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If Looks Could Kill.

Dirty socks underneath your desk, unplugged fax machine, paw prints on everything.it's time to take your image as seriously as you do your business.

It's an exhilarating experience when you've shortened your commute to a walk down the hallway and the worldwide headquarters of your start-up venture is based-well, in your basement. You're now your own boss-and you're going to break all the rules.

Hold on, James Dean. If you throw caution to the wind and ignore the image your business is projecting, you could be ruining your chances for success. And while today's business dress codes may have relaxed, certain codes of conduct are still expected among successful businesses. From phone follies to sporadic service, following are the areas homebased businesses often find troublesome.

Communication Counts
If a client has ever called your office and had to cajole your 5-year-old to get you on the phone, or if sending you a fax requires three weeks' advance notice, your image is definitely suffering. The ease and professionalism with which prospects and clients are able to communicate with you can make or break their perceptions of how capable your business is.

Do:

  • Cover your phone 24/7. A simple answering machine is not enough. Check out one of the voice-mail systems from your local phone company. In addition to being affordable, these systems allow you to set up multiple mailboxes and let callers leave messages when you're on the phone. In the 21st century, there's no excuse for busy signals.
  • Install a separate line for your fax machine. You'll lose points if a customer has to contact you to send a fax.
  • Keep your technology current. While it can be costly, it's essential to maintaining a cutting-edge persona for your business. Update your hardware and software regularly, purchase Internet browser plug-ins necessary to download e-mail attachments from your clients, and make sure your office equipment works smoothly to service your clients.

Don't:

  • Use call waiting. It tells your customers every other call coming in is more important than theirs is.
  • Leave clients wondering where you are. If you're going to be out of the office for several hours, say so on your voice mail. Indicate in your message when you're likely to return phone calls-and make every effort to do so within 24 hours.
  • Allow children to answer your business phone.

The Discomforts of Home
While working from home can bring new conveniences to your life, it can also create some awkward situations. Take, for instance, the case of the homebased publicist whose client dropped by unannounced one afternoon to find the house in utter disarray and the publicist working in her pajamas.

Do:

  • Keep your home and yourself tidy. Although you may request that clients call before they drop by, some won't take the hint. Keep at least one room clutter-free, and be sure you're presentable at a moment's notice.
  • Meet out. If meeting in your home makes you uncomfortable, try to meet at the client's place of business or at a local restaurant. Hotel lobbies make great settings for relatively short meetings.
  • Make reasonable accommodations for after-hours communication. Turn off phone and fax ringers, then shut your office door at the end of the day. If a customer has a midnight brainstorm and needs to leave you a message, it won't wake up the entire household.

Don't:

  • Share your homebased horror stories. Whether the washer is acting up or the plumber is late, a client shouldn't have reason to think that household chores are distracting you from the work you're doing for them. Save these tales of woe for friends and family.
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Gwen Moran is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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