Manners Matter Here And Abroad

November 11, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Front-line professionals reflect directly on their company’s reputation and its bottom line, so they need to show some “polish” when they’re conducting business.

People are finding that professional manners — especially in business — are imperative to climbing the ladder of success, said Christine Hebert, owner of Sterling Protocol LLC, a corporate etiquette and international protocol consulting firm.

Hebert is convinced “manners will take you places that money cannot.”

Her firm offers corporate etiquette and business dining seminars and luncheon tutorials, company-specific seminars and private “cultural” briefings on the manners, customs and cultures of foreign countries.

Business etiquette and dining seminars presently make up the largest part of Sterling Protocol’s business.

“It’s so important because every time you open your mouth in public and let people know what company you work for, you are a representative of your company,” she said.

“Every thing that falls out of your mouth — so to speak — directly affects your company’s reputation. That’s why it’s so important not to have polish only at the dinner table.”

Hebert, part of the West Michigan business community more than 20 years, has certification from the Protocol School of Washington, which trains diplomats in how to behave appropriately and responsibly overseas.

She has MBA and BS degrees from Grand Valley< State University and a BA from Hope College. She also works as a consultant with Right Management Consultants.

Hebert founded Sterling Protocol a year ago with the conviction that corporate etiquette and business dining skills are “extremely important” because so much business is conducted over meals.

Her personal observations, too, confirmed there were professionals and executives who could benefit from her services.

She recalled, for example, once taking a client to an Economic Club luncheon to introduce him around and help him network.

“First he commandeered his neighbor’s bread plate and threw the rest of the table off,” she recalled. “He was reaching over people. He ate with his mouth open. He talked with his mouth full of food.

“I was appalled that here was a high-level executive who had been vice president in his company and he just did not have the rudiments of good dining skills.”

Hebert stressed that her focus is business etiquette, not social etiquette.

“The salient difference between business etiquette and social etiquette is that business etiquette is gender neutral,” she explained. “There are some things we expect in a social context that we can’t expect in a business context. I try to hammer that home.”

Frequently, upper management will identify improvements they want to make in their sales team, and since sales people are the frontline force, the company wants to make sure they have the polish necessary to attract and retain customers, she explained.

“It usually revolves around business etiquette, but sometimes there are some problem areas the company wants me to hit specifically, so I’ll do a custom, in-house program for them.”

Hebert does her business dining seminars and tutorials at the University Club, which has the dining ware to take one of her seminar groups through a five- or six-course meal, she said. Clients learn while they dine.

“It can be very intimidating to have a whole array of silverware and wine glasses and not know where to start and what things are for,” Hebert observed. “We go through the whole visual tutorial of what to expect and then have the formal luncheon tutorial and they put to practice what they just learned.”

A five-hour Strategic Business Dinner Seminar, for instance, would include discussion on the do’s and don’ts of navigating around a dining table, tips on hosting a business meeting during a meal, the responsibilities of the host and guests, and the differences between Continental and American styles of dining.

Training in American corporate etiquette and business dining can be very beneficial to expatriates from other countries that come to work here, as well, Hebert noted.

Sterling’s international protocol side of the business is for people going to work in or visit foreign countries on business and who need to know the manners, customs and mores of other cultures so they can blend in more comfortably.

She typically does international protocol consulting one-on-one in two sessions and backs them up with a lot of take-home reading materials that give the client an overview of the particular country’s geography, people, government, economy and traditions.

Hebert is well traveled and especially familiar with European cultures.

“There are different rules in regard to handshaking, eye contact, negotiating style, ways of communicating and spatial relationships; there are a lot of nuances with different cultures around the world,” Hebert explained.

“So there’s a lot of research I do in addition to the experience I’ve had already. I always make sure my research is fresh by contacting my diplomatic ties in Washington, D.C, to make sure we’re right on the money.”

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