Office coach: Owner wants to deflect personal attention

Marie G. McIntyre
Tribune News Service

Q. I’m new to being a business owner and, unfortunately, in the short time I’ve been running my own firm I’ve encountered a number of male customers who seem to view me as an available female rather than a professional accountant. Although I wear modest, conservative attire and do nothing to project an “on the market” vibe, these customers have focused on my social circumstances instead of my abilities.

Recently, for example, I met with a potential client who asked several overly personal questions. Because I didn’t want to be rude, I wound up providing more information than I would have liked. As a result, he offered a lot of advice about my personal relationships. This seemed very disrespectful, so how do I keep it from happening again?

A. While a few creepy customers might have lecherous intentions, some of these guys may simply be trying to fill a conversational vacuum. So the first step in solving this problem is to maintain control of the discussion in a pleasant, professional manner. Since you’re just starting out, this might require a bit of practice.

When meeting with prospective clients, you must be prepared to initiate the conversation and then move it forward in a productive direction. If you start with a concise description of your services, followed by some targeted business questions, customers are less likely to drift off track.

With those who like to chat, keep the topics appropriate by differentiating between what’s friendly and personal. Talking about pets, sports, or travel is friendly, while discussing family matters or social relationships is personal. And sexual banter is in a category all its own.

Once you have mentally defined your conversational boundaries, try to recognize when things are about to take an inappropriate turn. At that point, one helpful strategy is the “nonresponsive response,” in which you reply to a question with an answer that is both uninformative and redirecting.

For example, if a customer were to say “Do you enjoy being single?” you might reply, “My real focus is on work. By the way, how many different product lines do you have?” This approach can be useful whenever a direct answer could lead you down an undesirable path.

To summarize, begin your client meetings with a businesslike opener and remain focused on your goal. If “getting to know you” conversations begin to cross the line, tactfully shift direction. And should you encounter any creepy-crawlers, immediately delete them from your client list.

Q. I sit between two co-workers who chatter to each other all day long. When they talk across me, I can’t concentrate on my work or hear phone conversations. After I spoke to our supervisor, the talking stopped for a couple of days, but then it started up again. How can I get these chatterboxes to shut up?

A. The solution to this problem seems so simple that surely someone has considered it. But perhaps not, so here goes. Since you’re located in between these jabbering colleagues, why not just switch places with one of them? Once you’re no longer in the middle, their chatter might still be annoying but it’ll be significantly less disruptive.

Marie G. McIntyre is a workplace coach and the author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.”

Twitter: @officecoach