AML in Print

New Economy, old manners

Manners maven attempts to teach e-businesses some e-tiquette

Ron Leuty
Business Times Staff Writer

Lisa Mirza Grotts is teaching Internet workers a new application: table manners.

The new economy's warp-speed growth has left social skills in the dust, says Mirza, an etiquette and protocol consultant in San Francisco, and professional faux pas are on the rise.

Yet a growing number of companies are discovering that their back-offices, front lines and, yes, even their executives need lessons in the social graces.

"Good manners don't cost a penny, but bad ones can lose money." Says Mirza, a former director of protocol for the City of San Francisco who started The AML Group two years ago.

That's especially true at Internet-related firms, where many of whose workers are only a few months removed from grabbing the last slice of dorm-room pizza. Now those same 20-somethings are meeting with venture capitalists, negotiating multimillion dollar partnerships and hobnobbing with key clients.

Yet some of them simply aren't socially polished.

Mirza recalls the young president of an Internet Company who at a seven course dinner quietly and quickly wrapped most of his silverware in a napkin rather that pick the wrong fork for the wrong course.

That's symptomatic of today's sudden wealth syndrome, Mirza says. "You used to earn your wealth much later in life," she says, "when you had the maturity to handle it."

Business dining, email etiquette (or Netiquette) and how to make small talk are among the topics Mirza covers in four hour seminars with a wide range of clients.

Too dainty and too time-consuming in today's pedal-to-the-metal economy? Not according to the firms rapping on Mirza's door.

Seven of every 10 AML clients are businesses. Those include e-business solutions firm Scient, several startup Internet applications firms, software giant Oracle, investment banker Putman, Lovell Guardiola & Thornton, and American Airlines.

More than Emily Post type subtleties, etiquette includes everything from writing a proper "Thank You" note to making a gracious toast.

Simply put, Mirza says: "Good manners are good business".

"Etiquette has kind of a negative connotation," Mirza says. "People see it as snobbery, tea and white gloves. But everybody needs to learn a set of rules."

Firms like San Francisco-based Scient are considering making etiquette training a regular part of new employee orientations.

"You're always in a business situation- you go to lunch with the boss, you take an interviewee to lunch," says Willie Kim, Scient's vice president of operations. "Anybody who works in business can find (etiquette training) useful."

Yet social gaffes are on the rise, Mirza says, as the finer points of business meetings get waylaid in the race for the latest greatest, fastest tech gizmo. There simply isn't time to develop a corporate protocol in Internet time.

Scient, for example, has spent the past two years building its business from a startup to nearly 1,000 employees. Many of those workers are either fresh out of college or have advanced quickly from quieter back-office jobs.

"We've got some people who are great technologists but they haven't had to work in client-facing situations before, " Kim says.

The payoff runs deep, says Dorthea Johnson, founder and director of the Protocol School of Washington, a Virginia based organization that has trained more than 900 people since opening in 1988. Companies build a consistent image of culture; employees get a measure of self-confidence and, perhaps, a leg up. "Etiquette and protocol knowledge alone won't get you anywhere," she says, "but it will give you an edge over someone else who's equal."

The rush to provide those skills had launched the need for more etiquette trainers themselves. "I have never seen anything like the hunger I see now," Johnson says.

Mirza also wants to push some Bay Area colleges and Universities to include etiquette in their business curricula. That, she says, will parlay into more polite, skilled and confident corporate leaders.

"(Etiquette's) like and exam, " Mirza says. "If you know the answers, you can't wait for (the test); if not your anxious."