Skip navigation

Nicolas_Martin_QA_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


It's no surprise that etiquette in the workplace has undergone fundamental changes in reaction to new technology and shifting attitudes. Knowing the right way to manage things such as casual Fridays and round-the-clock electronic communications has left many workers stressed and overwhelmed. To provide a roadmap through this confusing terrain, Nicholas Ivor Martin has co-authored Miss Manners Minds Your Business with his mother Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners. Their syndicated column appears three times a week in more than 200 newspapers in the United States and abroad. Business writer Robert Lerose spoke with Martin about how to behave professionally in today's evolving business environment.


RL: You make a distinction between manners and etiquette. How would you define them?

NM: Basically, manners are the underlying rules and meanings, and etiquette is the specifics [or the rules that apply to a particular situation]. These things evolve depending on time, circumstance, history, and culture.


RL: The lines between personal and professional behavior are more blurred than ever, due in large part to modern technology. What are some ways to manage these tenuous boundaries?

NM: We are not looking to invent new things. We try to take the meanings that underlay old principles and find a way to apply them when new technology comes along. The way to draw the distinction is to think first about what the underlying principles are—but also to respect what each realm is trying to accomplish. When you're at work, you're there to work. One shouldn't be embarrassed about that. In the modern world, the distinction between personal and professional has exactly reversed the underlying point.


RL: How so?

NM: There was a time when one showed respect for certain people in the office, such as other executives or professionals, but you could call the secretary by her first name rather than with an honorific. We recognized that there were things that were really very wrong about that behavior. But instead of applying the underlying rule—which was, let's respect everyone—[the workplace adopted] the rule of not respecting anyone. The same thing happened with personal and professional behavior.


RL: You write that "the misleading thing about workplace friendships is that they almost never are.…that they're inflated by daily proximity and shared experience." What is your advice for maintaining cordial but professional relationships with co-workers?

NM: The issue is sort of all of the fake socializing that gets added on. Do we really need to be on each other's Facebook friend pages? Do we really need to do all of the enforced outside socializing? We're not saying that there are not friendships at work. I have many, my mother has many, everyone does. It's just the assumption that we're friends first or that we're even friends at all. You can be polite and professional without being best friends.


RL: You also believe that open-plan offices have more drawbacks than benefits. Why?

NM: I think the significant benefit is that you can get more people into less space. The benefit to the employer is fairly clear. There is also an impression that everybody keeps an eye on each other, such as if someone is goofing off. Those are, of course, not necessarily benefits to the employee, but they also turn out not to be true. A significant number of letters we get are about the smell from food because people are eating lunch at their desk. Or [the distraction of] personal calls, or sneezing and coughing—the sort of normal human behaviors that do sometimes prevent one from getting work done.


RL: Is there a real world example that comes to mind?


NM: We have a letter in the book from a lawyer who was disturbed by a new secretary in the hallway outside his office. She was constantly talking on her phone through the entire day and laughing so loudly that he couldn't get any work done. He asked us: 'How do I complain [in a professional manner]?’ Rather than believe that he himself had a legitimate basis for concern, he went from the assumption that she should be able to do this. We ask: why? Isn't she there to work? Our advice was that her supervisor should inform her that her behavior was a distraction and that personal calls should not be made on company time.


RL: You're not a fan of relaxed dress codes. What do you object to?

NM: That no one knows what the codes are. If the rules were understood and agreed and reasonably accomplished the goal, of course we have no concern with it. The purpose of professional dress is to dress the part—to look like you are serious about what you are doing both for your colleagues and for your customers. How that is accomplished depends on time and location.


RL: Email and other electronic messaging are both efficient and a great time drain. What's your advice for managing this unstoppable torrent of communication?

NM: As managers we too often ignore the consequences of the added convenience. If you had asked me 10 years ago if I thought it was reasonable to call up an employee of mine at three in the morning and ask them a question that could just as well wait until morning, my answer would have been, 'No, that's ridiculous.' And yet we too often consider that to be a legitimate thing to do with email. So we need to think about not just what's possible but what's reasonable.


RL: If you're on the receiving end of these 3 a.m. emails from a customer, for example, what's the best way of handling the situation without potentially harming the relationship?

NM: I don't mean to suggest that sending an email—and also expecting a response—at 3 in the morning is now reasonable or expected except in unusual cases, such as emergency services. Email is a faster version of the postal mail, and while you expect prompt replies to letters, you don't expect instantaneous ones. Unless there is some reason why a customer should expect—and you are willing to provide—24-hour service, the email sent at three can reasonably be returned your next business day.


RL: What's one change in behavior you would like to see every small business institute tomorrow?

NM: My fundamental point is to respect one another's colleagues and co-workers. But I don't want to say that's a change because I think that's done to an enormous degree in a lot of the world. We deal with the cases where it isn't happening and so I would like those to change.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Starting a business is usually one of the great events in an entrepreneur’s life. It is an exciting moment for sure –one that is the result of a lot of thought, planning, hard work, creativity, money, and hope. When that grand opening day finally arrives, the entrepreneur is rightfully optimistic.


That rose-colored vibe will usually last for a while, and if the entrepreneur is good at what she does, picked the right business, and is doing things right, that feeling should last a long time. After all, a main reason to take the risk necessary to start one’s own business is to find more satisfaction at work. That should be the case.


However, even if things are going along well, it is also true that nothing is perfect and that unanticipated things happen. There will always be valleys to go along with the peaks.


I know a real estate agent who had a gravy train for a long time. Not long after she started her career, she teamed up with an established broker with a long list of clients, and for many years the younger agent never really had to work hard to get business because her partner kept feeding her warm leads.Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png


However, the older broker eventually retired.


For a while, the younger agent was fine, working the residuals of her previous collaboration. But, after a while, business tapered off and she didn’t know what to do. One of the things they don’t tell you before you start a business is that you will need to hustle for clients and customers, and then do it some more, and then some more. She had never learned that lesson.


One of the great things about working for someone else is that the rainmaking is usually their problem. You are given a job title and description, and duties and projects, but usually you do not have to hustle for work.


However, when you work for yourself, the opposite is true. You can’t ever stop marketing yourself and your business. You are the rainmaker, president, head of sales, and Chief Visionary Officer all rolled into one person.


But that’s not the only thing they don’t tell you at small business school.


Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss


The next is that you aren’t going to get a lot of accolades when you work for yourself. In an office with co-workers and managers, it’s not unusual to hear that you did a good job on a project, or congratulations for a big sale.


But when you are the boss, don’t expect to get a lot of compliments. The only one there to give them to you is you. It is not often that you will hear “great job” from an employee. So you better have a lot of confidence because the joys of the job are mostly up to you  - from a job done right, a business run well, a payroll met, or a client made happy, and not from someone telling you that you did a good job.


Which leads to the third and final thing that they don’t tell you when you start your own business: there is no finish line. When you start a new job, you usually have a good idea of how long you plan to be there or where you would ideally like to go within the organization. There are benchmarks and timelines.


But in your own small business, the end zone is far, far in the future. Of course there are those startups that begin with a plan to sell their business and exit three years down the line, but for the vast majority of small businesses, that is not the case.


It is probably safe to say that most entrepreneurs start their business with only a vague idea of where they want to go. Someday, down the road, maybe they will sell the business to fund their retirement, or give it to their kids, but the fact is, entrepreneurship is a long and winding road that leads to doors unknown.


Perhaps that’s just as well. For a true entrepreneur, the surprises of the journey are part of the allure. If you wanted a conventional career, you could have taken that boring job offer.


No thanks. Give us the unknown over the known any day. Because the one thing that they do teach in small business school is that for entrepreneurs, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts.

About Steve Strauss

Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest,The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss.

You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here

Coworking_body.jpgby Erin O’Donnell.

If your business has outgrown the garage or the coffee shop, but you’re not quite ready to sign a lease for your own office space, coworking might be the solution you’ve been looking for.

Coworking has grown dramatically in the last five years among entrepreneurs and small businesses. According to Deskmag, an online magazine about coworking, more than 800 coworking spaces are operating in the United States today, nearly double the number in 2010.

These communal workplaces offer small business owners shared access to everything from WiFi and printers to business seminars and coffee. The culture is casual and collaborative. Devotees prize coworking for the way it fosters innovation, networking, and the exchange of ideas among a diverse population of entrepreneurs, remote employees, and freelancers.

“People initially come here because they need a place to work, but they stay for the community,” says Liz Elam, founder of Link Coworking in Austin, Texas.

Elam had the idea to start a coworking space before she knew what it was called. She had just left a 14-year career with a major computer firm and was tired of trying to make phone calls or find an electrical outlet in a crowded coffeehouse. But she felt isolated working at home. Elam decided to create a “grown-up” workplace for professionals, she says, with an open floor plan and an inviting atmosphere.

That was four years ago. Today, Elam is opening a third Link location in Austin and is searching for space for a fourth. She thinks one reason coworking has taken off is because mobile technology ramped up just as the economy slowed down. Suddenly, she says, a lot of people realized they needed a new way to make a living and found they had the tools to do it virtually anywhere.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has also found that work is decentralizing. By 2020, the BLS forecasts that about 40 percent of the American workforce will be made up of independent contractors, temps, and sole proprietors.

Bump and connect

Bill Jacobson was still working on his tech startup in 2009 when he founded Workbar, a network of coworking spaces throughout the Boston area. Like Elam, he couldn’t find the kind of place he wanted to work, so he created it. “I didn’t even know what coworking was,” Jacobson said. “I felt like I could work from lots of places, but I needed a place to meet with my team, and I wanted to be with other people.”

He was intrigued by the concept of “bump and connect,” which promotes ways to meet people outside your own company and industry.

Professional development is part of the package as well. Workbar has about 700 members representing about 300 companies. They’re divided into eight sectors, including professional services, technology, energy and environment, and life sciences. Workbar brings in speakers and events on topics specific to each sector as well as broader subjects such as raising capital. They also have social nights and book clubs, to deepen the sense of community.

Workbar hubs in Boston and Cambridge are networked with about 50 other coworking spaces throughout the metro area. Members have access once a month to work in one of the other locations. “It’s nice if you want a commute that’s farther than your kitchen table but shorter than 20 minutes,” Jacobson says.

Even though collaboration is the coworking buzzword, everyone needs their own space sometimes. Workbar follows a standard setup, with common areas, semi-private areas for head-down work, and a switchboard area to make and take calls. Meeting rooms are also available.

A diverse population

Deskmag conducts an annual survey to track coworking trends. In 2013, 53 percent of coworkers were freelancers. Entrepreneurs with employees made up the next largest group, at 14 percent.

Another large segment of coworking is remote employees. The latest survey found nine percent of respondents worked off-site for a company with five employees or fewer, and another nine percent worked for firms with six to 99 employees.

Most members of Enerspace in Palo Alto are tech startups, says founder Jamie Russo. The firm’s Chicago location is about 60 percent startup businesses, with a variety of other professionals like attorneys, real estate agents, and marketers.


So what is the benefit of sitting shoulder to shoulder with someone in a different line of work? For Russo, relationships with other small business owners are valuable because many of the issues are universal. And people like to get advice from people they trust.

“There are so many things you need to know that have nothing to do with your business, like taxes and employee benefits,” Russo says. “You can read about all those things, but it’s much more helpful to have a conversation. You want to know that the person giving you the referral has the same mindset as you.”

The Deskmag survey also found that coworkers see themselves as more productive and creative than they were in traditional settings. More than 60 percent of those surveyed reported that their measure of work improved significantly, and 90 percent said coworking made them more confident.

An affordable arrangement

One of coworking’s biggest selling points is the low overhead. Options at Workbar range from a $125 per month membership that gives access five days a month. At the top end they offer private, lockable offices for four people ranging from $1,200 to $3,000 a month. The most popular option among coworking spaces is a membership that provides 24-hour access and/or dedicated work space for about $300 to $500 a month.

Russo says coworking also allows small companies to have a presence in the center of a thriving commercial district. In downtown Chicago, for example, she’s found the minimum amount of commercial space available to lease is 4,000 square feet. That costs more than $8,000 a month, requires a five-year commitment, and doesn't include furniture, Internet, or a kitchen.

For many companies, coworking is an affordable arrangement while they find their feet. Some offer a discount to clients who sign a six- or 12-month contract. But the month-to-month model is appealing to entrepreneurs who don’t know what their needs may be down the road.

Russo says she depends on her anchor clients to meet her own rent and pay her staff. But flexibility is such a big part of the coworking culture that she knows it must be part of the model. Members are asked to give 30 days’ notice before moving on. “We provide teams with really flexible space, and if something changes, they have the ability to leave,” Russo says. “That’s the difference between having tenants and having members.”


The average stay at Enerspace is about six months, Russo says. At Workbar, Jacobson says it’s closer to one year. The company networks with a wide variety of “outer spaces” to help growing firms find the next right fit.

In Austin, Elam’s third Link location caters exclusively to teams of 10 or more members, because she was seeing a demand. “Larger groups still want a collaborative workspace,” Elam says.

Next month in Kansas City, the coworking community will ponder what’s next at the third annual Global Coworking Unconference Conference, which is run by Elam. Last year’s conference drew more than 300 attendees. And the ABC show Shark Tank has taken notice of Workbar; the show will have an open casting call in May at the Cambridge location.

The heart of coworking is community, and it appeals to a workforce that feels cut off rather than connected by technology. “I can get a super workout at home, but I belong to a gym for the motivation,” Jacobson says. “I think everybody should have some level of membership-based workspace for those kinds of benefits.”


Business_Lifecycle_Thumbnail.gifEvery stage in the life of a business has its own rewards – and challenges. What works at startup may not necessarily work as your business grows and matures. Find out how you can fund and be prepared for each stage in the life of your company with our new infographic, Six Stages of a Business Lifecycle.

Click here to view the Six Stages of a Business Lifecycle infographic.

Spring_Cleaning_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


The advent of spring is an opportune time for small businesses to do some prudent housecleaning—in particular, assessing marketing efforts, reviewing office procedures, pruning client and prospect lists—in order to hone their core strengths and business-building activities. Some actions may seem clear, such as investing in newer energy efficient office equipment or updating software. Businesses that sell physical products can free up vital warehouse space by running sales on older or slow moving inventory. But there are other less obvious places where a clean sweep could revitalize your operations and services.


Place the customer first

The way that you promote your business might need some spring cleaning. In a rush to make the sale, some businesses focus on the superiority of their products instead of putting the customer at the center of the conversation. "The customer really doesn't care about what you do except as it intersects with his or her needs, problems, and challenges," says Dr. Joey Faucette, a Virginia-based business coach and author of Work Positive in a Negative World. "Dig deep to discover what the customer is looking for and then couch your services in terms that benefit them."


Faucette says that business owners should nurture the long-term value of their customers, not just seek an immediate payoff. You can ask open ended questions—such as "What else did you want to talk about today?" or "Is there any other service that you need?"—to uncover your customers' hidden needs and then work at satisfying them.


Staying away from excessively negative customers or customers who will never be satisfied can give your business a boost. "It costs too much to do business with some people," Faucette says. "Instead spend time with your ideal clients and ask them for one referral, and then reward that ideal client for passing you to their friends."


Stay passionate

Weeding out unrewarding customers from your house list—and being selective in choosing new clients—may sound harsh, but it can help you focus your efforts and resources on more profitable accounts.


"I think there's a misconception when you're a small business that you have to take on everybody just to pay the bills," says Sari Gabbay, president of U2R1, a California-based brand and marketing agency. "Come up with questions to ask your clients when you're in the first meeting with them. A big red flag to me is when a client says that they're not going to dedicate their full time to our relationship. It means they're not going to be available when I need them, which is going to delay deadlines."



Spring can be a good time to invest in a new image for your business. As your business grows, your brand should reflect your new strengths or the caliber of your client list. "When you get to a certain size or a certain vision, you need to present yourself in a certain way," Gabbay says. "For example, a lot of businesses are afraid of social media. They don't get that it's the perfect platform to consistently communicate with their clients and bring value to them. It's all part of understanding who you are as a brand after five to 10 years in business—and evolving."


Rediscovering your passion can be part of your spring makeover—something that Gabbay knows firsthand. She started out as a graphic and web designer before moving into management as her company grew. But when she realized that she had lost the drive for what really excited her, she went back to her creative roots. "If you aren't doing what you're passionate about and why you started your business," Gabbay says, "you're going to be burnt out and not succeed."


Use effective calls to action

Refreshing the look and feel of your website to keep pace with your evolving business is a perfect springtime activity. "First, see whether your website has enough images or the right images," says Shawn Graham, a Pennsylvania-based small business marketing consultant. "Make sure they accurately reflect whatever messaging you have. You can also use them to showcase a certain product or service to give your website visual interest."


Posting videos can breathe life into your website as long as they are used strategically. For example, how-to videos and videos that answer customer questions provide genuine value, position you as an expert, and build your credibility.


Graham says to look at blogs that you find engaging, figure out what appeals to you about them, and try to adapt them for your own blog. "You always want to think about your titles and topics," Graham says. "I highly encourage small businesses to have categories that clearly define what you're going to talk about to give your content strategy some structure. Make it easy as possible for your website visitors to find the information they're looking for so they have a positive experience that leads them to make a purchase or become a customer."


Calls to action need to be more effective today to grab your customers' attention and drive them to respond. For example, instead of asking customers to sign up for your free online newsletter with a generic "Sign Up" request, Graham says to tell them what they're going to get, what problem the newsletter will solve, or how it will fulfill their expectations—then customize the call to action with a "Get Started Now" or "Send Me Free Tips" order button. "Whether it's in the spring or periodically, it's important to find the time every week to think about your marketing," Graham says, "and ask how you can make your content or your website or your storefront better."

Anonymity_body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

Anonymous comments and reviews are the bane of many small business owners’ existence. Whether negative comments pop up on your own site, on review sites like Yelp, or appear on social media, the potential negative impact on your business is obvious. What’s not so obvious is what business owners should do about it. Here is what experts say are the best ways to handle negative anonymous commentary:

Stop the problem before it starts

“Making it extremely easy for your customers to connect with you whenever there’s a problem is the key to avoiding damaging negative anonymous comments,” says Micah Solomon, a consumer experience consultant and professional speaker. “Customers need every possible opportunity to tell you how they’re feeling. And they need to be able to see that you care, are listening, and will consider their opinion.” Make your email, contact form, and phone number prominent on your website, and be responsive to customer issues and concerns. “That way, your customers won’t have a need to take their negative comments to the web for the world to see,” he says.


Understand the nature of anonymity

The belief that anonymous comments and reviews are harsher than those that are signed—even with a pseudonym or web handle—is correct, according to research. University of Houston assistant professor Arthur D. Santana at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication found that anonymity and bad manners are linked. In his study, he found that more than half of anonymous comments were negative. This is due to what he calls the "online disinhibition effect." When people’s identities are hidden online, he explains, they are much more likely to behave differently than they would if people could see who they are.



Not all negative comments are damaging

Comments that are profane, written in all capital letters, or barely literate can be extremely upsetting to read, but they do minimal damage in a world of sophisticated web users who view them as little more than noise not worth paying attention to. If you have control over the platforms where these comments appear, it’s safe to delete them. If you don’t have control, some measure of comfort can be found in the knowledge that the vast majority of readers won’t be influenced by them. It’s also worth appealing to the site where the comments appear. They may be persuaded to take them down if the comments add no real value to the conversation.

Consider the reach of anonymous negative comments

Someone shouting horrible things about your company doesn’t do a lot of damage if they’re yelling into an empty room. Neal Shaffer, a social media strategy consultant, points out the importance of keeping a sense of perspective about where negative comments appear. He recalls a small business owner in the financial services industry who discovered that someone on Twitter was posting negative things about him on a daily basis.  “But the Twitter user complaining had very few followers and only seemed to be sending out complaining tweets, a sign that no one was listening and that the user had very little, if any, influence,” Shaffer says.

Don’t aim for perfection

While a no-hitter wins a baseball pitcher widespread acclaim, having no negative reviews associated with your products or services can actually make your business look bad. “It is impossible for any company to get 100 percent positive reviews over time, no matter how hard they try,” Schaffer says. “In fact, if there was a review site that offered only five-star reviews, people who aren’t familiar with your product or service might suspect that some of the reviews were fake. Having a negative comment here or there makes the reviews seem more legitimate.” Still, there’s no harm in encouraging your customers to post their own positive reviews as often as possible.

How you respond to negative reviews demonstrates how you do business

“The best policy is to respond to any negative comment when they appear on a legitimate review site and there is a user profile attached to it,” Shaffer says. “If it is anonymous, at least responding to it on the review site will show other consumers that you cared enough to respond and make things right.”

“Consumers feel empowered by social media and reviews site and are often surprised when their comments are being read by the companies they reviewed,” he adds. For maximum impact, responses should be friendly, professional, and to the point. “Let them know that their opinions matter,” Shaffer says. “When handled in such a way, those who complain can potentially be transformed into passionate fans.”


There is an oft-quoted statistic in business that it costs six times more to create a new customer than it does to keep a current one. While it may be difficult to actually quantify and prove that across the many and varied small businesses that are out there, there is no doubt that getting new customers definitely takes time, effort, and money.


So yes, it would behoove any small business owner to take extra good care of their current customers. Long-time customers allow us to pay the bills, hire employees, and grow our businesses. They are how entrepreneurs keep the dream alive.


That then begs the question: How do you create repeat, long-term customers? For, while a one-time customer is nice, it is that repeat customer who really makes the difference. Customers can choose any business to service their needs; they will only choose yours time and again if you offer them something above the ordinary.Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png


Here then are five ways to keep customers coming back for more:


1. Be great at what you do. People hire you to do a service for them, or they go into your shop to buy something from you, because they have wants and need. If your service is average, they may or may not be back. They may become a regular, or not. Who knows?


But what if you were great at what you do? They almost assuredly would be back. If you shine shoes, shine them the best you can. If you cook, use great ingredients and cook with love.


2. Deliver great customer service. Along the same lines, customers love you when they know that you love them back. Nordstrom is famous for their superior customer service, and that is why their customers are so very loyal. Costco, on the other end of the retail spectrum, has similarly great customer service, and with similar customer loyalty.


Talk about creating a great brand.


3. Treat your staff well. One of the most interesting small business surveys I ever saw examined the differences between the best franchises and the rest. The biggest difference was how the owner treated his or her employees. It turns out that the better boss you are, the happier your staff will be, and they happier they are, the better your customers are treated, and the better your customers are treated, the more they will like your business.

Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss


4. Add extra value. Recently, I decided not to bill some of my oldest customers for the weekly content that my business creates for them. I told them that I really appreciated their patronage over the years and this was my way to say thanks.


Yes, they were happy.


5. Say thank you to your customers. When you are done doing business with a mediocre shop, you say “thank you.” But when you leave a great business, they say thank you. And that is not the only time they say it. They say it even when it is unexpected, for no reason. They sincerely appreciate the people who patronize their business and let them know that.


So let me finish by saying one last thing: thank you for coming to our site and reading my content.

About Steve Strauss

Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest,The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss.

You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here

Filter Article

By tag: