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Professionalism: A Luxury for Corporate America, a Necessity for Entrepreneurs The adage, "you don't get a second chance to make a first impression," couldn't be more true for entrepreneurs. For those needing to brush up on their professional skills, here are a few tips.

By Dana Brownlee Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


As a corporate trainer I've witnessed one too many texting obsessed meeting participants, received more than my share of typo riddled emails and witnessed jaw-dropping workplace faux pas like leaving snuff spit cups on break room counters (no, I'm not kidding). Admittedly, over the years I've noticed a bit of a cultural shift that certainly begs the question: Are we witnessing the death of professionalism as we know it?

More recently, I began to examine this same issue through the lens of an entrepreneur and came to the conclusion that professionalism standards are actually even more important in this community. In a corporate setting, employees who adopt "casual" professionalism standards run the risk of eroding their workplace image which could cost them a promotion, additional responsibilities or a bonus. But for an entrepreneur, unprofessional or inconsistent behaviors could mean life or death for that business.

While it's rare for a corporate manager to fire an employee for a moderate professionalism infraction, potential clients regularly "fire" small businesses for the tiniest mishaps when it creates a perception that the entrepreneur isn't responsive, timely and consistent. (Translation: they seem unprofessional.) The good news is that in today's environment of arguably declining professionalism standards, those entrepreneurs who set the bar high, truly stand out and can often capture market share, revenue, clients or what have you, based in large part on their reputation for virtually real time responsiveness, consistent courtesy and flawless communications, among other things.

Related: Time for a Talk: Don't Let Your Phone Be a Selfish Boyfriend (or Girlfriend)

For those of you that could use a little help, here are a few pieces of advice that not only helped me build my brand and grow my business but also stand out from the crowd:

Arrive early. One of my client companies has a mantra: "If you're on time, you're late!" Try to strive to arrive 10 minutes early for appointments.

Arriving late (even a few minutes) simply sends the message that the appointment (or client) wasn't important enough for you to ensure you were there on time. Don't take the chance of sending such a destructive subliminal message.

Be responsive. Even if your response is just acknowledging receipt of an email or voicemail or indicating that you will need to follow up later, make sure you communicate promptly. It is just common courteous, as everyone appreciates someone who responds in a timely manner. So set a rule to respond to all client requests within 12 hours (if not sooner). In this case, technology can assist with response cycle time so take advantage.

Related: 15 Business Etiquette Rules Every Professional Needs to Know

Respect dress codes. Dress a half a step above the client. Respect them enough to dress at least as formally as their corporate culture dictates but don't dress so formally that you look out of place or make others feel under dressed.

Draw a line between personal and professional. Develop two distinct sets of standard for personal and professional communications. Typos may be perfectly fine when emailing your best friend but not so much when communicating with a client or colleague. Also, avoid sending quick email responses on your mobile device or PC for important communications, as you are just setting yourself up for typos, poorly worded messages or blatant misstatements. And please don't add a disclaimer in your signature line asking others to disregard these errors -- it sounds lazy.

Don't try to remember ANYTHING. Your memory may not always serve you correct, so make sure you write everything down. Develop whatever system works best for you (e.g. online task list, reminder app or small notebook), but have one place where you keep a running list of tasks.

Get a plan. Take five to 10 minutes after meetings to complete your action items. Not only will you save yourself tons of time by completing them in real time, you'll also reinforce the image of someone who is "on top of things." It's so much more common to procrastinate that when you follow up immediately, you stand out in the best way.

Also, remember birthdays (I use and send handwritten thank you notes. Who doesn't love that?

In many ways employees in a corporate setting are graded on a curve -- second chances are the norm and there are often plenty of opportunities to change roles, departments and teams. In contrast, the entrepreneurship jungle seems much more pass/fail with no opportunities for extra credit and penalties for guessing. Indeed, many entrepreneurs won't get a second chance to impress a potential client, deliver great service to a new large customer or roll out a new product or service. Since we often won't get that second chance to make a first impression, our standards must be set high at all times. After all, if we don't do it, there's another entrepreneur who will, and they will eat our lunch in the process.

Related: 4 Cellphone Etiquette Mistakes You Make Everyday

Dana Brownlee

President of Professionalism Matters

Having run a small business over the past decade, Dana Brownlee is an advocate for helping other small businesses succeed.  She is president of Atlanta-based training company Professionalism Matters and is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer and team development consultant. 

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