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What is polite and what is impolite these days? Does it depend on circumstances? Does it depend on who you're talking to? What is the standard for common courtesy these days? Are they my mothers’ standards, my grandmothers? Or are there new standards today that don’t require the formality found years ago? Politeness can be defined as having good manner, or showing respect for other people. However, I believe politeness is alive and well among good customer service providers everywhere. 

In my mother’s eyes my Aunt Jean was the old world standard when it came to how to behave and speak in polite company. She was a true lady, never failing to be welcoming, with impeccable manners, genuine and warm. My mother used to say: if you wouldn't say it in front of your Aunt Jean, then don't say it at all. Is this level of politeness even possible to emulate in today's world of texting, tiny attention spans and tweeting? Do people expect that or even want that? My answer to that question is ... It depends.

Here's what I mean. If I'm at the football game and decide I want a burger and a beer, I go out to the snack bar and join the queue of people waiting there. Do I care if they give me a warm welcome? No. I'm thrilled if the person behind the counter points at me catches my eye and yells WHAT CAN I GET YA? Short and to the point, just what I needed there and then.

However, if I walked into my lawyer’s office and someone greeted me in that abrupt, direct way I would probably be offended. I expect a GOOD morning! Welcome. Can I take your coat? Are you here to see Mr. Banks? I let him know you've arrived. Can I get you tea? Water? Coffee? That's what I would expect in a more formal situation.

But those two are extreme ends of the spectrum. Most of us don't work in either of those worlds. We live somewhere in between the sports stadium and the law office where customers have problems or needs and they're looking for solutions – Now or they don't know what they are looking for at all and can only describe their situation to us and hope that we can find a solution for them quickly. Our world is order fulfilment or solution provider. Sometimes it needs creation but mostly the other two. So what level of formality do they expect from us in the politeness category? Here are a few basic rules to follow to ensure customers don’t question our standards of good manners.

1)      Be welcoming. If you are face to face, smile at your customer as you greet them. If you are on the phone, your tonality will convey your smile. Customers are not an interruption or an inconvenience to you. They are the reason we all have jobs and take home paycheques. Your words, your tonality and your body language convey your appreciation of that every time you greet them.

2)       Be genuinely interested in everyone on the other end of the phone or the other side of the counter. We all have our own style and different characteristics, have different standards but people are not that different from place to place. They are all looking for someone who is genuinely interested and paying attention to them. Focus on them with active listening skills. Ask them questions for clarification and to prove you listened. Be curious and get to the bottom of the whys and why nots. 

3)      Use their name. Personalised service can be achieved with something as simple as using their name. This is easy with familiar repeat business customers and it can be just as easy with new business – ask them their name! Depending on where you work, this can be achieved in many ways. Coffee shops often ask customers’ names to write it on their cups to ensure they get what they ordered. I work on the phone so often one of my first questions is: can I get your first name? People are happy to tell me. If I miss it, I will ask them to spell it for me. Then I will use it: Good morning Julianne, how can I help you today?

4)      Watch your language. The rules around language nowadays seem to be more relaxed than in my Aunt Jean’s day. Don’t relax your rules. Watch your grammar. Avoid using slang terms and certainly avoid any words that might be offensive in any way. With friends at the pub on Friday night it may be acceptable but in a business setting, it’s unacceptable.  Be careful of humour and sarcasm. If you’re not sure you should say it .... then don’t say it. Pretend there is a five-year-old present. If you wouldn’t say it in front of a small child, don’t say it.

5)      Dress for your clients. Like language, work dress codes seem to be more and more relaxed today. It will very much depend on company standards but there are guidelines.  My aunt always came to the door in her spotless wool skirt, sweater set, pearls and hair pulled back neatly in a bun. I never saw her dressed any other way. Are jeans acceptable at work? In many places – yes. In other places jeans are completely unacceptable. How we dress is a reflection of our place of business. Is an off the shoulder top acceptable in a place of business? – Probably not. If your company doesn’t have a dress code, have that discussion with your employer. 

I have spoken to many employers who feel uncomfortable speaking to employees about inappropriate clothing. A dress code that is widely accepted can avoid this uncomfortable discussion. Employees who only deal over the phone and email often feel they should be able to dress anyway they want. After all, no one sees them. Nevertheless, a place of business needs to set a certain business like tone. Leave the leggings and jeans at home. Clothing at work is your uniform. It should reflect your companies’ image and respect for customers – whether they can see you or not. Bottom line is, dress like you care. Like you care what you look like to your customers. Like you care what you look like for yourself!

These days, tattoos and piercings seem to be more commonplace than ever. Again, circumstances will dictate what is acceptable in a workplace and what is not. Many people choose these forms of expression to make a statement about who they are and what they believe in. However, if you have a visible, possibly problematic tattoo don’t be surprised if you are not selected for a position dealing with customers face-to-face. While they may be acceptable to you, they may be objectionable to some customers. We need to reflect our customers’ sensibilities. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a tattoo; it just means you might want to make that statement in a place easily covered by clothing.

6)      The true test of politeness at work is not in how you deal with pleasant, friendly customers. Rather it’s how you deal with difficult, demanding, rude, angry or impolite customers. When the pressure is on, are these difficult customers pressing your emotional buttons and causing you to lose your cool? Your customer service skills are put to the test in these situations. How do you achieve politeness when your customer is being very rude? This is where the habit of politeness will kick in and ensure you don’t deviate from your normal rules of how you treat your customers. Nothing can dissolve customer anger and rudeness than not reciprocating that back to them. If you are calm and patient with them, you will find them much easier to deal with. Mental and emotional toughness here will save you from becoming adversarial and getting into a game of tug of war with a customer. Keep your cool and remain calm and politely powerful in these circumstances.

7)      Listen. The ultimate show of politeness (remember, politeness is defined as displaying good manners and respect for other people) – the ultimate show of politeness is listening. Focusing on your customer, listening carefully and thoughtfully to everything they say proves your respect and good manners. Don’t interrupt. You can manage the conversation through questioning but make sure you listen with empathy and understanding.

Politeness today means putting the customers’ needs before your own. It means consistently being welcoming, using their name, being respectful and interested in the customer. It means listening to them and watching our language around customers. It means thinking about how we look, how we sound and how we act around customers and being aware of what may offend. When we are paid for our work by our company, we represent that company to its most valuable resource – it’s customers. 

If we are aware of the power we hold in building customer relationships through the respectful politeness we use when in their company, we will find the habit of politeness builds with every interaction and our value to our company does as well.

Practice these rules of politeness with your customers and see if it helps to build your effectiveness and your relationships. Take care of your customers!

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