Interior designer RoxAnn Johnson usually loves the solitude her home office provides, except for the days when a new client or unknown vendor visits.
"Although chances are most people who come to your home office are legitimate, at the back of your mind you can't help but feel a little uneasy about being all alone," says Johnson, owner of Spatial Expressions in Orange, California. She prefers to meet with new clients and vendors outside of her home office--preferably at whatever location she'll be redecorating for them--but on occasion they will visit her.
Of course, if you know a client or vendor well, a home-office visit can be a welcomed interruption. But when it's your first meeting, personal safety becomes an issue. Isolated in your home office in what could be an empty neighborhood, you might be vulnerable when visitors come calling.
But before you panic, consider this: "If you're aware and alert, a home office is actually safer than many traditional work environments because you have more control over who comes into your office," says crime prevention specialist Lierre Green, who works as a commercial security coordinator at the Irvine, California police department and regularly conducts presentations on violence in the workplace.
Keep the following tips in mind and you'll likely stay safe in your home office.
Julie Bawden Davis is a full-time freelance writer who has worked from a home office in Orange, California, for 11 years. Her articles regularly appear in a variety of national and regional publications.
Pre-Screen New Clients
Spending some time on the phone with potential clients will help you screen out problems before they come knocking on your door.
"Don't agree to meet with anyone until you talk to the person and make sure that what he or she is saying is feasible and makes sense," says Green. "Be wary if the person isn't speaking the vernacular of your business and doesn't seem to know what you do."
Before giving out your address to a prospective client, Green suggests asking for his or her phone number and calling the person back. If something shady is going on, the caller may balk at giving you a number or may give you a phony one. Also, ask for an address; then call information and ask for the caller's number, giving the address the caller cited--the operator will state whether or not the number is listed and if the address is correct.
When someone will be visiting you on behalf of another company, get the person's supervisor's name and call to verify that he or she has the company's credentials. Always have visitors commit to a specific appointment time, and, if feasible, let a spouse, friend, family member or colleague know in advance when the scheduled visit will be.
If the call is a referral, refrain from giving out your home address until you talk to the person who did the referring, advises Melissa Wilson, owner of Home Business Network, a consulting business in Greenwood Village, Colorado. She helps people develop their home businesses and is an independent distributor with Quorum International Ltd., a network marketing company, headquartered in Phoenix, that develops and manufactures a diverse mix of new technological products, such as personal security devices, vehicle security maintenance products and air treatment systems. "It's good business to thank the person who made the referral anyway," she says.
Another way to control who ends up in your home office is to be prudent about where you advertise, says Green. "It's not true that any advertising is good advertising," she says. "Don't put your home-office phone number on supermarket bulletin boards and in general advertising publications. If you're in the computer business, then advertise in computer magazines." By advertising on supermarket or convenience store bulletin boards, she notes, you cast your net to a wider circle of people and a less targeted audience, which is more likely to include a few "weirdos." Most people won't go to the supermarket or look in the Pennysaver to find a secretarial service; typing services would be more appropriately advertised on a university bulletin board. Green also realizes that, at times, it is necessary to advertise in general publications; in these circumstances, she suggests making sure that your advertisement doesn't run near the personal ads, so you won't be fielding any inappropriate, "accidental" calls.
Whenever possible, try to build your business through what is known as word-of-mouth advertising, advises Green. "Referrals are always best, because people you know tend to know people like yourself."
Referrals are a good way to build business, agrees Clemencia Golbov, who runs Home Computer Services, a company which performs desktop publishing and word processing, from her home in Reno, Nevada. "I generally get calls from people I gave my card to at a networking function, or who were referred to me by someone I know," she says. "I don't have my phone number advertised in the phone book, so if I got a call from someone out of the blue, I probably wouldn't have them come straight to my house. I'd arrange our first meeting at their place of business."
Follow Your Instincts
You can do a lot of outward things, such as controlling advertising and verifying referrals, but perhaps the most important thing you can do to protect your safety is to go inward and listen to your intuition. Most people agree that a "gut feeling" that something is wrong is usually right on the money.
The desire to succeed in a homebased business will often override common sense, says Wilson. "Sometimes people get so hungry for business, they'll pounce on anything," she says. "But if something doesn't feel right, it's not worth the risk, no matter how much you need the business."
When a home-office visit is necessary and the client or supplier is unknown to them, many homebased business owners suggest having someone else be there during the appointment, such as a family member or business associate. Johnson says she always tries to schedule appointments with unknown clients when she knows her business partner will also be in the office.
If it's impossible to have someone with you when you have a visitor, experts suggest only meeting in your home office if it is located near the entrance of your house.
Don't lead new clients to an out-of-the-way back-bedroom office; conduct business in a front room instead.
For security reasons, Johnson placed her office at the front of her house and created a separate entrance for it. "Not only did I not want visitors coming into my home and seeing everything I have, I also feel safer in my office because it's not as secluded as a back bedroom," she says. "If something happened, I could escape more easily and would be more likely to be heard if I ever had to call for help."
Experts agree with Johnson's approach and suggest placing your office at the front of your house whenever possible. Not only does it provide security when you have company, it allows you to view visitors as they approach. If things don't look right, you can simply not answer the door.
You'll probably never need it, but a planned escape route is a good idea in the unlikely event that a visit does go awry.
"Just as you should have a mental fire-escape plan, you should also have an idea of what you would do if someone attacked you in your home office," says Green. "In such a situation, your mind is your best ally. You know the layout of the house and can use that to your advantage."
If nothing else, having a plan can put your mind at rest so you can concentrate better on running a successful business.
We don't want you to become paranoid about working at home, but we do want you to be safe. Follow the tips suggested here to make sure that you are both safe and secure.
There is no rule that says new clients must visit your home office, says Cynthia Brower, vice president of marketing for the National Association of Home Based Businesses in Baltimore.
"We discourage home-office foot traffic for a number of reasons, including safety concerns," she says. "Instead, we give our members alternative suggestions, especially women who are home alone with children." Here are those tips:
Take advantage of modern communication devices whenever possible. If someone wants your address so he or she can drop something off, ask if the item can be sent via modem or fax instead.
Have deliveries sent to a post office box or a mail service street address and pick everything up there.
Avoid unexpected visits by never putting your home address on business cards, stationery or advertising materials.
Meet first-time clients in a public place, such as a local restaurant or coffeehouse. If you leave the meeting feeling uncomfortable, and are afraid the person may try to follow you home, Green suggests taking a different route home--a few left and right turns should confuse most people. She adds, though, that if you are really scared, you should drive to a crowded shopping mall or the nearest police department. Furthermore, she also suggests arriving early to meetings so that you can see where the other person parks, but they can't see where you've parked, or what you're driving.
When a restaurant isn't impressive or quiet enough for your business purposes, rent a conference room in an executive center and have new clients meet you there. This will increase your safety and give you more credibility.