Even a topnotch outfit can alienate clients and compromise professional relationships if it fails to adhere to certain business practices. Calvin Sun explains some common missteps.

Your organization might be the most technically competent operation in the world. However, seemingly insignificant lapses in professionalism can affect its reputation, and therefore that of the people within. Here are some things to be aware of.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Criticizing co-workers to outsiders

At times, you might be tempted to criticize other parts of your organization to outsiders. But think carefully before doing so — and think about how people may react. On one hand, they might be embarrassed to hear such talk and wonder if your organization knows what it is doing. On the other hand, they might be impatient, wondering why, if they have a problem, you’re wasting time on your own complaints. Your organization is like the human body. Just as the head can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” neither can one department do without the other.

I once called a director of client support in an IT organization. This director reported to the CIO, and the assistant to that CIO had suggested earlier that I contact this director. When I did so, the director freaked out and started criticizing the assistant, even telling me that the assistant was in big trouble for suggesting I contact him. (By the way, that director is no longer with that company.)

Another time, I called executive B at one of my client companies to introduce myself and said, “Executive A likes my work.” Executive B replied, “Why should I care what A thinks?” Guess what? Executive B is no longer with that organization.

If you have disagreements internally, work them out privately. Remember, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

2: Passing the buck

When people contact your organization, they usually do so because they need assistance. If you can help them, wonderful. If you can’t, think about what you CAN do instead. If nothing else, try to direct them to someone who can help. Avoid telling a caller to contact another part of your organization or replying to an email sender that way. It’s better in the first case if you transfer the call and in the second case to forward to email. That way, you keep ownership of the call or email. Yes, it takes longer. But doing so presents a better image.

Don’t be like the person in the Washington law firm I once called by mistake, as I sought another person in that same firm. When I said, “I guess I have a wrong number,” that person said, “I think so too” and then simply hung up.

3: Failing to supply material to a subordinate

Suppose someone contacts you and sends you documents or other material. Then, you refer that person to someone else in your organization, perhaps a subordinate. Make sure you provide that subordinate with those materials. Your subordinate will look foolish if he or she doesn’t have those materials when the person calls. If the subordinate has to ask that person for that material rather than get it from you, it looks even worse.

4: Failing to test and verify your telephone menu options

Inside his circus, P.T. Barnum often posted a sign labeled “To the egress.” Attendees who followed the sign, thinking they were about to see an animal, abruptly found themselves instead on the street.

Fooling people, even unintentionally, will annoy and irritate them. This principle applies to your organization’s telephone system as well. Test it to make sure the announced options are really available and that they do what the announcement says they do. If the announcement says to press a certain extension to reach a certain person, does the system really do so? Or will the caller get the dreaded “invalid option” instead?

5: Failing to acknowledge caller by name, if known

Suppose your assistant tells you that Joe Brown, someone you know, is on the line. But when you pick up the phone, you don’t greet him by name. Think how that failure sounds to the caller. Your assistant asked for the caller’s name, or else the caller volunteered it. When you failed to mention his name, he probably wondered why your assistant would ask for his name, given the fact that you didn’t use that information. In any case, greeting a person by name gets the call off to a better start.

6: Failing to set up a personal voicemail zero out/attendant cover option

I have heard the announcement far too many times: After pressing 0 because my desired party is away from the phone, the awful Audix woman says, “No operator defined.” No matter the message or the system, the result is the same. A caller reaches a dead end in the attempt to communicate.

I’m not saying you have to set up a “zero out” option all the time, though I’m hard pressed to think of a reason not to. In any case, whatever you do in this regard, be aware of what and why you’re doing it. In particular, make sure that your zero out or covering extension really is defined, because most systems default to having no such coverage.

7: Overuse of cc:

The old saying tells us that legislation is like sausage: It’s best not to witness how it’s created. Overuse of the cc: option falls into this category. Yes, keeping customers and clients informed about developments is important. However, it’s possible to provide too much information, in particular by using cc: to include outsiders in internal email sent within your organization. Doing so could either annoy them (because they are getting too much information) or alarm them (because rightly or wrongly, they may believe your organization is out of control).

Instead of the cc:, consider a separate email, with only a high level summary of the “raw” correspondence.

8: Being clueless about the location of a principal

I am not referring to the principal of a school, but rather to the manager or executive who is supported by an administrative assistant. If you are that assistant, or a co-worker or someone else in the vicinity of this principal, pay attention. Your situation differs from that of the company receptionist at the main switchboard. Outside callers realize that the receptionist can’t know whether a given person is at his or her desk. Therefore, they’re okay with having their call go into voicemail (although a good practice, even for the receptionist, is to warn the caller of this possibility).

In your case, giving such a warning vastly increases your professionalism. If the caller believes you’re in the same general area as the principal, he or she might be annoyed if you imply that the principal is available and then merely put the caller into voicemail. In other words, you will look clueless to the caller. If you don’t know where that principal is, then say, “I will connect you, but if [principal] is unavailable, it will go to voicemail.”

9: Misspelling names

People treasure their names, and misspelling it will annoy them even if they say otherwise. Therefore, make sure you verify the spelling before using a name in an email or document. If in doubt, ask the person. By no means will that person be offended. Rather, that person will be pleased that you wanted to be correct about the name. Some common traps include:

  • “Mc” vs. “Mac”
  • “Sch” vs. “Sh”
  • “Anne” vs. “Ann”
  • “Charley” vs. “Charlie”
  • Names of people who come from outside the United States (In particular, be certain about the gender of the person and be clear between surname and given name.)

10: Web site links that only Google can find

Too many times, I have searched in vain for a particular page or link on an organization’s Web site. Unable to find it via the site index or other navigation device, I instead turn to Google and instantly find the Web address or link I was seeking. If Google can find the page, why can’t the site index? If your Web site falls into this category, take a good look at how it’s organized and documented, because you will frustrate visitors.

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