz’ about how great you or your firm is – who knows what it may be and you may never find out.

You don’t have to generate false hopes in the process, but by truly helping someone ina small way, you will generate a lot of goodwill and a little more ‘good’ in the world.

posted on January 10, 2007

David (Maister) said:

What NICE people you all are! Isn’t anyone going to make the case for being too busy, or pointing out the risks of being swamped?

posted on January 10, 2007

Lance Dunkin said:

Make the call in every situation and make a DIRECT response to the request—be kind and diplomatic, but absolutely honest—otherwise you just leave people confused, wondering, and left to their own guesses about how you feel.

Do this for long enough and you will not only be a top-tier professional, but people will also recognize you as such.

If you are doing the “little things” like this, you’ll most certainly be doing the big things also.

posted on January 10, 2007

Lance Dunkin said:

Busy is an interesting topic.

If I could summarize your (David’s) work into one theme it would be “Success, happiness, and wealth come from others—others give us what we want, if they think we care about them—others think we care about them, if we really do (or at least give them what they want).”

I would add that it is difficult to have a genuine concern for individuals (to care about others), if we do not have a genuine concern for people.

I know that I am diving into an ideal here, but if we are too busy to return a call—especially someone we have an expertise to really help with little effort on our parts (someone in the above examples)—then I think busy could be more of a cover. The person we are neglecting deserves a response.

If we grouped those we approach into four categories, I think our respect for these groups from greatest to least greatest would be:

1) Individuals we know are busy who make time for us (the old saying, “if you really need something done then ask the busiest person you know to do it.”)

2) Individuals who are not busy who make time for us.

3) Individuals who are busy who don’t make time for us.

4) Obviously, individuals who are not busy who don’t make time for us.

I used to think we respected the first group the most because we knew they were sacrificing for our needs/wants. After thinking about it, however, I think we like this group the most because they like people and they like us. I suppose the two ideas could have a lot of overlap.

David, maybe your question of politeness is more profound than you thought…

We could use our returning of phone calls as a barometer for how much we like people, which would lead to how much we care for individuals, which would lead to individuals’ perceptions of our caring for them, which would lead to individuals giving us what we want, which would lead to our happiness, success, and wealth.


posted on January 10, 2007

Heidi said:

1. “Never talk, when you can listen. Never write when you can talk. And never ever put anything in an email.” Elliot Spitzer.

2. Busy is the default setting. Too busy = not organized.

3. Thank you.

– heidi

posted on January 10, 2007

Rob Reed said:


My personal philosophy has always been to treat everyone, regardless of title/status/client/seller with equal respect. I do my best to carry this out in returning phone calls and emails as well. Admittedly, I don’t succeed 100% of the time.

It is a relief for me to know that someone with your experience and crediblility sometimes finds it a challenge to get calls returned as well.

I’m probably stating the obvious for many here, but there is a step or two your friend could add to the seminar process for feedback. Perhaps your friend already does this, but he/she could establish an “upfront contract” with the client that a feedback discussion will take place at a prescheduled day/time after the seminar is delivered.

In preparation for this discussion, there are online survey tools (e.g. SurveyMonkey) that make it very easy to create a short questionnaire; email to all participants; collect and compile feedback on the seminar.

As a main part of the prescheduled feedback discussion, then, your friend could review the survey results from participants and obtain the client’s additional feedback about the seminar as well. Having something of value to offer the client (e.g. survey results from participants), should increase the likelihood the prescheduled meeting takes place as planned.

posted on January 10, 2007

David (Maister) said:

I believe Peter Drucker used to have pre-printed cards that said something like “Peter Drucker thanks you for you interest but regrets that he is not able to:

Review your manuscript

Attend your commencement

Provide a quote

etc, etc.

It went on to include twenty or thirty items. His secretary would just send a card out (unsigned) whenever he got a request.

Now, I’m not even in the same galaxy as Peter Drucker, but I can say I understand why he did what he did.

Was he impolite?

posted on January 10, 2007

Howard Krais said:

I have often wondered why manners are so frequently absent in business and why people suddenly behave in ways they would never do outside the office.

Perhaps sometimes this might be due to the ways our organisations treat us with scant regard for manners or respect. This might be in the way our managers fail to engage their people in what the business is trying to achieve or the ways we struggle to communicate bad news appropriately or how we permeate the ‘centre knows best’ mentality.

Maybe in these environments the organisation is actually saying manners don’t matter round here, so just get on with the work.

posted on January 11, 2007

Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan said:

Although I now live in Canada, I started my business education in the UK, and my teachers beat it into me that it’s a sign of professionalism and politeness to connect with everyone and give them an honest yes/no. So, I always do that.

I even manage to be polite to telemarketers. I just tell them I’m not interested and why. I don’t have to but I think it’s good manners to give them a reason why I don’t need their stuff.

And when some keep pushing me and don’t take no for an answer. I click into “bible salesman” mode and start selling them bibles in a pretty pushy manner. Some recognise themselves and we have a laugh. The others get lost within 1 minute or 2.

One thing I don’t do. I never hang up on anyone. The Brits taught me it was rude, and I accepted it.

Yes, it takes a bit of time, but it makes me feel good to know that I treated fellow human beings with respect, giving them straight answers, the way I like being treated.

posted on January 11, 2007

Brian Cassell said:

To me the first question common to these scenario is: Do you respond or don’t you respond? I think that the question is timeless and think that the answer should be unchanging; Always. However, I have found I’m in the minority when it comes to business, especially small business.

The second question becomes: Which format? This changes with the times and the situation. For me, the choice of format is usually dictated by the format in which the exchange was begun and/or mostly carried out. If it started via email, I’ll respond in kind. Likewise by telephone.

posted on January 11, 2007

Rob Reed said:

I’m like Tom with respect to telemarketers. My wife thinks I’m too polite to telemarketers because she always hangs up on them. I’m polite through the first two “no’s.” If they continue with their script tree, though, I will eventually say, “I’m sorry, but no.” and hang up.

This somewhat falls under the “someone wants to explore an alliance or joint venture” category. Over the past few years, I’ve contacted or attempted to contact a number of CEO’s and fairly well-known authors for different business purposes. Here’s a sample of how they responded to my contact/request:

Charles Green (co-author – The Trusted Advisor) – representative contacted me within one day.

Robert Cialdini (author – Influence) – Business partner contacted me within one hour.

John Maxwell (author – Failing Forward and many others) – Responded with personally signed letter within one week.

Kevin Plank (CEO – Under Armour) Responded personally within one day.

Richard Norling (President/CEO – Premier) Responded personally within two hours.

Ron Willingham (Author – Integrity Selling) No response.

Sharon Drew Morgen (Author – Selling With Integrity) Responded personally within one hour.

Steve Ballmer (CEO – Microsoft) No response, but visited my website :) (Direct mailer enabled me to track specifically)

Warren Buffet (Oracle of Omaha) No response.

Charlie Munger (Vice Chairman – Berkshire) No response.

None of these folks knew me from Adam, yet some of them were “polite” enough to acknowledge my contact attempt and respond. I don’t view those who did not respond as impolite, but my level of respect certainly increased with those who took the time to respond in some fashion.

I think whether we classify an action or non-action in this case as “impolite” depends upon our own personal values and are expectation of the situation.

Obviously, I’m not expecting too many responses when I try to contact very busy folks who don’t know me at all. On the other hand, I would expect a client to reciprocate my responsiveness and may view a lack of client response as somewhat disrespectful and impolite.

posted on January 11, 2007

Liz Zitzow said:

The number one I always reply to: Requests for jobs, especially entry-level ones. I remember how hard it was for me to get my first job; I tried for two or three years before I landed one. The process was far beyond my comprehension. Each of those inquiries gets a personal response from me. It’s my way of making up for all those people who couldn’t be bothered before.

My hardest one is clients who want to know what the status of their stuff is. Their project duedate may be many months away. I haven’t even started it yet, there’s twenty projects ahead of theirs that are frankly higher priority due to one legal deadline or another. I’ve never quite figured out what one says to them. Any hints?

posted on January 13, 2007

Warren Miller said:

We return all phone calls. Period. And we do our best to return them the day we get them.

Our model for this is James A. Baker when he was Reagan’s chief of staff. A feature profiling him in the Sunday NY Times Magazine noted that one reason he was so highly regarded by members of both parties was that he returned all calls the day he got them. As a starving Ph.D. student at the time, I thought, “Well, if someone that busy can do that, I sure can.” And we’ve been doing it ever since.

We try never to ask a question that we’re afraid to hear the answer to. Therefore, if folks want to know what we thought of their performance, we tell them; if we weren’t crazy about it, we tell them, but gently. If they want to argue, we cut it off and say we’re trying to be helpful, but we understand that capable professionals can have different views and that we don’t have time to argue, esp. when we’re trying to be helpful. If they persist, we offer to “go on the clock” if they want to argue. That always cures the problem.

Having been the job-hunter who didn’t have his calls returned, I’d never do that to anyone else. It’s rude and mean-spirited. No one is that busy. At the end of the day, we’re all in this thing together.

I will also comment constructively on any resume we receive. Few people know how to put together an appealing resume. We offer some specific comments wherever possible.

With telemarketers, how we respond depends. We have zero tolerance for them at the office and we say so. For those who call our residence, we remind them that we’ve registered @ http://www.donotcall.gov and get off the phone.

posted on February 5, 2007

David Kirk said:

I find that my reaction to my phone ringing is an excellent indicator of my stress levels. I usually try to make a point of answering my phone as quickly as possible (along the same lines as this “politeness” discussion, but there are times when my heart somply sinks with the thought of having to add another item on my stretching-into-the-horizon to do list.

Answering all calls under all circumstances is noble, but it also takes valuable time and energy from other activities. This is not a simple “yes let’s do it” option. The problem is we have to “do this” rather than “do that”. Which is more acceptable depends, in my view, on what “that” is relative to “this”.


posted on February 5, 2007

Tamara said:

I would have to point out that the people who are making excuses for not answering ALL of their phone calls sure have the time to yack it up on this website. We’re all busy, now get to work you GUYS…..there are few women commenting here because they’re busy answering all the calls you’re ignoring. Caaaaaaaapeeeeeesh?

posted on September 27, 2007