Is business etiquette dying in Malaysia? Or are we just reserving it for customers? Even then, many customers would argue the point of whether corporations understand the definition of business etiquette or not. Having been on both sides of the divide – that of customer as well as a vendor of training, coaching and development services – I myself am inclined to think that business etiquette will soon become a lost art in this country.

Sometime last year, my company was invited to present a proposal to a premier Malaysian banking group which has a high profile and distinguished history. We went through the rigorous vendor registration process and were truly excited when our written proposal was shortlisted for presentation. I prepared my slide deck with much care, rehearsed what I would say, and on the morning of the presentation, dressed with extra care.

Brimming with confidence, I stepped through the hallowed hall of the bank’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur and took the elevator up to the procurement department, where six people were presumably waiting to listen to me as I explained my proposal and did my sales pitch. Five minutes into the presentation, my patience began to wear thin and annoyance began to bubble up inside me. Of the six representatives of the bank who were present, only ONE was paying attention. The other five were busy typing messages on their cell phones and their laptops!

They had given me 30 minutes to do the presentation. Ten minutes before the time was up, one of them looked up from her furious typing and sternly reminded me that I had only 10 minutes left. “I am aware,” I replied. “I am on my last slide.” She would have noted this if she had been paying attention, as the slide stated “Thank you for your attention.”

I was really tempted at that point to give the whole group a piece of my mind and a quick lesson on good manners but I didn’t, as it is not our culture to do that and I didn’t want to antagonise the prospective client. In retrospect, I should have.

I am in the business of educating and developing people and I have acquired somewhat of a reputation amongst my clients for not being one to mince my words. They rather like it, because I often say it as it is, but with sincerity and passion, and also a touch of humour, which makes it easy to swallow. I teach people to have boundaries, to hold fast to their values, and to have the courage of their convictions, which means giving feedback when it is due.

I still give myself a virtual smack because I missed the opportunity to give the bank officials feedback on the rude behaviour of their learning and development and procurement staff. These days, however, I do not miss the opportunity to do so. If someone violates my values, they will certainly hear about it – from me. It’s called protecting your boundaries.

I offered the same advice to a friend and business colleague who recently went to the training academy of a huge multinational to introduce her company and her portfolio of services. She had written in to the top man himself, a rather colourful and well-known corporate figure in the region, to request for a meeting. In her e-mail, she had sent her company portfolio with its full list of services, which includes sourcing proficient training providers for organisations

The tycoon referred her to the head of his organisation’s learning & development arm, who invited her to come in for a meeting. Excited and full of anticipation at being able to service one of the region’s most well-known multinationals, she arrived at the training academy, ready to win her client over, as she had done many a time with other prestigious companies. My friend is a highly efficient, no-nonsense woman who knows her stuff and is highly respected in her industry. Not this time, though. She left the 20-minute meeting seething with anger and disappointment at the way she was treated.

The first sign that things were going to go south was when she projected the first slide in her presentation and the client’s head of L&D remarked “How come your company is made up of all MIC?”, referring to Malaysian Indian Congress, the Indian political party. She replied politely that she did have staff of Indian and Malay origin in her team, but her retorted that it wasn’t enough and she needed to recruit “more fairly”.

Halfway through the brief meeting, he asked what her academic qualifications were, as if it had anything to do with the subject at hand. Then he replied that his company had no need of her services because his people were competent enough to do the job.

His whole attitude was condescending and demeaning. Forgetting that my friend was a self-made chief executive of her own outfit, he treated her like a saleperson trying to hawk cheap goods at his door. She left the meeting feeling really down, shocked that a representative of one of Malaysia’s most successful home grown conglomerates had treated her with such contempt.

When she called me to vent her feelings, I stoked the raging fire further – I told her to write a letter to the Number 1 man in the company. I’ll help you edit it, I told her. Apprehensive at first, because it’s not part of our culture to give such feedback, she agreed that it was the right thing to do.

Why is it so important to tell people when they have behaved badly? Well, for one thing, they need to know not to do it again. They need to know that they cannot get away with trespassing the boundaries of good business etiquette. We as a society are too mindful of what others think, or the repercussions of giving feedback and therefore let people get away with murder. How then, do people know where to stop?

If you have been treated badly as a customer, there is usually recourse through customer relationship management systems. If you have been treated badly as a vendor, however, only a select one or two people who interface with you will know about it, and they are often clueless because they have not learned business etiquette. So the only way to be heard is to let the big shots in the company know about it. If they do something about it, hurrah – you’ve effected change and you know you’ll be treated with more respect in the future. If they don’t, well, let’s see where their shoddy business practices will get them.

Stand by your principles and speak up today if you’re unhappy about something. All change starts with one person saying or doing something about it.

Sheila Singam is the founder of The Human Equation, a company dedicated to bringing the best out of people through training, coaching and facilitation. She believes everyone should hold strongly to their values and ensure they are fulfilled.



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