Two women are sitting in a restaurant. Each is sitting alone at a table, working on a laptop. The restaurant is full of people ebbing and flowing from the tables. Both are busy doing work and not interacting or even looking up from the computers to notice what is going on. A complete stranger walks up to one table and begins a conversation, joking and laughing and generally engaging the person for a short friendly few minutes of conversation. The other person is passed by, undisturbed. Two people, side by side, working; one is approached, one is not. Why? What is the difference?

The difference lies, at least in part, in body language. The woman who went undisturbed as she sat working at her task essentially gave off a “leave me alone, don’t approach” signal. The other woman provided a more open and approachable demeanor, even though she was not directly interacting with anyone or anything in the environment around her.

Signals You Send

It is a frequent conversation with colleagues and friends about how many people I can encounter in a given day between meetings or at events without that intent. “Approachable” is a term that is frequently (and yes surprisingly by some) applied to my style and personality. When I’m out and about, I don’t mind meeting people, even when I’m quietly working solo in a restaurant and a child, a peer or an elderly gentleman comes by to chat. A few minutes of “distraction” is often a needed break or even an inspiration for an article or a life lesson in what the important things really are as the day goes by.

All too often, we get caught up in work and every moment of every day is focused solely on a task to be completed. We become cut off from those around us … sometimes even those we are interacting with are kept distant and don’t feel connected to us in a conversation. It may take a casual interruption from a stranger to remind us to look up and enjoy the sunshine, to sit back and enjoy the unrestrained laughter of a child or hear the giggle of delight as a chocolate chip cookie is consumed with the abandon that only a child can experience.

Lately, it seems that everywhere I turn there is a chance encounter. Sitting in my car at a traffic light, one car in the middle of a long string of cars waiting, I look right and see a lone car in the lane next to me with its window rolled down and the driver signaling to me to roll down my window … and a question is asked. My car was just one in a long chain of many; why did the driver choose to approach me? Possibly I was the only one paying attention, or maybe even in my car with a smile on my face as I listened to the radio, I seemed … approachable.

Walking down the street a stranger stops to window shop along side me. A child shouts a greeting across a near empty restaurant … a child I do not know … why? Just because he could, or because of the smile and the greeting given to the restaurant staff or any one of a number of unconscious signals that people give off each day? Approachability: What does it mean for you in all aspects of your life and business?

Practice Makes … Contact

From childhood I recall some little saying about “turning your frown upside down and it becomes a smile.” If you want to connect to people, then being approachable is a critical aspect of making that connection, and a smile—or at least a pleasant, open expression—is the place start. Whether in a restaurant, in your office or wherever you are or are going, if you don’t look like you are in a friendly frame of mind, then it is unlikely you are going to be approached. You have to invite people in, and that requires signaling that you aren’t going to be giving them a hard time.

Several clients have recently been having issues with unapproachable team members. These individuals have roles that require them to interact not only with other team members but also with customers and prospects. From answering the phone with a harsh tone or a “what do you want” attitude, to failing to acknowledge customers on the sales floor, these individuals are not only unapproachable but are downright toxic in their manner and attitude toward everyone, especially customers. These people are difficult to work with at the least, and damaging to the business at the worst.

When employees and even business owners cannot step back from their emotions to interact with customers, prospects and team members with a positive demeanor, then an attitude adjustment is needed. If the attitude cannot be at least donned from start time to close, then the employee needs to have the attitude adjustment made—permanently—by removing them from the organization.

No organization needs to be providing the competition with an opportunity to take their customers through bad attitudes on the phone or in person. No one should accept a negative, grumpy or rude attitude in the workplace.

Mirror, Mirror

Many years ago, I participated in a training program related to sales and customer service in which a technique was shared to increase an individual’s awareness of the image and attitude they presented when answering the phone or leaving their office. The trainer recommended that a side mirror from a car or truck be placed on the side of the computer monitor, desk or the wall of each person that answered the phone. A second mirror was to be placed beside the door opening or cubicle wall, where it would be seen every time a person exited his or her workspace. This meant that every time the person looked up to answer the phone or had to exit the office, he or she they would have to see her own facial expression. If frowning, angry, or otherwise “disturbed,” the person was directed to put a smile on his/her face before answering the phone – regardless of actual feelings. The theory was that you couldn’t smile and answer the phone negatively.

Strange as it may seem, forcing people to put smiles on their face actually interrupted their behavior patterns and did impact how they answered the phone. The mirror by the door reminded them to leave the attitude behind in the office as they went out to interact with customers and colleagues.

In retailing and companies that have direct customer contact between the back office staff and prospects/customers, this practice can be extended to include a mirror between the showroom floor and the back office that will remind employees one last time to smile and be pleasant as they go out to greet the customer.


When it comes down to customer service and communication, internally or externally, how your team conducts themselves reflects on the reputation of your business. People don’t do business where they are unwelcome, unappreciated, ignored or met with an attitude of “what do you want?”. There are many businesses ready, willing and able to provide high quality, friendly and approachable staff and teams to meet the customer needs. You don’t want your organization to be the best advertising for those competitors.

Take charge. Take control and establish consequences for employees who don’t display the proper attitude while at work. They can be as cantankerous and rude as they want in their off hours, but they can’t bring it into the workplace. The door swings both ways and you want the customers to come in and come back, not be driven away. In the final analysis, it is usually less costly to your business to replace the bad apples rather than try to find new customers.

Copyright © 2010 Lea A. Strickland, F.O.C.U.S. Resource Inc.

All Rights Reserved.

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