TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter May 2010

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How to Be a Business MenschBusiness Mensch
Even though this article has a "How to" in the title, it's more of a rant than a guide. I'm really disgusted by the lack of courtesy and humanity in the business world these days: urgent messages ignored... favors never acknowledged... passive-aggressive behavior in the conference room... promises broken...

I'm sure you can add your own pet peeves to this list. Discourtesy is pervasive and it's only getting worse week by week. When I discuss this sad state with colleagues, no one can explain it, other than by reciting a sad list of circumstances: everybody's busy, competition is fierce, the Internet has changed the rules, rudeness is part of the modern culture, etc. I don't buy it. There are thriving organizations where courtesy is part of the corporate culture. Phone messages are returned the same day, emails within 24 hours, low-level employees treated with respect, vendors recognized as the business partners they are, et cetera. Clearly, it's possible to be both nice and successful.

So, why aren't more businesspeople mensches? (For the Yiddish-impaired: a mensch is someone who always strives to do the right thing. Most Jewish mothers want their son or daughter to marry a mensch, and raise up a batch of little menschkins.) Why do many people in the corporate world behave so rudely and insensitively? I don't think they're bad people. Rather, I feel sad for them. They've lapsed into a set of negative behaviors and attitudes they regard as "normal." Many don't realize the damage they're doing, or are aware of the repercussions. Also, much rude behavior comes from poor organizational skills. I know well the feeling of having too many balls in the air – and the desire to cut corners to "get everything done." It's very tempting to erase that voice mail message, delete the email request, throw the letter in the trash unanswered, etc. Tempting, but very wrong. Bad karma and bad for business. You know the corny old saying: "Be nice to people on your way up. You'll meet the same people on the way down." That comes true more often than you think. The world is a surprisingly small place. The salesman on the phone today could be CEO five years from now. Do you really want to burn him off? (The answer may be yes... if he's a jerk.)

As a matter of fact, I do blame much rude business behavior as a defensive reaction to overly aggressive salespeople and marketers. Memo to "enthusiastic" salespeople: we live in a permission-based marketing world now. You do not have the right to impose your "solution" on those indisposed to hear it. Many of you also need to gain a better understanding of what the term "relationship" means.

When I wrote the original version of this article back in 2003, the research firm Yankelovch had just surveyed attitudes about direct sales and marketing. Even back then, over 80% of consumers responded they were "inundated" by direct marketing overtures. 60% felt the sale of mailing lists with their address was a serious invasion of privacy. Wow. As consumers, most of us have gotten pretty good at screening out commercial messages. This consumer behavior undoubtedly bleeds over into the office, where we subject visitors to long waits in the reception area, tune out during presentations, and erase voice mail messages without responding...

OK, enough ranting. Do I have any solutions for you? Well, if you're on the receiving end of rude behavior, you have to decide if the value of that business relationship is worth enduring the cruelty. Personally, I have no compunction about "firing" a potential client if I'm treated this way. Nobody is so important that I'll take abuse from them. My attitude is, and I sincerely mean this, "They need me a lot more than I need them." There are far more great people out there than I have time to meet, and many more lucrative opportunities than I could possibly participate in. I don't harbor grudges, but I do keep track. If somebody burns me once, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. You never know what else is going on in their lives. However, if rudeness becomes the norm, it's Hasta La Vista baby.

But what if you're on the delivering end? If you're in the position of frequently being solicited by people inside and outside your company, I have a couple of suggestions.

1. People contacting you want you to say either yes or no. People in general, and salespeople specifically, HATE a maybe. You're not doing anybody a favor by telling them to get back in touch next month (when nothing's going to be any different than today).

2. Set a personal example. If you're in a leadership position, it's up to you to model the behavior you expect from your people. Be hyper-aware of your moods and communication styles. If you walk into the office in a foul mood because some S.O.B. cut you off on the Expressway on the way in, people will notice it... and believe they did something to piss you off. Not good. You can kill a whole day's worth of productivity that way, as people speculate about the horrible things that are about to happen to them...

3. Realize you're going to make a mistake now and then. It does not diminish you to admit your mistake and apologize. I'm often defensive when someone I don't know calls me and doesn't properly identify themselves. I've had to "unsay" some things when I realized it was actually a friend of a friend calling...

4. Get organized. Since much discourteous behavior appears to stem from being overburdened by work, you need to build systems for dealing with both your "work" and your interactions with people outside of your inner circle. Maybe that means having an assistant or intern respond to your voice mail messages and emails. Perhaps you need to take a seminar on time management. Maybe you need help with the "mechanical" aspects of your job so you can concentrate on the more important responsibility of building business relationships. Just realize that "business as usual" ain't workin'. You're losing friends.

5. Respect "nonsymmetrical" relationships. If you're in a position of high visibility, remember that others may expect that you know them as well as they think they know you – and will feel hurt if you don't acknowledge them properly. That happens to me occasionally because I publish this letter, which is read by about three thousand people each month. I know many readers personally, but others I've only exchanged business cards with somewhere along the line. After teaching a seminar a while ago, I got a "flaming" email from a subscriber's wife who claimed that I "ignored" her husband at the seminar. In truth, I didn't recognize him. I sent a lengthy apology to them (but it was never acknowledged).

Bottom Line: I have no expectation that things will get better. It's my firm belief that much unhappiness in this world is due to the unmet expectation that other people will change. The only one who can change is you. Fortunately, it's just as easy to be a good guy as an S.O.B. If somebody contacts you with some sort of proposition, tell them you're busy – but listen anyway. Make decisions quickly. A sharp knife cuts the cleanest. If you're not interested, say so. Don't ask for a brochure to get the guy off the phone. Everybody hates spam but if a person takes the time to compose a personal message to you, you are *obligated* to respond in some way – even if it's a one sentence reply – even if you don't know who sent it to you. Finally, remember that being a mensch means more than "doing no harm." It means always doing the right thing... and little things mean a lot. If you see a colleague's name in the newspaper, clip it out and send it to him or her with a note of acknowledgement. If you come across a web site or something that could benefit them, click it over. Takes 15 seconds. If somebody does you a favor, whether you asked them to do it or not, you must acknowledge it. This is human relationship 101 stuff guys. Nonetheless, it's amazing how many people fail this course...

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