Think before you speak. This is an old adage that resonates loudly when managing employees. Two examples of the failure of employees have haunted us for years. The first was with our first employee. She was caught off guard when an attorney/client asked her, after discussing Melissa’s academic background with Melissa, “What’s your background?” Mindlessly, the employee said “I’m from Jacksonville” in a strong southern accent. The attorney, who was from Jacksonville also, was not interested in where she was born, but rather, what background she had to do her job in ways that could help him. Melissa was mortified, but what can you do? The 2nd example of a failure to think before speaking we now call the “princess” line. A client asked our entire team to participate in a dinner meeting between 2 days of a mock trial. He is the type of guy who likes to make everyone comfortable and, in an effort to get to know our team, he asked everyone, “What are your long term plans?” We had a large team on that project and many were planning to continue their education with graduate school, so those who answered in that way generated what I would classify as “normal” discussions about their plans. However, one young women who was working for us on what was her first (and last, for reasons about to be revealed) said, in all seriousness, “I want to be a princess and live in a castle…” Everyone was speechless. Fortunately the client was a long time, friendly client, and it didn’t cause a problem, but again, we were mortified that someone would be so thoughtless and not realize how their interactions with clients reflect on everyone else. Employees must know, as in a prior post, where their paychecks come from and how to impress those who are paying those paychecks, or at least not embarrass the bosses!
I suppose there is a time in many girls’ and women’s lives when they dream of becoming a princess. Unfortunately, however, few people ever realize their princess dream, such that, at some point, they are living in a fantasy world if they persist in their search for Prince Charming. (As an aside, I have met far more uncharming “frogs” than charming princes, reducing the likelihood I will ever be swept off my feet by royalty!) There are some organizations that teach people how to make small talk, or give what some people call “elevator speeches” when asked to introduce themselves, but absent attending one of these self help seminars, most people have to learn what to say around clients and, just as important, what not to say. One way to learn appropriate conversation with clients is to listen to the answers given by one’s boss or others in authority when they are asked about their qualifications, background, interests, and long term plans. There are no circumstances when it is acceptable to be coy, sarcastic, or vulgar in response to a client’s genuine inquiry. If an employee knows attending dinner or another meeting with a client is a mandatory part of the job for the client’s project, then the employee should be prepared to interact with the client in a professional and mature manner. Saying the wrong thing, or saying anything at the wrong time, is a sure way to alienate the client and it is guaranteed not to impress the boss.