From the April 2000 issue of Startups

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.

Quality Service and Competing With the Big Boys

Quality and Consistent Services
There will come a time when something will take you away from your work for an extended period. Whether it's a vacation, illness or emergency, your clients need to know they're still being serviced. If they're concerned that business stops when you do, they may go to a larger firm.

Do:

  • Develop alliances. Find credible, trustworthy small businesses that do what you do. Negotiate an arrangement to service each other's accounts during vacations, sick times or emergencies. Put the arrangement-and the agreement not to poach each other's clients-in writing.
  • Plan well in advance. Give clients at least four weeks' notice for planned absences like vacations and as much notice as possible for other situations.
  • Communicate. Let your clients know when you'll be away and, if possible, precisely when you'll return. Also, advise them of who will be handling things while you're away.

Don't:

  • Drop the ball. While the daydream of being your own boss includes the ability to take off at a moment's notice, the reality is much different. It's up to you to ensure your clients are being serviced properly. Plan and communicate properly to avoid looking careless.

When Bigger Is Better
While homebased businesses don't face the stigma they once did, there are times when looking bigger can help your situation, especially in new business meetings. While you never want to misrepresent your business, the way you present your resources can make a big difference in a prospect's perception.

Do:

  • Create knockout marketing materials. When you have professionally developed brochures, stationery and a Web site, you communicate to prospects that you're serious about your business and have made an investment in its development.
  • Include alliances in presentations. If you work with freelancers or have an alliance with another firm, include these professionals in new business pitches. In addition to combating the perception that your business is too small, you'll also be introducing the professionals with whom the prospect may be working.
  • Use one-number access. Give your subcontractors voice-mail boxes and access codes to retrieve messages from your system. Then clients and prospects can locate these professionals through one phone number-yours.

Don't:

  • Lie. Misrepresenting the truth about your location, staff or capabilities is suicide for your image. In addition to losing credibility, you could also find yourself in hot water if the client feels those untruths caused damage to his or her business. Does your image need an overhaul? Take our quick quiz to find out.

1. When a client calls your office, what is the first sound he or she is likely to hear?

A. Your voice
B. Your voice on voice mail
C. Your 3-year-old's voice
D. A busy signal

2. Today, the kids stayed home sick, the shower is leaking and the dog just chewed your new living room chair. You got virtually no work done. When a client calls about status on a project, you:

A. Assure her that you will meet the deadline and work late that night to make up the time you lost.
B. Explain that you had a computer glitch and ask for more time on the project.
C. Spill your guts, in painstaking detail, about the kids, the plumber and the dog.
D. Avoid answering the phone.

3. You've taken on a project for a new client under a tight deadline when your spouse calls to tell you about a last-minute business meeting in the Bahamas-to which spouses are invited. The trip will conflict with your deadline. You:

A. Stay home, meet with the client and produce the project as promised.
B. Go on the trip, but take your laptop, confident you'll be able to finish the job from the beach. The client will just have to work with you by phone, fax and e-mail.
C. Call your client and resign from the job. After all, how many times does a free trip to the Bahamas come along?
D. Pack your bags and shoot the client a "Dear John" e-mail.

4. If a client wishes to send you a fax or e-mail, it's:

A. Easy. Microsoft's got nothing on me.
B. Easy if the e-mail doesn't crash or the fax machine's not out of paper.
C. A matter of reconnecting a few wires and crossing my fingers.
D. A matter of going down to a friend's house to retrieve it.

Scoring:

For each: A equals 5 points; B equals 3 points; C equals 1 point; D equals -2 points.

18 and over: You're poised, polished and ready for the big-time.

12-17: You're not exactly rough around the edges, but you could use a bit more professionalism. Work on identifying problem image areas and tidying them up.

7-11: Definite image issues. Try identifying some world-class businesses in your field and model your practices after theirs. Being homebased is no excuse for unprofessionalism.

Below 7: It's time to reassess whether running a homebased business is right for you. If you still think it is, find a mentor or business counselor to help you clean up your act.


Gwen Moran is president of Moran Marketing Associates, a public relations and marketing communications agency in Ocean, New Jersey. She is currently completing a marketing workbook titled Promote Your Business. E-mail her at moranmarketing@erols.com.