Your Professional Image

Beverley Williams

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries! The success of your home-based business may depend upon your ability to balance your home and business demands. Separating home from business goes beyond just the space utilized. You need to decide how you will handle phone calls, finances, mail, childcare and eldercare, and so forth. Although you already may have decided to operate a home-based business, the following issues require consideration.

Office Location
Will clients come to your office? What will they see…clutter, toys, laundry? What will they hear…children playing, dishwasher running or daytime drama on the television? What will they smell…is that cat box really clean?

You may find it easier to maintain a professional attitude toward your business when you have a specific space in which to work. Your needs may also change as your business grows. While the dining room table may work when you have must two or three clients, clearing your entire office for dinner each night probably won’t work when you have dozens of clients.

Is your office a defined space, such as a whole room used exclusively for business? In order to qualify for the home office deduction, the space must be used exclusively for business. Check with your accountant for professional advice. Do you have a specific location suitable for client visits that is more professional than the kitchen table? A living room arrangement may be more suitable.

Integrating Your Household
Integrating work and family life under the same roof can be a challenge. Sit down with everyone in the household and brainstorm about the potential effects of a home-based business on your home life. Interruptions by children, spouse, or housemates when you are working on a project or talking on the phone to a client may affect your professionalism. Conversely, having business calls and visitors interrupt your family time takes its toll as well.

One business planning consultant has clients draw up a “family plan” as well as a “business plan” to ensure that all the details of the home/business interface have been worked through before they arise as problems.

A home office arrangement takes time to work, and it will only work with the support of everyone in the household. Scheduling is another area where your needs may change over time, due to family or business changes. Setting aside time for household members to have your full attention will create less stress than constant interruptions during work time.

Answer Your Calls and Keep Your Promises
Get a high quality telephone answering device or answer call service to take your calls when you are not in the office or when you are on another line. The message announcement should be clear and businesslike. Check your messages often and call people back quickly. Family members may think they are being helpful by answering your business phone, but discourage them if they cannot answer in a professional manner or take accurate messages.

If you use e-mail, retrieve your messages at least twice a day and respond quickly. Answer your “snail” mail and follow up on any promises you make. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated.

Getting Your Mail
Post office boxes traditionally have been used by home-based businesses to disguise their being home-based. As it becomes more acceptable and legal to operate out of your home, it is not necessary to use a post office box. However, numerous mail services now offer suite numbers as their street address as an option to a box number. If you get a large volume of mail, regular packages, etc., this may be a more workable alternative.

Clients, Deliveries and Neighbors
Be cautious about clients, particularly those not known to you, coming to your home office. If you are concerned, check into satellite office services that allow you to rent by the hour, week, month, etc. Or meet with clients in their offices, a public library, or a local restaurant. This is especially important if your local zoning ordinance allows you to have a home-based business but only with limited or no additional traffic.

Be considerate about the residential aspect of your neighborhood, particularly in terms of parking, noise and traffic early in the morning or late at night as well as other concerns your neighbors may have. In addition, some neighborhoods have covenants, or legally binding agreements, which limit commercial vehicles, commercial signage, and similar non-residential activities and artifacts within the area they cover.

Dressing the Part
The public sometimes perceives home-based business owners as sitting around in their house robes, drinking coffee and watching television. Your home may be your castle, but when it’s also the office you must dress the part. That doesn’t mean you have to wear a business suit all the time, but you will want to dress a little less casual whenever there is a chance of being seen by a client or vendor. Wearing business attire helps some people stay motivated. Your professional image can come across in phone conversations, written letters, and even through your computer. Make sure your letterhead, business card, and printed materials convey the image you want to project.

Dressing the part also depends on what your business involves. First impressions can be hard to overcome, especially if they are negative. Attending a networking meeting in a sweat suit may work for a personal trainer, but probably not a venture capital broker. As in most business settings, it is better to be slightly overdressed in an unknown situation than underdressed.

One caveat in the other direction, however. If you wear clothing in which you feel uncomfortable, people can tell. What they can’t tell is whether you are uncomfortable about your product or service, or for some other reason. When going out in public, dress to balance comfort and impact.

Setting Hours
Although reasons for wanting to work from home are many and varied, most home-based business owners cite the ability to set their own hours as a major factor in their decision.

Your clients will need to know when they can reasonably expect to reach you in the office. And you will stay focused more easily if you set specific work hours for yourself. Posting your hours on the office door helps you and your family keep the boundaries. Stating your hours in your voice mail message will reduce the number of business calls “after hours.” Adding a surcharge to your invoice for work the client expects you to perform outside your “normal” working hours is one way to train clients to your preferred work hours.

Getting Away From the Office
Home-based business owners have been known to become “workaholics” because they office is so accessible. Don’t become a slave to your business; get out of the office regularly to renew yourself. Close the door to your office and go into your “home” area to live your personal life. If you find it difficult to ignore a ringing phone in the office, turn the ringer off and the volume on the answering machine down.

You aren’t required to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week just because your business is located in the home. After all, you have an office in your home…not a home in your office!

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