When to call a prospect by their first name?

(From March 3, 2009 newsletter)

The short answer is always.

Typically I never think about this until I’m on the phone and the moment to address the individual arises. Then I’ve been known to panic quietly, second guessing and third guessing myself, unable to decide if an important person should be called Jane / Joe or Ms. Smith / Mr. Smith.

Therefore, I’ve developed a standard policy and I stick with it. I always address everyone by his or her first name. No exceptions.

It’s an American thing

In the United States of America, it’s in the Constitution someplace. Maybe Article 1, Section 1. I don’t have the exact citation, but it’s got to be in there.

I use the first name exactly as the prospect does. The list I’m calling from may show Charles A. Smith. They answer the phone with “Chuck here.” So I respond with “Hi, Chuck.” Not “Hi, Charles,” since they’ve just told me the name they go by, and certainly not “Mr. Smith.” This is one reason you’ve got to listen actively as you make phone calls. Do not absent-mindedly scroll through your e-mails until someone gets on the line.

There are two problems with addressing those at the pinnacle of the pyramid more formally. The first is determining whom to call by Mr. or Ms. Only the CEO? VPs and above? Everyone in the organization? It’s a touchy decision and must be made instantly. Your indecision may leave you stuttering and uncomfortable, causing you to manage the call miserably.

Then there’s the second problem: Do you eventually start calling the executive by his or her first name? If so, when do you make the switch?

If the executive never says anything about his / her name, you could be the only individual on the project calling them by their formal name for the rest of the relationship, perhaps even for years.

Don’t be like Mary

Remember Mary Richards on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show? With the exception of her single date with “Lou” towards the end of the last season, she resolutely called him Mr. Grant. Everyone else, regardless of gender or rank, consistently called him by his first name.

Making this even more pathetic was her reputation for having “spunk”!

Of course, this is an American thing. Practices may vary in other cultures.


2 responses to “When to call a prospect by their first name?

  1. Michele Jiménez (www.englishwritingprojects.com), who lives in Sweden, writes the following:

    FYI. In Sweden, people ALWAYS use first names (unlike Germany where hierarchy will drive you crazy). I can’t even think how you’d address a woman or man as Ms. or Mr. in Swedish (OK, I can, but it took me a minute to think how.) Even kids at school call their teachers by their first names.

    This actually poses a dilemma for me. When I send marketing or other letters or emails in English to Swedes, protocol in English, depending on the situation, requires that I start the letter as Dear Ms. Schneidman or Dear Mr. Schneidman, which to a Swede sounds very stiff and awkward and strange, but to just jump into a first name would seem strange since I’m writing in English (although I will say I use Ms. or Mr. rarely). A similar problem crops up when referring to people in a written article. In American English (not necessarily British English), once the person is introduced, they are referred throughout by their last name. In Swedish, standard usage is to use the first name or both the first and last name, which in English is overkill. Just using the last name seems very cold to a Swede, but just using the first name can seem too familiar if the article is in English.

    I go round and round and round with my clients on this when editing! We’ve never really found an answer or good rule of thumb. Just take each case as it comes and sometimes with a lot of compromise.

    Question for you: if you were writing a “cold” marketing letter or making a “cold” marketing call to say, the CEO of Coca cola or to the CEO of GM or to Bill Gates (maybe age or type of industry also has some relevance here?), would you still address the person by their first name? I suppose the answer is that you really shouldn’t be in a position where you’re cold calling or cold writing Bill Gates (i.e. use other networks), but if you were, how would you address them? Still use just their first name? (In these situations, rightly or wrongly I’m still “Mary”!)

  2. Michele, first, I wouldn’t write to these high-level executives because they wouldn’t be the ones to hire me. The one exception may be if I were a speech writer and thought I had some likelihood of my email getting past the gatekeeper. Anyway, in that case I’d still use the first name.

    The one exception for me would be the president of the U.S. And this is so unlikely that I don’t stay up nights worrying about what to call him.

    Once you make an exception for an individual, do you treat others on his/her staff the same way? Do you wait until you hear what others call the individual? Do you wait for the individual to ask to be called by first name? It may never happen. And at a meeting, I wouldn’t be able to think about much else because I’d be so distracted with this issue.

    So I go with first name.

    By the way, would you make an exception for people a generation older than you? I wouldn’t, if simply to make life easier, but a justification could be presented for this practice if you are into over-thinking things.

    Thanks for writing,

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