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Business Tips: Winning the Name Game

By Craig Harrison,


My name is Craig. But I'll answer to Greg. Most Gregs I know answer to Craig. Of course, we are not alone: there are Eva and Ava, Bill and Bob, Jeff and John, and many more. I can't complain. I often confuse ,and occasionally mangle, other people's names. Names are not my strong suit.  

My purpose is not to engage in anthroponymy, the study of personal names. It's simply to remind you that learning, remembering and properly pronouncing other peoples’ names is more than just good manners, it's good business. smart sales and  service. What's in a name? Everything! 

Every customer wants to be seen as an individual, feel special, and feel respected. When you refer to a customer by his/her preferred name, you honor that person with respect. You’re also seeing him/her as the individual he is. It’s a good beginning. 

Over the years I've struggled to learn and remember names. The older I get, the harder it becomes. This is partly because I continue to meet new people, sometimes an audience at a time!  

Given our global marketplace, you will likely be meeting customers from China, Israel, Nigeria and Germany, Argentina and Arkansas. Names and pronunciations vary by country and region. Eugenia—pronounced "U-Gene-E-Ah" in the US—sounds entirely different in the Southern hemisphere: "O-heee-Nee-Yah." Win points by pronouncing it her way!

My secret: I spell it out phonetically whether on paper or in my mind. Seeing it this way helps me pronounce it properly. 

It took me a while to correctly pronounce Osafran Okundai and Orunamamu (O-Roon-a-Mamu). I've heard it mangled seven different ways. Ditto, John Eweglaben. It would have been so easy to pull an Ed McMahon, and simply introduce him by saying "Here's Johnny!"  Instead I had John spell his name out for me phonetically, and then I practiced saying it repeatedly. Incidentally, it is pronounced "A-wig-LAY-Bin."

 I accidentally insulted my colleague from Louisiana, Mademoiselle Carolyn Millet (pronounced Meee-Aye), by presuming her last name was pronounced like the grain. That's not Southern hospitality!

 Employ the following tips to track names and the vital details that accompany them. 

  • When you hear someone's name, repeat it out loud as soon as possible in conversation.

  • Append the name to the beginning or ending of your greeting to that person: "It's a pleasure to meet you, Amber,"  or "Tyrone, how nice to meet you."

  • Try to associate the person's name with what that person tells you about himself. Repeat it out loud, if need be: Ken the southeast QC manager; Ariana, the internal service starlet. Hearing yourself say the person's name makes it more real and memorable.

  • Observe the Ws. European names employing W may sound like V's: Tony Bacezwski pronounces his name Tony Ba-SHEV-ski.

  • Don't mix name order. Chinese names may take the form of last name (surname), first name (given name). For example: Courtroom interpreter and longtime Oakland City Center Toastmaster Joe Parkman tells new friends: I'm no ordinary Joe, I'm Parkman Joe!" Indeed, he is.

  • Employ mnemonic devices or alliteration to help you remember customers' names: Ling from Laos, Helen who’s Gellin', Sandy…like my sister-in-law (of the same name).

  • Help others. If you know your name will be hard to remember or pronounce for others, help them out: Realtor Lisa Wierenga of Michigan encourages people to think of the phrase "Wearing A." A realtor whose last name is Wojokowski helps people by saying "it's like 'where's your house keys!' " Oakland poet Lavignia asks people to call her "'Vinny the Poet" for short.

  • Take note! Make written notes to yourself, at the time or later. Don’t tax your memory. Note on the back of a business card or in your PDA. (Beware of writing on the front of someone's business card. In some cultures it's perceived as defacing their person! Remember, we mean no disrespect.).

  • Ask for help with complicated names or ones in a foreign tongue. Take pride in learning the trills and other accents of foreign languages. Customers will appreciate your efforts and warm to your correctly pronouncing their names.

  • If you ask someone how to pronounce his name, never respond "Oh, I could never pronounce that!" Not only is it disrespectful, it's lazy on your part to not even attempt the correct pronunciation. Try your best to pronounce it correctly in that person's presence. Ask for help, if you aren't letter perfect the first time. Remember, it's not about you and your comfort level, it's about the other person making the effort to respect his or her identity.

  • Learn the story behind the person's name. Orunamamu's name, in the Nigerian language of Yoruban, means "Oh you royal one, miss morning star." Sometimes she'll simply tell people, "The 'O' is for respect." That's memorable!


 According to the mingling maven herself, author Susan RoAne, "If you have trouble remembering names, understand that others have forgotten yours. NEVER, EVER ask, 'Do you remember me?'"

When the shoe is on the other foot, and your name is lost in translation, turn the other cheek. Don't get angry or feel victimized. Past Toastmasters International president Dilip Abayasekara, Ph.D., DTM, has experienced the ups and downs of having a distinctive name. Dilip, a Sri Lankan whose last name means "leader without fear," knows his name is difficult for a first-timer to pronounce. He offers a pronunciation guide, relating his name's pronunciation to words people already know: Dilip sounds like Philip; the first three consonants of Abayasekara mimic the first three letters in Spanish or French: Ah – Bay – Say, to which one can add Kuh – Ruh. It works! 

Of course, if the person in question offers you a nickname, you are welcome to use it. Many people have trouble pronouncing (and spelling) the name of the longtime Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (give yourself two points if you pronounced it "Shuh-SHEV-ski"). Many players and fans alike eschew the Polish pronunciation and simply call him by the alliterative "Coach K."


Are you talking to ME? 

One challenge occurs in environments when more than one person has the same name. In such cases, nicknames may be the answer. One person may prefer Michael, another Mike and a third might even prefer Mikey. What is needed is mutual consent. Assigning a nickname without a person's permission can be insulting. Get a person's buy-in. Remember, his or her identity is at stake. Accede to their wishes whenever possible. What's humorous to you may be insulting to the other person.

One Upsmanship Has Its Place 

Distinguished Toastmaster Keith Ostergard told me in one of his companies they had so many employees with the same name it became problematic. "In China, it is very common to meet or work with people who have the same name–both surname and given name. Wang is one of the most common Chinese names and in a job I worked here we had six people in a department of 100 who had the name Wang Chen. To keep them straight, they all agreed to let me number them Wang Chen 1, Wang Chen 2, etc."

That worked well until one left the company. Ostergard said, "They all wanted to change their numbers!"

 What’s in a name? Gold. Learning, using, and properly pronouncing customers' names is a great first step to building solid relationships built on trust, respect and admiration. Win the name game!


Craig Harrison is a professional speaker, corporate traine,r and consultant who founded Expressions of Excellence!™ to provide sales and service solutions through speaking. Contact him toll-free at (888) 450-0664, through his Website or via e-mail at excellence@


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