Experts Say Professionalism Declining in the Workplace

Whether it’s on the corporate level or in a small business, experts maintain that professionalism is eroding in the workplace with the problems seen as going far beyond unreturned phone calls or email messages.

Dana Pigford, founder of Professionalism Matters, Inc., a professional development training and consulting service in Lithonia, GA, defines professionalism as “being responsible and accountable and treating people the way you would like to be treated.”

Though technological advancements and innovations have increased business efficiencies, Pigford says they create much more distance between people. Years ago, co-workers would talk to their neighbor in the next cubicle.

“Now we tend to go to Google or do a search,” she said. “Things like emailing and text messaging creates distance so you don’t tend to foster a lot of personal relationships.”

Where business owners are coming up short has to do with the lack of fundamentals. What ends up happening is professionalism can be either a competitive advantage or a point of differentiation.

“People like to do business with those that are responsible, fair and do what they say they’re going to do,” said Pigford.

Having to prove yourself

Certain industries that have been commodified such as the power and phone utilities have experienced problems coming out of deregulation because their company culture enjoyed a long-time monopoly and did not place a premium on professionalism. Now consumers want to switch to a carrier that’s more personalized.

Small businesses, Pigford asserted, have a much higher hurdle to leap because they have to assuage those fears and create the perception that professionalism is no longer a barrier.

“You kind of have to prove yourself through your image, your documents, your deliverables and your branding,” she said.

A former management consultant for IBM, Pigford now conducts workshops and training sessions to help companies address their deficiencies in professionalism. One area that consistently comes up lacking is email and voicemail etiquette.

“We’re finding more and more groups are being overloaded by this saying they’re not getting anything accomplished,” she said. “We need standardization in our emails and PowerPoint presentations. It’s like an octopus with eight different arms–everyone is doing it their own way.”

Survival of the fittest

Customer service and customer satisfaction are closely associated with the decline in professionalism, according to Gene Fairbrother, a Dallas, TX-based consultant for the National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE).

“To some degree we have created our own monsters and allowed greed to take over,” said Fairbrother. “We have put incentives for greed to take the lead.”

When entrepreneurs emerge from the corporate arena and get in their own business it often becomes a survival of the fittest.

“They say ‘I may not be climbing the corporate ladder but I am the gazelle and I can run faster than the lion in order for me to survive,’ ” he said. As a result, “they are likely to do things that are not totally appropriate.”

To counter this attitude Fairbrother noted that more MBA programs are incorporating ethics courses into their curriculum. He says that until the entire business community decides to take a stand against this mindset, along with the chambers of commerce, Kiwanis Club and other business groups “it will continue to go this way.”

Running after the dollar

Sometimes customers don’t realize the extent that professionalism has declined until they receive some outstanding service that stands out because it’s so rare.

“That just tells you that the majority of people aren’t doing that,” said Roger Bierman, a franchise relations manager for Fiducial for Alaska, the Northeast, Northcentral and Northwest regions.

Years ago, it was common for small business owners to take the time to explain things to their clients. Now it’s a different story.

“Today it just seems that they’re just running after the dollar,” he said. “I see it all the time.”

Bierman finds that the more successful entrepreneurs have regular contact with their clients. But when clients are not getting the hands-on treatment they feel they deserve, they start considering their options.

“When the price is high and you still don’t get the service then it makes you wonder,” he said.

On a personal note, Bierman related that he asked his dentist for a quote on a crown but when he scheduled an appointment for having the work done eight months later the price had jumped an additional $800.

“Where’s professionalism gone in American business?” he asked. “I go back to the almighty dollar. Basically even your doctors, dentists and lawyers are all trying to milk the cow so fast and get so much out of it that they forgot about it [professionalism] and are handling way more clients then they should.”

The dilemma for major retailers, Bierman says, is that they’ve tried to stay in line with pricing but they run into problems trying to meet competition with low prices while holding a certain standard on professionalism. A neighborhood hardware store, for instance, can still provide something the big boxes cannot: personalized service where customers are shown how to do things.

“If you’re looking for help in the big chain hardware stores you’re on your own,” he said.

It’s an awareness issue

John Innes, president of ACH Processing Company in Savannah, GA, that provides automated clearing house processing of electronic funds transfers through the direct Federal Reserve Fedline system, thinks that the lack of professionalism is an awareness issue.

“We’re in the processing side of the banking industry and unfortunately it’s an easy side to get into,” said Innes. “There are no standards and that creates problems. This happens at big institutions particularly if there is no human intervention and no human looks at it. People will lie, cheat, steal and manipulate the system.”

Depending on the type of transaction, Innes says some banks will turn a blind eye to what’s going on because it’s already making enough money on its fees. He considers the lack of professionalism to be pervasive in U.S. society which is continually “trying to find a way to get money for nothing.”

What matters most to him in the work environment are old-fashioned values which are hallmarks of professionalism.

“As long as you’re honest and congenial with everybody–those are the important things,” he said.

Providing the Platinum Rule

Lorna Riley, president of the American Training Association and a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) in Vista, CA, divides professionalism into two categories of skill silos. The first is self-management which includes those things you do behind the scenes that no one can see while the second, called cycle management, involves what you do in front of customers.

“Service has to do with first impressions on everything,” she said. “Are your windows clean? Does your company sign present itself well? At what level does it pitch to your clientele?”

According to Riley, professionalism encompasses such areas as one’s greeting, tone of voice, building rapport, listening, making recommendations, problem solving as well as taking ownership and responsibility of the situation. It comes down to how well you know your business and being able to deal with time and stress issues.

“If you’re really a pro you get good at your craft,” she said. When problems arise, she asks “are you going to do something about it instead of letting it fester and be part of the solution instead of part of the problem?”

Riley says it’s still possible to improve one’s professionalism.

“There is hope and it comes from good role models; people who want to be the best at what they do,” she said. “Do not provide people with the Golden Rule which is inappropriate because you should treat others the way they want to be treated” which is known as the Platinum Rule.

If you’re really going to be the best in your class, Riley believes that you have to provide a much higher level of professionalism to clients.

“They want solutions fast, follow through, accuracy, great advice, availability and partnering,” she said. “They want it all.”

Training people to give good advice

Bad experiences in the marketplace aren’t easily forgotten. Just ask Gene Polley, a senior business advisor in Fiducial’s San Diego, CA. He used to enjoy shopping at stores where he got premier service but now customers are charged list price and service has been cut.

During the holiday season Polley arrived at a store to do some shopping. The store was due to close in five minutes but the doors had already been locked. He knocked on the door to get the attention of a young man talking on his cell phone behind the counter. While Polley pointed to his watch, the clerk turned his back. Polley then took out his cell phone and left a message on the store’s voicemail system telling them that the doors were locked before the actual close of business. He hasn’t been back.

“I have definitely noticed a difference in customer service levels,” said Polley. “That’s the reason why our clients like us because everyone here has a good phone manner. We’re very much conscious of how we sound when we’re talking to the client. We try to be very client-oriented and it undoubtedly shows.”

Polley thinks training holds the key to improving the state of professionalism.

“You’ve got to train people on how to give good advice,” he said. “You have to show them this is the way you treat a customer if you want to keep them.”

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