Many small businesses fail. There are often a variety of reasons for the failure including cash flow problems, having a poor idea or product, or tax issues. Many businesses also fail because the owners are not professional. They’re late, they look strange, they don’t follow through, or they make excuses. It does not matter what sort of business you are in; in order to succeed you must act professionally any time you interact with clients or potential clients. Even if you are an eccentric artist, you still have to act like a businessperson if you want people to give you their money. What makes you seem professional? Here are some thoughts.
Dress the part: Depending on what you do, you might not need a suit and tie. However, your clothes should be clean, well fitting, and well mended. Stick to classic, basic looks and avoid anything too trendy (unless fashion is your business) or revealing. Look at how others in your industry dress and dress accordingly.
Speak well: Try to cultivate a good speaking voice. Don’t speak in slang and clean up your use of “Like,” “Um,” “You know,” and “Prolly” (for probably). Don’t swear. Speak clearly and enunciate so your clients can understand you.
Write well: Whenever you communicate with clients in email, letters, or other documents, make sure you adhere to basic grammar and punctuation rules. Use spell check and proofread. This is not the time to send out a letter that says, “We’ll be sending your order in two farts,” when you meant to say “parts.” Even something as simple as an invoice needs to be checked. You will be judged by your written communication, so don’t blow it.
Be on time: If you say you’ll be somewhere at 4:00, be there five minutes early. Clients don’t appreciate being kept waiting and will find someone else who can be on time.
Honor your commitments: If you say you’ll have the project done by Friday, have it done by Friday. Don’t be late with delivery. When making promises, don’t promise anything you cannot deliver because it will come back to bite you.
Communicate early and often: If you run into major problems with a project, first do everything you can to get things back on track without involving the client. However, if you just have to tell the client things won’t be ready, tell them early. Don’t wait until the day of delivery to spring the news that you need another week. As soon as you know there is a major problem, contact the client and let them know the situation. The client may be angry, but perhaps you can work out a compromise. If you wait until the last minute, the client will be angry and will likely go somewhere else.
Have the infrastructure you need to do business: Know what you need to do business and have it. Do you need to fax? Get a fax machine so you aren’t making a client wait while you run to the local quick copy place. Get a phone with great reception; don’t make your clients struggle to hear you. Get stationary, business cards, and brochures if you need them so you aren’t fumbling around to create something when a client asks for it. Have a good quality printer so your letters and invoices are clean and crisp. If you will rely on a website, get one that looks professional, not like something a first grader put together. You will be judged on the quality of your operation, so make sure everything runs smoothly and looks great to an outsider.
Mind your hygiene: Be clean and have fresh breath. Wear deodorant. If you’re working in a conservative industry, remove extraneous piercings and cover up tattoos, particularly if they are profane or risque. People find it hard to take someone with rings hanging from their face seriously.
Don’t make excuses: Clients don’t care why you’re having problems with their order. They don’t want to know that your kids got sick, or the car broke down, or your mother called and kept you on the phone for three hours last night. If something goes wrong, it’s fine to mention the source of the delay (unless it’s personal and then keep it to yourself), but your focus should be on fixing the problem, not relaying the excuses. You can simply say, “I’m so sorry that your order is delayed by a day, but my widget maker broke. However, I have the use of a friend’s widget maker and I will have your order to you first thing in the morning.”
Don’t lie: Any time you lie, you set yourself up for trouble. Whether it’s overstating your qualifications or promising something you know you can’t deliver, lying is unprofessional. Chances are you’ll be caught eventually and your reputation ruined, so just don’t do it.
Be polite: Whenever you speak to clients, be polite. Say, “Please,” and “Thank you.” Address people professionally as Mr. or Mrs. X, unless they ask you to call them by their first name. Use good phone manners. Don’t be rude to people and treat even the most trying client politely.
Don’t talk about clients behind their backs: Confidentiality isn’t just for doctors and lawyers. Keep your clients’ business to yourself. If they unload a boatload of personal problems on you, keep it to yourself. Don’t talk about clients with other clients, and don’t discuss them at industry events. This sort of thing always comes back on you and reflects badly.
No one wants to do business with someone who is rude, inconsiderate, always late, and who cannot communicate effectively. You may think that since your business is making crafts at your kitchen table that you don’t need to bother with professionalism, but you’d be wrong. If given a choice (and there is always a choice these days) customers
will choose the business that makes a good product and a great impression. Don’t risk losing business because you aren’t professional.