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Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Customer Etiquette in the US - Onsite Meetings

In the past, I worked for a company where we would supplement US customers with highly skilled domain experts in Telecom Software, based in Asia (thereby reducing costs and retaining high quality). This was not a case of 'low skilled outsourcing'. Rather, each 'domain expert' was an established expert in their own technology space and demanded a lot of respect. However, I noticed that there were cultural and behavioural differences (expected) between the two countries and many engineers, however excellent technically, often missed these soft differences. So I wrote up a 'Customer Etiquette' guide that is based on my experience with customers (people say I do it well, what do I know !):

Etiquette for Onsite Meetings
  • Dress Smart - irrespective of whether you are an engineer or a salesman. Jeans are the prerogative of the customer, not yours, as a vendor. A tie is not needed - semi-formal clothing is the norm in the US - though the choice is yours
  • Dress according to what makes the audience comfortable. If you are presenting to a C level executive team, a tie cannot harm. On the other hand, if it's an engineering discussion with architects, lose the tie, engineers prefer a more relaxed environment
  • Carry a set of business cards. Many engineers believe they do not need one. Do remember that when a customer first meets you, it is impossible for them to remember your name (Americans are used to monosyllabic names such as Joe, Bob, Dick etc., so if your name is a long Asian name, forget it). In addition, when you visit with a large delegation, most customers will forget who is who in the first five minutes. It takes time and cards help to associate
  • While exchanging cards, it is acceptable to exchange them across the table in the US (unlike in Asia-Pacific where the process is far more detailed and respectful). However it is best to play safe here - walk across the table and hand your card to the customer even if he chooses to toss his own across the table. The thumbrule: Better to be respectful than be sorry about it later. As an example, I remember travelling to Japan once (my first time) and before the customer gave me his card, I tossed mine across the table. The Japanese interpreter looked at me and said "Ah... the american way !". I immediately knew I bungled up. There is no absolute right or wrong. When in Rome do as the Romans do
  • Please remember to pick up customer visiting cards after you wrap up. Don't leave it on the table and don't bend it or scribble on it. Again, a sign of respect.
  • Use "We" and "I" in a balanced manner when you talk. "We" portrays teamwork and "I" portrays individual responsibility (and sometimes alienates a team behind you) - use your discretion - both are useful in parts
  • Please switch off/put in vibration mode your cell phones while attending a meeting - it is simply rude for your cellphone to disrupt the flow of a meeting. Oh and if it does ring, please step outside - I have actually seen people crawl under the table and whisper - it doesn't really help and it makes you look very very silly
  • Do not stretch your arms and hold it behind your head while talking to a customer (think body odor !)
  • Please do not start a side conversation in a non-english language while the customer looks on. If you must have a private conversation, it is better to excuse yourselves from the room or speak in soft-toned english. Using a different language in front of a customer can also imply that you are making fun of the customer (how would he know !)
  • Give a chance to the customer to speak - do not keep cutting him off mid-sentence or second-guessing what he has to say
  • It is wonderful if you are a conversationalist. It eases the room and makes you more 'approachable'. If you look like a person who is only interested in talking 'business' all the time (called the 'wolf look') you will be treated at arms length. Personal/Informal relationships go a long way here
  • If you smoke/drink/eat before a meeting, it's a good idea if you carry a breath spray or some mints on you. Trust me, it's not fun for the person next to you in the conference room (also very applicable if you need to start a conversation in a flight with your co-passenger :-) )

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