An expert explains the nuances of business etiquette.
Financial advisors know that making a stellar first
impression can turn a VIP prospect into a star client. Yet sometimes we
need to be reminded of the details of decorum that can make or break a
deal, says Judith P. Bowman, president and founder of Protocol
Consultants International, a corporate etiquette and networking
consulting service based in Dedham, Mass. Bowman's clients
include Merrill Lynch, Mellon Private Asset Management, Fidelity
Investments and State Street Corp.
"As Woody Allen once remarked, 90% of success is showing up," Bowman says. "That places a huge pressure on that last 10% to finesse yourself in business and distinguish you from your competitors." Bowman recently spoke to us about the little things that make all the difference.
FA: How do you get that first appointment with a sought-after client when others are clamoring for the same prospect?
Bowman: The one foolproof method is to go through a mutually respected third party. "Jack Smith suggested I give you a call." Works every time.
FA: What if you don't have a third party in common?
Bowman: You better find one. If you can't, you may be in the wrong business.
FA: OK, let's say you get the appointment. What next?
Bowman: One of my personal favorites-and it's a nuance-is how you behave before the meeting takes place. The highly trained receptionist will say, "Mr. Smith will be about 15 minutes, please take a seat." Now, will you avail yourself of this opportunity to relax in the comfort of this well-appointed office?
FA: Why not?
Bowman: In many other countries, even if you're kept waiting for three hours, and you're seen doing anything other than standing respectfully and waiting for your client, that's a sign of insolence. How many times has Mr. Jones emerged in five minutes to find you fiddling with your cell phone or laptop? So I'm going to suggest that while the rest of your competition is sitting, you stand politely and confidently to one side.
FA: How do you nail that first impression?
Bowman: Everything about you should speak quality, from the way you dress to the size of your briefcase. Your prospect will notice how you hold yourself, whether you make eye contact, the tonal quality of your voice, the way you sit, stand and shake hands. The success of a top prospect is no accident. Everything about it is planned and rehearsed, and they expect the same level of achievement from their advisors.
FA: What size briefcase should the advisor carry?
Bowman: When you bring a large briefcase into a meeting with an important client, you inadvertently broadcast the message that you're seeing other clients today. It's a small distinction, but a meaningful nuance, because when you're together your client should feel that his affairs are the most important ones in your life.
FA: How important is that initial handshake?
Bowman: It can make or break the deal. A handshake reveals all manner of things, from weakness and insecurity to aggression and anxiety. The handshake is also a great information-gathering tool for the advisor.
FA: How do you mean?
Bowman: Someone who gives you the "fingertip" handshake prefers to be kept at a distance. That tells you that the person might like a more formal relationship and might take longer to get to know. The "bone-crusher" is trying to overcompensate for his insecurity. Being aware of that gives you the edge, and you should meet him with steady eye contact and a strong, reassuring handshake that says you're in control. Some people use the "Bill Clinton" or "political" handshake, where you grab the person's right hand and put your left hand over their forearm. You often see this at weddings and funerals. It's very warm, but not very professional, so I don't recommend it.
FA: What is the correct handshake?
Bowman: The V of your thumb and index finger should connect with the other person's V. Resist the urge to stop at the knuckles. And since 95% of people admit to being nervous before a meeting or presentation, you should ALWAYS visit the bathroom before presenting your card to the receptionist. Thoroughly wash and dry your hands, which eliminates clamminess.
FA: What should you do with your hands during the meeting?
Bowman: Your hands should be on the table and in view at all times, not on your lap. The original reason for this was to prove that you were not about to draw a weapon. Incidentally, there's a lot of coaching these days on what to do with hands, because they can convey so much anxiety and emotion.
FA: Let's say the initial meeting takes place in your own boardroom. Which is the place of honor and where should your client sit?
Bowman: Most people would say the place of honor is "the head of the table" but that's wrong. The advisor should sit at the head of the table because he's the host and should be in complete control. The person of honor should always be seated to the host's right. By the way, the head of the table is not necessarily at one end of the table or wherever the overhead projections are. The head of the table faces the door. I want to call this nuance to mind. If the advisor has his back to the door and has to turn around for whatever reason, he won't have any idea who's giving the thumbs down, or exchanging a wary glance, or putting a finger down her throat.
FA: Let's say the client is a man, and brings his spouse. Where should she sit?
Bowman: At that point, the spouse becomes the person of honor and is seated to the host's right. The client may then sit next to his wife, or opposite, whatever is deemed most comfortable.
FA: Who selects the restaurant when taking a client out to dinner?
Bowman: Again, the advisor wants to be in control. Presumably you know your client. Does she prefer the Four Seasons, a more intimate French bistro, or a hot dog stand on the run? Choosing correctly demonstrates that you understand her personal taste and comfort level. The same seating arrangements as above apply.
FA: Any pointers on dress?
Bowman: You should wear appropriate business colors, which, in my view, are still black, navy, dark grey, and pinstripe of any kind. Brown is death in business. You think Ted Bundy brown.
FA: Can't women show a little more pizzazz?
Bowman: I've had so many women tell me that, encouraged by a friend or stylist, they've found their inner colors and feel so much more confident in eggplant or canary yellow. I ascribe to a different philosophy. Traditional colors enable you to be more of a chameleon, taking cues from your surroundings, and blending in with your clients' style, at least initially. In my opinion, the advisor should mirror the client in every detail. For example, if my client leans forward in his chair, I wait a few beats and lean forward in mine. If he starts taking notes, I start taking notes. I'm mirroring the client to convey that I'm with him and that I hear him. This becomes very natural over time.
FA: Let's talk business cards. You had mentioned these were a pet peeve of yours.
Bowman: Oh yes! These days, business cards get handed out like a deck of playing cards. Business cards should be exchanged in advance of meetings, not at the table, like a round of blackjack. I've seen people literally flick their cards across the table. Recently, we've learned better habits from our foreign neighbors, for whom business cards embody a person's life and the quality of the firm he or she represents. In the same way, you want your business card to represent you. Your command of how to use the business card is huge, and full of nuances that can distinguish you from your competitors.
FA: What's the biggest business-card faux pas?
Bowman: Writing on a business card in the presence of the other person.
FA: What if someone offers you their direct line and asks you to call them next week?
Bowman: It's very simple. Ask the person, "Do you mind if I write on the back of your card?" This nuance shows that you realize the gesture is impolite, so you ask permission. I can't tell you how many of my own clients have been touched by this gesture and now use it themselves. Because when you think about it, the faux pas is assuming a kind of familiarity that has not yet been established. It's like taking a kiss on a date before being invited to do so. The same thing holds true for taking notes at an initial meeting. I always ask clients, "Would you mind if I took a few notes?" At first they might look at you curiously, but I can guarantee you the impression lingers favorably in their minds. You're assuming nothing, and that's a powerful nuance that, again, distinguishes you.
FA: How would you present and receive business cards at receptions or networking events where you can't hand them out in advance?
Bowman: Your goal for a large event is to make the exchange of cards a smooth, seamless gesture. I've found that using one pocket for incoming cards and one pocket for outgoing cards is effective. The most formal presentation is to extend your card readable side up, with a thumb on each upper corner. The second most formal presentation is with one thumb on the upper corner. You should receive others' cards in the same way. Show your respect by actually looking at the card. Read it and even stroke it to appreciate its texture before placing it in a pocket, preferably a breast pocket.
FA: Any more networking tips?
Bowman: I always get a copy of the guest list in advance, for background of course, but also to practice pronouncing difficult names. Imagine you're a prospect and one person pronounces your name fluidly, while everyone else gets it wrong or asks you how to pronounce it. It's a nuance, but you'd be more inclined to believe that a person who goes to such care to get your name right would apply the same level of attention to your portfolio.
FA: What if you run into a prospect or client on the street?
Bowman: No matter how blinding the sun, you take your sunglasses off. No matter how freezing the weather, you remove your gloves to shake hands. Technically, the Queen of England is the only person in the world permitted to shake hands with her gloves on.
FA: Are kissing and hugging OK in a business relationship?
Bowman: Sexual harassment issues are real, but as someone in the relationship business, your GOAL should be the warm embrace, the kiss hello and goodbye, unless of course you sense from your client that she's not that kind of person. Obviously you won't embrace in the boardroom, but in the lobby, for example.
FA: When will you know it's time to start hugging your clients?
Bowman: You'll know. Body language and personal style speak volumes.
Eva Marer is a freelance writer based in New York.