Retail Sales – American Sales Etiquette

by Gary Kerns on September 22, 2011

Sales etiquette is a much overlooked aspect of retail sales. In today’s interconnected world, even small businesses are doing business internationally. This means that you may be dealing with customs or etiquette that is different than you are accustomed. Most people don’t give a second thought to a handshake, how close to be to someone, or how to address someone. But when dealing with another culture, doing one of these items wrong could cost you a sale, so here’s some things to keep in mind.

Retail Sales - American Sales Etiquette
Hand shake: In American sales etiquette, a strong handshake can make or break a business relationship. A firm grip of the right hand, held just long enough to be polite, but shy of being overly intimate, is expected. Unfortunately, there are the problematic hand shakes: the bone-crushing squeeze that feels like your bones will break; or the barely there, limp, less than enthusiastic “dead fish” or “wimpy” handshake. One thing to keep in mind, while it is usually considered rude to refuse a hand shake, remember that someone may do so for reasons like painful arthritic hands or because they are sick and don’t want to pass it on to you. If you are the sufferer, please remember to give a polite and quick explanation.

Personal Space: There are so many cultural differences! For instance, in Spain, it’s polite and expected that you should stand very close to someone you are speaking to, yet in many northern countries it’s impolite to do so. In America, there is an expectation of that “two feet of personal space” rule. This means that most people who are in a business relationship would feel uncomfortably crowded if you were to stand closer than about 18 to 24 inches apart. Closer signifies a more intimate relationship.


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Addressing Business Colleagues: Using “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Miss” followed by their surname, their last name, in the European workplace is expected. In America, it is quite the opposite. In most American workplaces, co-workers and even sales person/client relationships are quickly put into a first name basis status rather quickly. The European practice of formal introductions, meaning the less important person introduced to the more important one (i.e. if Mr. Smith is the owner of the company you work for and Mr. Jones is your new hire, the introduction would be “Mr. Smith, I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Jones”) is not as strictly adhered to in the US. While it’s polite to always introduce people who are not acquainted, “more important vs. less important” class distinctions are usually not made.

This post is primarily about retail sales and American sales etiquette, if you are an American sales rep who is heading overseas, it is definitely worth your time to find out the local customs in the country you are visiting!

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