Business etiquette is what lies underneath the deal. Mainstream business thought focuses primarily on the deal itself—creating the best product at the best price, and putting together an attractive presentation with plenty of charts and graphs. But you’ll quickly discover that your slick PowerPoint will be completely meaningless if you’re not following good protocol.
You have no doubt spent years studying the details of how to create a great presentation. In business school, they taught you all about business plans, cost accounting, customer service (and how to outsource it), and project management. Think you’re ready to go out there and make a deal? Think again. All those things are useful, but if you’re going to Japan and haven’t been told how low you should bow when you first meet, or never to pour your own sake, you’re not going to get far. There are things you were never taught in business school that will become very important in your success. How should you look? How firm should your handshake be, or if you are in a foreign country, should you shake hands at all?
The guy who chewed gum and lost a deal
With everything else being equal—after all, the other guy knows how to make a presentation too—what do you think your potential client is going to remember? The fact that your pie charts were a little better rendered than your competitors’ won’t carry much weight. What they will remember though, is something a lot less tangible. How did you present yourself? Did you make them feel uncomfortable in any way? You may have had the best presentation, but do you want to be remembered as the guy with the weak handshake who chewed gum with his mouth open during the presentation? Those things count for a lot more than we realize.
Some business etiquette rules are universal
Business etiquette varies a great deal from country to country, and even from region to region. What works in one country may be a grave insult in another. But these differences notwithstanding, there are still some rules of etiquette that are universal, regardless of where you may find yourself.
The biggest considerations of business etiquette are: dress, greetings, and respect. Within those three categories there are hundreds of rules to know, but they all come down to those three broad categories.
Appropriate business clothes are always the rule. What is appropriate however, is seldom the same in any two situations, and so this will take a little studying of the particular environment. You’ll almost never go wrong with a conservative business suit, but there are exceptions. Are you pitching a product to a bunch of bikers who own a motorcycle shop? That business suit may put them off, and a more casual appearance may be in order.
Some of the most successful sales people greet their potential customers with a firm and aggressive handshake, look them straight in the eye, call them by their first name and say “How’s the wife and kids”. And sometimes, it works. The most important thing is to understand which type of greeting is appropriate for each situation.
Etiquette doesn’t have to involve a lot of complex rules—for the most part, it is common sense. What you do and how you act should indicate that you respect your counterpart. That may manifest in any number of different actions that can be studied and learned, but when in doubt, just think—“does this action show respect?” And act accordingly.