“I’m a professional.”
For many people working from a home office, able to wear pajamas past noon and be scrutinized more closely by the family dog than any supervisor, these three words can often seem a stretch.
At least the appearance of professionalism is demanded in the corporate world; in the home environment, it is something individuals must work harder at to attain. Yet the importance that home-office workers place on professionalism colors not only their quality of work but also their attitudes and how they come off to clients and associates.
And ignoring professionalism in your marketing strategies, communication practices and general business protocol and etiquette is a big mistake.
I work from a home office. To me, if you want your work at home business to succeed, it’s critical that you know what professionalism means and how it manifests itself in your work. Happily, professionalism has a compact definition: everything. Put another way, anything that has even a passing effect on your business is an element of professionalism — ingredients you need to observe and evaluate constantly.
“Professionalism is everything we do on behalf of a business,” says Dr. Pam Brown, an associate professor at Texas A&M University and an authority on home-business startups. “Unfortunately, a lot of people who work from home tend to forget about professionalism and merely focus on the technicalities of running a business.”
How to exhibit professionalism
One of the most effective ways to imbue a home business with a consistent sense of professionalism is in the planning stage.
Examine your business plan through the filter of professionalism. If, for instance, your marketing plan seems haphazard (all you see are customers rather than, say, customers aged 35 and up), bring it into tighter focus. Once that plan comes into play, it’s likely going to be more effective and, in the process, will reflect greater professionalism on your part.
Other, more-specific elements play into a professional persona. Start with your prices and fee structure. Granted, we all want to be as competitive as possible, but you should never under-price what you’re selling. That hints at insecurity about the true value of what you do.
“Don’t ever be afraid to price yourself fairly,” Brown says. “We all tend to undersell ourselves, but don’t give your services away. Charge what you’re worth and be worth what you charge.”
Consider, too, the structural element of your business. While most home-based businesses are sole proprietorships, Brown and other authorities say research has shown that incorporating can inject a greater sense of professionalism. That’s not hard to grasp. Not only does incorporation create a separate, legal entity for which you are responsible, but the record-keeping requirements unto themselves mandate an operation that’s not stuffing receipts and pay stubs into an empty coffee can.
(For tips on incorporation, see this special report. For a potential drawback to incorporating a home-based business, see this article.)
Start with how you answer the phone
Even though it’s easy to overlook among the ebb and flow of a business day, watch your work habits with an eye on the professional image you convey. Start with how you answer the phone: Make it crisp and polite, and leave out the “howdy dos.” (Brown tells of a young woman who always answered the phone with “Speak to me.”) If your family members might pick up the line, train them accordingly.
“Since the phone is a major link to the outside world, how you answer it is crucial to professionalism. If you have young kids around, make sure an answering machine’s on,” Brown says. (For more on home-office phone gaffes, see this recent column on the subject.)
Thankfully, the coming era of video communication has yet to unmask those of us for which a home office means the relaxation of a corporate dress code. But how you dress when you are working can still play a central role in your professional manner. Again, research on the matter suggests that home workers who spend their days in a faded T-shirt or a ragged sweatsuit may convey a laxity that may or may not even be there.
“Appearance, whether seen or unseen, really affects performance. Don’t spend the whole day in your bathrobe. You’ve always got to put your best foot forward,” Brown says.
However autonomous a home business can be, bringing others into your business fold also can bolster your professionalism. Hook up and nurture relationships with an attorney, accountant and banker — not only do they offer services intrinsic to the workings of your operation, let them know they should be comfortable about pointing out aspects of your business that could benefit from a shot of professionalism.
How to add sheen to the polish
Even seemingly small items can, taken in concert, add an extra sheen to the polish of professionalism:
Advertise in phone-book and online directories. There’s a professional image right there. (For a premium listing in bCentral’s online Business Listings, see this page.)
Use a delivery service. Ditto.
Have a professional-looking business Web site, with a domain name and e-mail address that includes your business’s name. (For info on bCentral’s Web hosting and e-mail product, see this page.)
Manage your time. Set working hours as an employer would do for you.
Invest in the right equipment. An outdated computer can drag your productivity down. That can dent your professional image.
Lastly, don’t lose sight of the unfortunate reality that home-based businesses, as I said, often have to go to greater lengths to establish and justify their professionalism. So, load up and keep at it. As Brown wryly notes: “As everyone knows, since you’re working from home, you’re not really working.”