February 12, 2013

My Point Is...Professional courtesy and pleasantries

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — One of the most frustrating experiences for many people is walking into a professional office and being totally ignored by the staff on duty.

Being “old school” and remembering my childhood teachings of being patient and not interrupting, I normally wait a few moments when a receptionist is on the phone or talking to another staff member. However, regardless of the situation, my business classes in high school and college re-iterated the need to, at the very least, acknowledge a customer. Whether that gesture be a mouthed “Just a minute,” a finger raised, it allows some awareness that you do exist.

One of the most frustrating experiences was at a professional — and I use the term quite loosely — office where I waited over five minutes to be acknowledged and served. Had the employee been extremely busy, I would have been much less annoyed. But that employee engaged in a personal conversation for at least six minutes while I stood there, overhearing every part of that long discussion that had absolutely nothing to do with her work. It took every bit of 10 seconds for her to answer my question and direct me to the section where I again had to wait.

That was several years ago, when I was younger and more patient. Since passing the 50 year mark, I would now handle the situation by telling the woman how badly I hated to disrupt her personal conversation on her company’s time, but I needed just a few seconds of her professional time to ask a simple question.

All employers should stress to their employees that recognizing customers is the life’s blood to their business. While it may not always be possible to utter a cheerful greeting, it is imperative to realize that a displeased customer will tell friends, family and co-workers and could result in a significant business loss.

That is a prime example of common courtesy.

Courtesy and pleasantries are a part of professional conduct. Saying “Good morning,” “How are you today?” and such superficial remarks are just a part of how people greet each other in the workplace.

Occassionally, I like to deter from the normal and send a few shock waves to those comments. I left several people speechless when I responded to their question of “Did you have a good Christmas?” with a very negative, “No, it wasn’t very good.” They were stunned by my answer, expecting the usual cheery response of “Yes. How was yours?” As I walked past, I noted the perplexed expression on their faces and the whispered comment, “I don’t know what to say to that. I’ve never had anyone say that before.”

I’ve also applied the shock mechanism to the quick passing question of “Hello. How are you today?” It’s amazing to observe the double-take you get when you respond with something other than the routine, “I’m just fine. How are you?” An answer that stops people in their tracks is to say, “I’m so sick” or start unloading your most relevant current personal problem.  You can rest assured that person, especially if in a hurry, will carefully approach using that greeting again.

Of course, we all incorporate these pleasantries into our daily routine in our business lives, although we may be feeling terrible. It’s professional to acknowledge someone’s greeting without disclosing all your personal problems. First of all, most passing greetings aren’t meant for a long-term conversation. Secondly, that token of recognition and smile can be the one bright spot in an otherwise horrible day.

Another common gesture and acknowledgement is when meeting someone. In the professional and business world, it is routine to shake someone’s hand and say either, It’s nice to meet you.”

A friend of mine responded to that remark with “Yes” or just a nod of the head. When I outlined the proper courtesy response, he countered with, “I just met them. I don’t know them. How do I know if it’s good to meet them or not?”

I had to admit that his logic made common sense. However, the few people I’ve met that I didn’t particularly care for are far outweighed by the thousands of wonderful people I have gotten to know and meet, so my common courtesies will remain intact with the open mindedness that there is some good in all people. Life experiences will teach you which ones to weed out as you observe behavior of specific persons that cause those red flags of warning to jump up.

Despite all the proper conduct of the workplace and society, I still find myself somewhat off-guard with the response to a compliment. Quite often, it is several seconds later before I think to respond with the customary “Thank you.” The simplest forms of courtesy often escape me, and I often catch myself making a comment rather than saying “Please” and “Thank you” -- an astonishing feat for someone who once stressed to preschool students that the ‘magic words’ of life are those very two expressions. Even as an adult, those carry goodwill to an entirely new level and do indeed work magic in most situations.

On that note, I thank each of you, the faithful readers of this newspaper and my columns for your patronage and I wish each of you a wonderful Monday and an even better week ahead.

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Now that school is out, what are your family’s summer vacation plans?

A. No major plans. We will probably hang out around Laurel County.
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