Neels & Company - Strategic Business Communication
Trusted Advisor
Gretchen Neels
Gretchen Neels, President, Neels & Company

Dear Trusted Advisor

At our consulting firm, we have a number of extremely well-qualified associates whose accented English and cultural norms are keeping them from achieving the level of success we hoped for. For instance, one person’s written English is perfect, but when speaking, it sounds like another language. Some of our female associates find it difficult to be assertive, and can appear almost demure in front of clients. How can we get these otherwise talented people to improve their communication styles?
H. A., Chicago, IL

Dear H.A.,
The good news is that if the talent is there (along with the will to make some changes), the issues you are dealing with are fixable. It may take some time, but accent reduction can be extremely effective when you hire a good speech coach. As far as female associates becoming more assertive, that is a behavior that can be taught by a good business/sales coach.

May I suggest you find some qualified professionals, sooner than later, to give these superstars the assistance they need to reach their full potential? Investing in your people by providing such development opportunities puts your firm in a very good light. Approach your associates with empathy and candor, and cheer them on as their communication skills improve.


Could it be that last month’s Trusted Advisor was the impetus for the following New York Times article on the return to “serious” dressing? You heard it here first! Read the article.


Business Etiquette 102 – 30 Certainly, Always Guidelines For Interviewing, Networking & Meetings is now available!

This is a companion to Business Etiquette 101 – 30 Absolutely, Never Evers for Business, Dining & First Impressions, and covers best practices for the interviewer/interviewee, networking techniques and how to manage meetings.

Both booklets are now available for sale on our website.

Next Issue: Giving and Receiving – It’s That Time of Year Again

Successful Recruiting and Retention: 5 Keys to Both

True Story: a new associate was chastised for attending to her BlackBerry while in a client meeting. When asked why she didn’t wait until after the meeting, she replied, “I didn’t know it was inappropriate to answer the call. How would I have known?”

From Boston to San Francisco, and all points in between, young professionals (along with many veterans) don’t know the rules of engagement when it comes to good manners and protocol in the office, client meetings or business dining. Those who cavalierly take the “I’ll wing it” approach are often sorry. I’m thinking of the associate who went to lunch with a partner at a fancy French restaurant and ordered the Niçoise salad, which he pronounced “ni-cozy,” and proceeded to eat much of it with his hands. You know, cold green beans, boiled eggs, olives … all finger foods, right?

Others new to a professional environment will often cringe at the thought of being on display when it comes to client meetings, especially when real food in a real restaurant might be involved. Brought up on Chicken McNuggets, Hot Pockets and pizza (and eaten in front of a screen of some kind, rather than around a table), many Millennials find fine dining an intimidating experience.

One law firm that shall go unnamed recently asked me to help them get their class of 30 new associates geared up for a major black-tie event. Here are a few of the questions that took me by surprise:

  1. Do I have to wear a tie?
  2. Why should it matter what I’m wearing?
  3. What’s with all the forks and glasses?

One defining characteristic of many Millennials is their desire to know the rules. Think of video games—they are chock full of rules, guidelines and strategy. Young people truly want to know what’s expected of them and why. Especially the why, and the answer isn’t, “because I said so.” Business etiquette is important because it levels the playing field and gets everyone on the same page.

When we know the rules and what’s expected of us, we can relax and be more ourselves. It’s doubt and uncertainty that make people uncomfortable in social and business situations.

One does not answer hand-held gadgets when a client is paying top dollar for one’s attention. One does not eat with one’s hands at a restaurant because in Western society, it is considered rude and unsanitary. At a black-tie function, one shows respect for the host, guests and oneself by dressing appropriately.

My advice to those struggling with getting new professionals to adhere to standards set by the firm in terms of dress, language, and overall conduct, is to be direct and explicit.

Spell out the what: no spandex, no yoga clothing, shoes must be worn in the office (note: socks are not considered shoes), email isn’t the place for IM abbreviations, etc.
And, spell out the why: as a professional firm, we have certain standards we expect all involved to adhere to so that our clients, customers, and co-workers enjoy a level of behavior and appearance consistent with the firm’s image. Additionally, clients not only want to know you’re worth the rates they are paying; they want you to look like you’re worth it as well.

By communicating and enforcing clear guidelines on acceptable and desired behavior in the workplace—and the world—you will help your staff achieve a level of comfort, polish and sophistication that will benefit them not only professionally, but socially as well.

We provide soft skills training and consulting to professional services firms covering all areas of business communication.

Neels & Company – Strategic Business Communication
P. O. Box 623, Boston, MA 02117
800-975-7031 ext. 701
general inquiries:


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