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.