No place for courtesy in business?

UK businesses have far more important issues on which to focus than courtesy. Just think of: the Confederation of British Industry’s recent warnings about UK businesses’ weak profitability; soaring absenteeism costing UK businesses an estimated £11.6 billion every year; poor responsiveness to customers’ requirements estimated to lose UK businesses some £20 bn a year through poor customer service.

With such massive problems, why should any company boss care: whether their call centre operatives listen and respond to their customers or say please and thanks? whether supervisors treat staff politely, just as long as they turn up on time and do their job? whether their employees feel fulfilled and motivated, provided they meet their sales targets?

Modern businesses need to be efficient, to operate perfect processes and to cut out all unnecessary costs, so there is no place for the luxury of courtesy – right?

Wrong.

Courtesy is not a cost. Courtesy is free. Courtesy can be used as a business tool more resilient than any artificial management process. And courtesy can influence the long-term success of any business that wants to operate honestly, efficiently and effectively.

This is easy to say when not faced by: angry customers demanding their money back as a result of faulty products; apoplectic bosses demanding to know why their instructions have not been carried out to schedule due to inevitable failures in the supply chain; unbearable workloads dumped on overstretched employees who hate their jobs.

Sadly, these scenarios are real and commonplace, but courtesy can help to manage such problems and even remedy them. Courtesy can: diffuse anger and frustration; enable empathy and understanding; motivate people and retain employees; increase profitability through improved efficiency and customer loyalty.

While it may not be able to resolve structural problems in the economy, courtesy can play a major part in resolving problems such as absenteeism and poor customer service – problems with a combined cost to UK business of £31.6 bn a year.

But is it really possible to resolve these problems for free? Are no management consultants, trainers, business visionaries, analysts or strategists needed? Perhaps, but any business wanting to find real solutions without adding to its costs could find that it already possesses all the resources it needs within its own people.

Yet just because courtesy is free, it does not follow that improving courtesy in a business is easy. Anger, shouting and bullying are the easy options – the reason why they are so common. Running a courteous business requires responsibility, commitment and self-control – unfashionable, perhaps, but remarkably effective.

Customers can be annoying, but that is no excuse to ignore or abuse them. Employees can be difficult, but that is no excuse to treat them badly. Excessive workloads can create stress, but that is no excuse to express it through bullying in the workplace. All these behaviours are the easiest options, but also the most damaging to a business.

Responding to customers’ needs can turn complaints into new business; considerate employee relations can create a highly motivated workforce; managing stress can attract help with handling heavy workloads.

Courtesy cannot solve everything, but a polite business has the potential to outperform one that cares nothing for people, either its employees or customers.

Satisfied customers, motivated staff, increased efficiency and improved employee retention can all reduce costs and raise profitability of a courteous business.

So while many people in a business could already be acting courteously, does it not seem a good idea to examine the effects of polite behaviour and see what a concerted internal campaign to improve courtesy could achieve? If not to create a better working environment, what if this boosted the company’s financial performance?

Perhaps more businesses need to create a place for courtesy – before their shareholders demand it!

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