In the world of business, image counts for a lot. It may not be everything, but sometimes it's pretty darn close.
Sure, you always have to deliver, but sometimes getting a new client or closing a big deal is as dependent upon how you look to the client as it is upon how qualified you are.
For small businesses and independent contractors, this is often overlooked.
So how do you make yourself more attractive to potential customers and clients?
Here are some tips to get you started.
Build a Professional Website
Not having a website (or having an unprofessional one) can be a death knell today because the internet is often the first place people go to find out who you are, what you can do and what you've done.
If you're involved with any industry that's "on the net," expect that your prospective customers and clients are going to look you up online and make sure that when they find you, there's something professional greeting them.
Set Up a Business Email Address
Your business website needs its own domain name and you should set up a dedicated email account using it.
Keep your email simple and professional - first name or first initial and last name are usually appropriate (i.e. firstname.lastname@example.org).
Never use a free email service. You lose credibility and if you're using a Hotmail or Yahoo email address, for instance, you've probably lost at least one prospective customer or client because of it.
Organize Yourself as a Business Entity
Organizing yourself as a legal entity (limited company, LLC or corporation depending on your country of residence) is usually a good investment.
Not only does it often provide legal protections and tax advantages but also sends prospective customers and clients the message that you have a "legitimate" business.
I've found that many people are more comfortable doing business with a "real" company - you probably are too.
Before organizing yourself as a business entity, I highly recommend that you speak to an attorney and tax professional. Even though this can be expensive, as they say, don't be pound wise, penny foolish - especially when it comes to something as important as this.
Obtain a Business Address
Even if you work from home, if you use your home address as your business address, prospective customers and clients may think less of you if they find out (it's usually obvious if you include an apartment number or live in a well-known residential area).
While the psychological impact of an address may not be logical, I think it's hard to argue that there is a widely-held difference in perception between businesses run from a home office and those run from a "real" office. The latter, of course, are usually perceived to be more "professional" and "successful."
Fortunately, addressing (no pun intended) this issue need not be difficult or expensive. In most countries, there are private mailbox services that give you a "legitimate" business address.
At the high end, companies like HQ provide "virtual offices" at prominent addresses in major cities around the world.
Have a Dedicated Business Phone Number
Having a dedicated phone number for your business is also very important.
If a prospective client in Asia calls you at midnight, for instance, and you roll out of bed and answer in a groggy manner, your image will probably suffer.
At the very least, getting a second phone line with a voicemail service specifically identifying your business is a wise investment.
Alternatively, companies such as Onebox offer virtual PBX and live receptionist services if you're looking to replicate an even more professional corporate phone setup at a fraction of the cost.
Get a Fax Number
If you don't have a fax machine or a dedicated fax number, services like eFax provide a cost-effective alternative and conveniently email you any faxes you receive as attachments. They also support the sending of faxes.
Print Business Cards
No business owner should ever be without business cards and the line "I'm sorry I don't have any business cards with me" can actually lead to a lot of missed opportunities.
Have a professional-looking business card designed and printed on decent card stock and make sure you carry at least 10 with you at all times
A good business card, of course, will contain your name, your company name, your business address, your business phone number, your business fax number and your email address.
Perception is reality and creating the perception that you're "bigger than you really are" is never a bad thing in business. That said, none of these tips here should distract from the fact that once you've attracted a new customer or client, you have to deliver. After all, image with no substance usually isn't sustainable.
Additionally, it's never a wise idea to go overboard spending on your image. Know your budget and mix and match the above as your budget permits. As your business grows, you'll be able to make further investments accordingly.