There's so much talk about "image" nowadays. In addition to marketers and managers, there are now spin doctors, who polish their clients' images by putting the best spin on what the public hears and sees. As a new business owner, it's important to be your own spin doctor, molding and honing your business image to successfully appeal to your prospects and customers.

I got an e-mail the other day from an entrepreneur who worries that potential customers see his new business as merely a hobby and wants to know how he can get them to take him seriously. Thousands of entrepreneurs nationwide are faced with the same dilemma. The key is to create an image that communicates professionalism right from the start . . . beginning when customers call your company for the first time.

Every time your phone rings, what your prospects hear makes a big difference in the way they perceive your business. Here are four steps you can take to make your business sound professional:

  • Choose a great company name. Your company needs a name that's descriptive and easily recognizable, such as "Jones Public Relations." If the name you've started out with isn't working, change it.
  • Answer professionally. Answer the phone clearly and distinctly with the company name, followed by your own name, to help the caller remember it, such as "Jones Public Relations. This is Sally Jones."
  • Record a professional-sounding message. The way your phone is answered when you're unavailable says a lot about your concern for customer satisfaction. One simple solution is using voice mail from your local phone company. For less than $10 per month, voice mail allows your callers to leave you a message even when you're on the line. Whether you use voice mail or an answering machine, make sure your outgoing message is upbeat, short, crisp and professional.
  • Become an expert at describing what you do. Write down a single, clear sentence that describes what your company does. Then memorize it and repeat it in every contact with prospects, from networking to cold calls. Being able to describe your business in a consistent, memorable fashion is a great way to position your company in your prospects' minds.

When it comes to creating an image for your business, what your prospects see is as important as what they hear. To convey an image of professionalism and stability, you'll need a family of top-quality tools that work together.

  • Start with a stationery package. To stand out, coordinate two-color business cards (black ink plus a second color) with letterhead and matching envelopes. Add a distinctive logo with help from your printer or a graphic designer. Then use your logo on all your printed materials to maintain a consistent visual image.
  • Create a company brochure. This single tool must convey that your company is solid and stable, communicate the benefits of selecting your company and create a distinct visual image. Examine your principal competitors' brochures to assess the formats they use and their key selling points. When developing your own brochure, production quality is critical to the success of the piece--and to your professional image. So be certain your company brochure can stand up to those of your largest competitors in terms of design, readability and paper quality.
  • Polish your forms. Print invoices, contracts and estimates on letterhead or pre-printed forms, so every communication your prospects and customers receive from your business conveys a consistent, professional image.
  • Tie in presentation tools. If you need presentation folders or proposal covers, have them printed at the same time you print your brochure. A large portion of printers' charges are for "inking" the press. If your materials use the same kind of paper and ink colors, printing them together will save money.

This article originally appeared in the March 1998 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine.