Promises, Promises. Do You Keep Yours In Business?

Contributed by Beate Chelette

You’re waiting, by the phone, for a scheduled business call or an exploratory communication about a new project. Fifteen, then 20 minutes pass, and no call. Not even a text message explaining the delay. It’s happened to me three times in the last week and it is plenty annoying. Or people RSVP for a seminar they’ve registered for but then never show up. This kind of behavior seems to be popping up everywhere more and more. Have you noticed it, too?

Business experts and sociologists confirm that manners in business are in decline, reflecting a general deterioration of etiquette that is a consequence of changing times, attitudes, and social media. Smartphones make it easier to navigate our social and professional lives, and if you are like me, your gadgets rule your business and personal life. Technology was supposed to make communication easier, but people hide behind e-mail or text messages to cancel appointments last minute or after the fact, or do things that feel uncomfortable to do in person or on the phone. We have all done it. And the result? The standards of what is acceptable for being late and when and how to cancel have been lowered.

There is even a new term for it called “digital flakiness.” But here’s the thing: if you believe that nobody notices that you have fallen into this category, think again. People you do business with will notice. Last week a potential client set up a free consultation with me and missed the first one. His excuse was that he thought the meeting was the following day. Then he contacted my executive assistant to confirm the second appointment only to never show up! This is not someone I want to do business with. This person is not at my professional level.

There are a lot of excuses out there, some genuine and others just ridiculous and they can accumulate and end up hurting your professional reputation.


Sociologist Richard Ling, a professor of communication at the IT University of Copenhagen calls these freewheeling interactions micro-coordination. Before cellphones, he told the New York Times, “people made plans based on prearranged times and places, whereas now we can micro-coordinate, or adjust plans according to real-time events, be it a traffic jam or a late night at the office.”
With so many tech changes, “we need to have new rules for interaction,” says Von Bakanic, a sociology professor at the College of Charleston, “and the definition of good etiquette is constantly evolving.”

Yes, we are developing new rules as we go along–we no longer have to send a handwritten thank-you note for every event or party we attend–but some things should never change. We still need to operate with the core value of showing respect and consideration to other people. Personally, I still write handwritten thank you notes. Adding that personal touch makes a huge difference because at the end of the day, you do business with people. When you make them feel special and important it sets you apart in a significant way.

Don’t be a Flake!

We have all been flaky at times in our lives, but when it becomes chronic or even occasional, that’s a problem. How do you know if you’re a chronic flake? Flaky people often forget to follow through on things. They make a note to call a prospective client back, or to check that a project is on track, or deliver the additional information that was promised, but then don’t. In other words, they drop the ball and more often than just once.

Flakes often have problems with managing time. They routinely cancel or are late to meetings. In other words, they are unreliable. A former client of mine, a beautiful and stylish public relations specialist, cancelled plans so routinely that people who knew her concluded she suffered from some kind of psychological pathology–and eventually, no one would hire her anymore.

Follow these three basic ideas and behaviors, and you will likely never be accused of being a flake:

  • You should only make appointments and promises that you can—and will–keep. Of course, things like traffic or sudden illness can’t be helped. We’re human.
  • To get anywhere in life you have to commit. First to yourself and second to the action(s) required getting there. Don’t over promise and under deliver. Do the opposite, under promise and over deliver by setting smaller goals so that you can continuously exceed them.
  • When you say you’re going to do something, in the words of the Nike slogan – just do it. If you tell a client or colleague that you’ll call them next Tuesday at 10 a.m., make sure you do.

And most importantly of all, remember that it’s never just business. It’s the people that you do business with that matter. Follow the simple rule of behaving like you want others to behave toward you. Please share your thoughts on how bad business etiquette has ruined a deal, or what your colleagues get away with.

Beate Chelette is a respected career coach, consummate entrepreneur and founder of The Women’s Code, a unique guide to personal and career success that she created after selling one of her companies to Bill Gates for millions of dollars. It offers a code of conduct for today’s business, private and digital world.