Business cards – out dated or underestimated?

Business cards are big in Japan but we're more ambivalent about them here. (Photograph:

WHILE at a wine show in Cape Town some time ago, I spent an hour or so observing interactions between producers, marketers and potential buyers. Something I found particularly interesting was the exchange – and often lack of exchange – of business cards.

I saw that, when asked for their cards, many people – even suppliers – could not find them and awkwardly wrote their details on the back of brochures, colleagues’ cards or on scraps of paper. Others voluntarily and very liberally distributed cards to everyone within an arm’s length them. Inevitably, when they left the stand, these littered tables and counters, only to be swept up and discarded by tidier members of the exhibiting team.

One exceptionally judicious sales person came to the show to promote his company’s engraved tasting glasses among exhibitors. Following his presentation to my friend, who was displaying her organisation’s wine, he made a quick note on the back of his card and handed it to her. He had written: “Dear Ann, thank you for talking to me at the wine show. I will, as discussed, give you a call next week. (I am the guy with the leather case full of shiny glasses that will look great in your tasting room.) Mike.” She stashed the card in her briefcase and acknowledged to me that she would certainly agree to a further meeting with him when he called.

My informal study had me wondering; are business cards outmoded or underestimated in 21st Century business? Do we even need them these days, given the electronic nature of most of our communication? Is that why so few people use them effectively? Some seem almost shy to offer them. Most executives have cards and yet there is no prescribed etiquette in South African business regarding their distribution

In Japan, to the contrary, the very first thing that happens in a business meeting is the exchange of business cards. This quickly establishes the seniority of the person you are meeting. Business cards are clean, without pen notes, and kept in a case that is readily accessible. They are exchanged and presented formally with both hands, facing the recipient so he or she can read them. The cards themselves are handled very carefully and respectfully, as if you are handling the person. They are read thoroughly, even if you do not understand a word – not to read them implies that one is not important. For the duration of the meeting, the card is either held carefully or placed alongside you so that you can continually refer to it when necessary.

While Western business card protocol – if there is such a thing – is significantly more casual that of Japan, Jeffrey Mayer of and author of several career advice books says that people who are earnest about their careers should take business cards more seriously and need to be scrupulous about carrying and using them.

“When you come across a business associate who has to rifle through a messy brief case, bag or wallet to find a card, you cannot help asking yourself how soon it will be before they will lose yours,” he says.

“It is essential to carry carefully stored business cards in an easily accessible place. It might just make a difference to your career. You never know when you are going to meet someone who could become a customer, business associate or sphere of influence.”

Ideally, business cards should be presented on introduction. This provides the recipient with the opportunity to study your name, link it to your face and contextualise the meeting. It gives them the opportunity to read and hear your name simultaneously so there is less chance of confusion regarding your identity.

Mayer recommends creating a system for giving and taking cards. Always keep them in the same part of your wallet, briefcase or pocket. When you take a card, either make a mental note of what the person said or what they look like. Or make notes on the back of the card. File it carefully or enter the information into your database when you return to the office.

It is not necessary – like the Lejweleputswa District Municipality in Welkom, which in 2004 paid more than R27 816 for 1 500 cards – to splurge on business cards. They should be professional in design, and not gimmicky. Too much colour and text can be distracting. Your business card should provide essential contact details, clearly tell people what you do and offer a meaningful benefit. No more and no less. Be careful before turning your business card into a marketing vehicle like a fridge magnet, message pad, coaster or mouse pad. These items are suited to very specific businesses only.

According to the Executive Planet Guide to Business Etiquette in South Africa, South Africans “would rather do mediocre business with a friend than superb business with a stranger”. The guide says that although there is no formal etiquette to handing out cards, developing personal relationships is key to doing business in South Africa. The sooner you get on first name terms with an individual, the better. Business cards are integral to this.

Business experts’ tips on making the most of business cards:

• Ensure that yours is professional and not gimmicky
• Keep an adequate, clean supply with you at all times
• Present it selectively on introduction to new contacts
• Make notes on cards you receive if necessary
• Create an effective system for filing cards

(First published in Business Day.)

About Administrator

Author and freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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