Saturday, January 31, 2009

Beware portable office creep

Last night I visited Toronto's biggest shopping mall to buy an outfit for an upcoming special event. Let it be said that the last week of January is ,without a doubt, the saddest and most unproductive time of the year to shop for apparel. At store after store the offerings comprised leftover Boxing Day sales and a few pieces of "cruisewear" but that's another story.

The reason the shopping trip made its way into my etiquette blog is something unusual I witnessed at the mall. A particularly spacious part of the facility features oversized leather benches, which are quite comfortable by mall standards. One of these benches was completely covered by the various acoutriments of a gentleman who had decided that a busy shopping centre was the ideal place to establish a portable office.

He was tapping away on a laptop computer which was plugged into an outlet underneath the bench. In addition he had a BlackBerry connected to the computer, a massive leather briefcase open and lying on its side with its contents spilling out precariously, manilla folders stuffed with paperwork, loose pieces of paper, pens, notebooks, a bulky winter overcoat and an MP3 player. When I came upon him, he was having a conversation on a cell phone separate from the one which was charging in the computer.

Almost every inch of the bench was covered with his stuff and he was completely unperturbed by the admonishing looks of passersby (myself included). While this is the first time I've seen someone set up shop in a mall (pun intended), I've been noticing a trend towards people working in coffee shops, libraries and other public spaces, perhaps a casualty of the economic downturn.

I have no issue with the portable office concept. Technology has liberated us from the traditional work space and, with enough bandwidth, we can conduct business from anywhere. Add an expresso frapuccino and some jazz music and you're all set. Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises in some of Paris' finest and dingiest establishments.

Of course Hemingway didn't have to wrestle with electronic etiquette. In today's world, the portable employee needs to remember that they're not in their own home, office or home office and as such, be mindful of others with whom they share the space - people who are trying to relax, shop or just buy coffee. As always with etiquette, the golden rule is to always keep in mind the comfort level of others. Herewith, the five commandments of the portable office:

1. Thou shalt not leave your computer cables and wires snaking all over the floor for unsuspecting customers to trip over.
2. Thou shalt not take a table for four if you are a party of one. Your briefcase does not count as a person.
3. Thou shalt not conduct loud business calls meant for the privacy of a real office. No one else wants to hear about your plans to overthrow the global widget industry.
4. Thou shalt turn your cell phone ringer to vibrate. I'm sure you love Beyonce but maybe other guests would rather not listen to a tinny rendition of Crazy In Love while you use the washroom.
5. Thou shalt not buy one coffee and stay all day. That's just rude!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

I am the proud mother of two toddlers who run to greet me at the door when I get home from work (amazing). Last night, they were both bursting to tell me different versions of the same story. One was sporting a blood-spattered shirt which he had refused to remove before I got home due to the pivotal role it played as a prop in the telling of the story. The other had a distinctly guilty look on his otherwise cherubic face.
My eldest (he of the bloody shirt) launched into the tale of how earlier in the day, they had an argument over a toy which culminated in his younger brother (holder of the coveted toy) into his brother's nose and causing it to bleed. When he was finished, my youngest, the perpetrator looked at me and said: "Well at least I said sorry".

Raising young children provides ample opportunity to teach the seven words of good manners: please, thank you, excuse me and, I'm sorry. We all have these phrases drummed into us as youngsters but when we grow up and make our way into the business world, some of these words become politicized, with meanings and inuendo attached that were never part of the original intention. In the workplace we often hear: "I don't want to say (insert word) because it could be implied as (insert undesired effect here)"

I came across an example of this in a recent news story. A hospital in Winnipeg is adopting a new approach to dealing with errors that take place in the operating room - apologizing to patients. In the case of a senior citizen who experienced pain after a pair of four-inch forceps were left in her abdominal cavity, the surgeon who performed the procedure apologized and hospital staff followed up with their own apology.

One wonders what our world has come to when it is national news that a person who has been wronged receives an apology from the wrongdoer. But those of us in a corporate setting are all too familiar with the legal landmines of the public apology. Malpractice lawyers and company legal departments caution that an apology is as good as an admission of guilt and can open the floodgates for costly lawsuits and class actions.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's decision to issue apologies comes on the heels of new research revealing that patients are actually less likely to sue if they are provided with full disclosure and an apology when issues come to light. In fact, several Canadian provinces and U.S. states have recently passed apology legislation to ensure that any apology offered to patients cannot be used against the health profession in a legal action.

In the story, John Cowell, chief executive officer of the Health Quality Council of Alberta sums up what etiquette advocates have long known: "When you are open and honest, the chance of being sued drops way off." While most of us won't face lawsuits as a result of our daily mistakes and misjudgements, we can easily minimize the fallout by apologizing - quickly and cleanly.

Two words, "I'm sorry", uttered immediately after an infraction, can stop a firestorm in its tracks. When a mistake has been made and there is no apology or visible attempt to take responsibility, things start to simmer, resentment builds and what could have been solved by a simple apology weeks ago is now a level-four crisis.

No matter what their complaint, people need to be acknowledged and they need to be heard. Often that is enough to diffuse a potential crisis.

Now class, who can remember the seven words of good manners?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Co-worker driving you nuts?

Does it offend you when your colleagues use profanity to make a point? If you're in the U.S. or U.K, you're not alone but if you're Australian, it probably doesn't bother you. In fact, you might be one of the swearers. According to the International Business Etiquette Index, a global survey commissioned by an Australian office space provider, swearing is ranked as the most hated business behaviour with 79 per cent of all respondents saying it was unacceptable. This apparently doesn't apply in the denizens of Hollywood agents or restaurant kitchens a la Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and Entourage where profanity not only rules but seems to be the best way to get things done.

Arriving at work and not saying hello to co-workers came in at number two (77 per cent of respondents). We discussed the survey results at our weekly staff meeting here at Palette PR and this stat set off a debate about whether you needed to say hello to each colleague individually or just to the receptionist. We concluded that it was imperative to say hi to each person who saw you come into the office but admitted that could be a little tough in a large open space.

The third most annoying office behaviour according to the survey was talking loudly in the office. While the Palette team agreed this was annoying, we decided that it would move up or down the ranks depending on the office layout and would be more pronounced in an open concept or cubicle environment.

What makes this survey interesting are the differences across various cultures. Australians, for example, have a really high tolerance for cussing in the workplace but are offended when a co-worker has a drink and doesn't offer to buy or make one for someone else. 20 per cent of Chinese workers considered it impolite to address bosses by their first name but that didn't register a blip among U.S. or U.K. workers.

This highlights the need to adapt your etiquette approach when travelling and spending time in other countries. My reading list has some good suggestions for books that can help prepare you for the subtle differences in protocol you'll encounter while travelling.

And by the way, for those of you who insist on using smiley faces and dancing hearts to sign off your business e-mails, that was on the top ten stop it!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

Last year, I travelled regularly throughout the U.S. on business. As an etiquette consultant, I'm always on the lookout for service that is exceptional or disappointing. Regardless of my experience, I usually take the time to share my perspective with management in a constructive way. As a business owner myself, I would want to know if my clients were less than pleased so that I could investigate the problem and find solutions.

In November, I experienced service levels at opposite ends of the spectrum during back-to-back stays at two hotels. One is a grand hotel in the old tradition and the other is of the newer boutique variety, but their rates are about the same (in the range of US $400 to $600 per night). My stay at The Ritz Carlton Tyson's Corner, Virginia, was excellent from start to finish. It is a beautiful property whose staff take delight in meeting your needs and who are able to fulfill any request - extra pillows, cold medication, shipping items home - almost immediately. The room service, dining and overall attention to detail was above par on every level.

From there I moved on to a trendy hotel in Manhattan where I was hosting a group of 30 guests. I had a detailed contract outlining what I could expect in return for bringing so much business their way and had paid the full cost in advance for extras like pre-arrival check-in so members of my party wouldn't stand in line. Despite the anticipated arrival of a large group, the hotel had a minimal amount of staff, who seemed to spend most of their time talking among themselves, as guests opened doors and struggled with baggage. The hotel had also inexplicably scheduled a computer upgrade for the day of our arrival which crashed their system and resulted in my guests having to be checked in with pen and paper by the one available desk attendant. Room service was sloppy and simple requests required tracking down staff who were usually ill-equipped to help. Case in point - when the business centre photocopier ran out of toner, the concierge asked me to replace it myself. I was prepared to comply out of desperation but was unable to as no one knew where the extra toner was stored.

Upon my return to Toronto, I wrote letters to the owners and managers of both properties. In my letter to the Ritz Carlton, I raved about the service and asked that my feedback be shared with the hotel staff. To the manager of the Manhattan hotel, I politely expressed my disappointment, invoked phrases from our signed contract, and asked that my concerns be addressed in a timely manner.

Within a couple of weeks, the general manager of the Ritz Carlton wrote back, thanking me for the kind words and committing to share my praise with his staff. A month later, I received a two-line e-mail from a staff member at the Manhattan hotel, who had 'intercepted' my letter to his boss. He said that he was conducting an investigation and would get back to me. Alas, that was the last I heard of him, despite a couple of follow-up e-mails on my part.

This reinforces my belief that organizations which are committed to outstanding service make it a priority on every level. Etiquette dictates that it is not necessary to respond to a thank you letter but the best companies feel the need to acknowledge the time you took to write one. On the other hand, an organization whose indifference to clients is evident from the moment you walk in the door, can hardly be expected to flip into service mode when they receive a complaint.
I make it my business comment on my experiences with service personnel, whether it's a coffee shop or luxury resort, and I'm happy to say I spend as much time praising as I do complaining. When I'm doing the latter, I often receive an apology, occasionally receive restitution and sometimes, am completely ignored which is the most frustrating of all.

Like most humans, usually I'm just happy to have someone acknowledge my existence and listen to me. You can thank me, disagree with me, even shout at me. Just don't ignore me please. My fragile ego can't take it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Impeccable Imperative

The notion of living life in an impeccable way is an ancient one. It was part of the teachings of Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus and is a frequent maxim in the discourse of new age self help gurus.

But what does it mean to be impeccable? My trusty Oxford Canadian Dictionary tells me it is to behave in a way which is both faultless and exemplary. Wow, that’s a tall order!
With all of the balls we have in the air today, who has time to be completely without fault, never mind set an example for others. That’s just too much pressure right?.

While there are saints among us who are profoundly kind to all they meet, giving of themselves and generally making the world a better place, most of us operate in a zero balance state – comfortable in the knowledge that we didn’t intentionally ruin anyone else’s day but conscious that there are occasions where we could have acted with more grace or class.

But this might be a rare case where technology can have a positive impact on etiquette. 50 per cent of Canadians over the age of 18 own a cell phone, most of which have the annoying ability to take photographs, anytime, anywhere, stripping us of our privacy and reminding us of the need to live impeccably. We are never alone anymore and, actions that cast us in an unfavourable light, can be captured and shared with the world.

So, how about living life under the assumption that everything you do or say in public is could show up in tomorrow’s newspaper or tonight’s evening news. Will you show more compassion, kindness and benevolence? Would you smile serenely at ingrates who cut you off in traffic or take more than eight items into the express checkout? Could you, by necessity, become a better person?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Will it make you proud when you're 50?

At age 15, I asked my parents if I could get a tattoo. They responded with some sound advice - tattoos are permanent and you don't want to do anything that will embarrass you when you're older. I chose not to proceed with my little rebellion and have no regrets. But times have changed. Tattoos can be removed and anyway, they're not the white-collar career killer they once were. In fact, in creative circles, they can be viewed as a sign of innovative self-expression, or, even more telling, ignored completely.

I often think of my parents' sage advice when I hear stories about today's jobhunters whose past decisions have come back to haunt them on the Internet. Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to thwart your future career aspirations these days. With a click and a keystroke, young people can sentence themselves to a lifetime of embarrassment as potential employers unearth drunken karaoke performances, poses in various stages of undress, or hateful diatribes typed in the heat of anger. And even if they don't post the offending items themselves, there's nothing to stop well-meaning (or coldly calculating) friends from doing it for them.

I don't judge these kids. Rather, I am thankful that these tools did not exist when I was young and foolish because I most certainly would have been a casualty of their ease and permanence. Long before I was middle-aged and conservative, I too lived in the moment, broke the rules and frequently found myself in situations of which I am not proud. I said things I didn't mean, did things that weren't becoming and sported hairstyles and apparel that was decidedly unflattering.

From an etiquette point of view, social networking sites like Facebook and My Space are almost unworthy of debate. Discretion is one of the pillars of courtesy and the Internet, by its very nature, is exceedingly indiscreet. Sharing only what's relevant, eliminating salacious details and modesty about one's achievements are all essential to good manners.

So, in an age where people are encouraged to air their dirty laundry on talk shows and win reality show competitions by proudly backstabbing their opponents, is there a place for discretion?

I believe so. In the rabble of today's society, discretion helps you stand out from the crowd and as a good friend of mine says, a sense of mystery keeps 'em guessing.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Do what you say, say what you do

Recently, my colleague Martin Waxman, shared an e-mail he had received from a business acquaintance we both know. In content, format and style, it is a fitting example of how even the etiquette-savvy among us get tripped up when using the Internet to do business.

The e-mail's objective was to encourage Martin to purchase tickets for an upcoming event. It should be noted that the event in question was obviously near and dear to the sender's heart, featured a high-profile speaker and had a charitable component. All good things.

What raised the etiquette flag was the way the message was delivered. The e-mail started with Happy New Year and went on to read: "I wanted to send you a personal note...". When I read this, my eyes immediately gravitated up towards the To field, which read: undisclosed-recipient. In my view, a 'personal' note goes out to one person and starts with a personal salutation which includes the recipient's name (e.g. Hi Martin, I wanted to send you a personal note...). You could probably bend this rule if you were sending it to a group that was already in formation or a group small enough in size, that all members could be called out in the body of the e-mail (e.g. Dear PR Club of Canada membes or Hi Martin, Louise and Amy).

I realize in a time-starved world, it's tedious to send 50 separate e-mails when you can, in theory, accomplish the same thing with one. But, in our somewhat impersonal society, don't people deserve to feel they are worthy of a truly personal e-mail, especially when you are asking them to spend money?

In this case, the sender could have easily avoided the etiquette gaffe by simply omitting the word 'personal' and being honest with recipients by apologizing for the mass mailing up-front. A little honesty and humility can go a long way, maybe even encourage people to open their wallets.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Remember the Golden Rule

I recently had the opportunity to hear Pete Blackshaw, author of the great book: Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000. Pete believes that, “thanks to consumer-generated media, even a single disgruntled customer can broadcast his complaints to an audience of millions”.

He also claims that companies with great products and services are losing customers because of poor customer service. I immediately thought of some Canadian organizations which offer high-quality products but have abysmal customer service. In other words, everything is fine until you call the 1-800 line. In one protracted call, the company can destroy all the goodwill it has amassed. Before you know it, you’re part of a community of irate customers swapping nightmarish anecdotes.

Among the more exasperating features of faulty customer service is the repetitive script you’re subjected to while on hold. The last time I found myself praying for Muzak, I whiled away the minutes by jotting down my impression of the real meaning behind these words.

Script: Thank you for calling. We are currently experiencing a larger than normal volume of calls.
Real meaning: Our call volume is the same as it always is but, because we don’t care about your time, we refuse to hire any more operators.

Script: Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line and someone will be with you shortly.
Real meaning: We know that your (enter deficient product here) is broken and you are so desperate to get it fixed you are willing to wait on the line for an hour.

Script: To help us serve you better, please tell us your account number, phone number, home address, etc.
Real meaning: We’re just keeping you occupied so you don’t realize how much time has passed. When we get you on the line we will drive you nuts by asking for this information again.

Script: While you’re waiting, why not visit our website where you’ll find answers to many of your questions in our FAQ page.
Real meaning: Even though you will most definitely not find what you’re looking for on our website, it is our hope that you’ll be too busy to call back today.

Customer service managers would do well to remember the golden rule of etiquette—treat others as you would like to be treated—when they are developing their consumer interface. If they did, they might not be tempted to use these terrible euphemisms for just plain bad service.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Time for class

Like the great author Lynne Truss, I've had enough of "the utter bloody rudeness of the world today" and this blog is a rallying cry for those of us who still believe in manners, customer service and the little niceties in life. I don't need to tell you that civility is at an all-time low in our society. Frantic schedules leave little time for common courtesy. E-mail communications lack the context, nuances and human aspect necessary for polite conversation. And devices that keep us plugged-in and tuned out encourage anti-social behaviour.

Yet, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the rise in electronic communications, it has never been more important to cultivate a sense of civility in life - to set yourself apart from the competition in business and just because it's the right thing to do in life. The purpose of etiquette is to make other people feel comfortable. Sounds easy right? In a recent U.S. survey, 79 per cent of adults said lack of courtesy was a serious problem yet, as we all know, it's not just the other 21 per cent that are behaving disrespectfully. Are we quick to judge others but slow to recognize our own etiquette faux pas? Are our manners conditional on the reaction of the beneficiary (e.g. if we hold the door open for someone and they show no gratitude, do we retaliate in kind?).

Maybe the rules of engagement have just become so muddled recently we don't know how to behave with decorum any more...even if we want to. In this blog, I hope to make a case for grace in all walks of life - business, social, politics, dining, dating - and my real job, which is running a public relations agency.

Hope you'll visit often.