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(PROFESSIONAL) Image Is Everything -- For Home-Based Businesses
By Don Cooper   Printer Friendly Version

Okay, you know you're a professional. I know you're a professional. But what's important is that your prospects know that you're a professional.

And that can be a considerable challenge. Despite the tremendous growth of the home-based sector of the economy, home-based businesses are still frequently perceived as less serious and less capable than their office-based counterparts.

To fight this perception, you need to take specific steps to develop and maintain a professional image. Remember, rightly or wrongly, people will judge you based on superficial appearances. So make sure those appearances communicate the kind of professional image you want to achieve.

First of all, how do you answer your phone? If you said "hello," that's the wrong answer. People at "real" businesses answer with the company name. Which means that, to be taken seriously, you have to as well. If you have only one phone number for both business and family use, you need to get some more. You definitely need a business phone number and you should have a separate fax number as well.

That doesn't necessarily mean that you must invest a lot of money to have new phone lines installed. A low-cost alternative is to order distinctive ring service from your local phone company. The type of ring the phone makes will tell you what kind of call you are receiving and thus, how you should answer it.

The same principle applies to your voice mail. Potential customers should not hear, "Hi, you've reached the Smith residence…." when you are out of your office. Use a phone company's voice mail service, a second answering machine for your business line or a digital (tape less) answering machine that supports distinctive ring service.

The second aspect of your business that prospects will frequently encounter is your printed material. Your letterhead, business card or brochure will often create a first (and lasting) impression. For this reason, they all need to look professional and polished. Don't cut corners here. The difference in cost between cheap materials and nice materials is small, but the difference in impact is tremendous.

Use the thickest, nicest paper you can afford for your business card. Avoid "do-it-yourself" cards that are designed to be run through a laser printer. A cheap, flimsy card says, "cheap, flimsy company." Have your cards professionally typeset, printed and cut at a print shop.

Your letterhead and brochure should also be professionally printed. Why? Laser toner smears easily. Don't believe me? Run a couple sheets through your laser printer, pop them in an envelope, and mail them to yourself. Is that what you want your prospects to see?

And speaking of what your prospects see, how about your home-office itself? If people come over, not only does your office need to be neat and tidy, but the rest of your house (or at least the visible parts of it) has to look respectable as well. Toys, clothes and socket wrenches scattered all over the living room do not inspire confidence in a potential customer.

If keeping your house showroom clean is not practical, or if local zoning prohibits client visits, you will want to meet people either at their places or at a neutral site. Restaurants and hotel lobbies are both good places to meet with people. Or you may want to talk with an office suite company that rents office space by the hour, day or month. You can even have them provide you with phone-answering and mail services.

The final element to be concerned with is you. When you are working alone in your home office you can dress however you want. Let's face it-one of the benefits of being home-based is that every day is casual day. But if you leave the house during business hours, or if you attend an after-hours event, you need to dress the part of a professional. Studies show that people tend to be treated with more respect when they are wearing suits than when they are in casual clothes. Since you never know whom you might run into, it is important that you always project a professional image in the way you dress and conduct yourself when away from your home office.

The bottom line is very simple: If you want to be taken seriously as a business, you have to act like a serious business.

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