There was a time when being ‘out of the office’ meant taking a vacation. Today, it has a completely new meaning.
Whether you’re a startup, a freelance professional or you’re part of a multi-national workforce, the chances are you work in more than one location at any one time. For some, that means being out on the road every day meeting clients. Others spend much of their time visiting branch offices.
And then you’ve got the army of remote workers and freelance professionals, diligently working all hours to deliver agile services and products to power their clients’ brands. If you’re one of those people, chances are you’ll touchdown anywhere that meets your immediate needs — a coffee shop, a coworking space, your home office, a business lounge, or a hot-desk in your virtual office.
In terms of productivity, you’re onto a winner.
Time and again, research has found that flexible working is a boon to productivity. It can drive efficiency, lower stress, boost morale, retain talent, and decrease business overhead.
But let’s talk professionalism.
Even though flexible working practices are making their way into the mainstream, we’re not there yet. Office-based working practices are deeply embedded in cultural and social trends, and any change to these entrenched ‘norms’ takes a lot of time to sink in. Acceptance doesn’t happen overnight.
After all, mobile working has come about as a result of rapidly evolving technology — and even though we have the tools and the mindset to embrace remote working practices, it’s still a huge step away from the traditional 9-5 mentality, which has been in place for decades. This type of generational change can be a frustratingly slow-turning wheel.
But it’s definitely turning. And the good news is, those of us who work remotely can help it turn a little faster by improving the perception of flexible working.
As a home-based business or anyone who takes advantage of ‘third place’ working, it all starts with your professional standards.
That, and first impressions. (Trust us, those two little words can turn your world upside down in the blink of an eye.)
Success is in the Eye of the Beholder
Let’s start with professional standards. There are a number of key attributes that add to a client’s perception of your company standards and overall professionalism. These include:
- The end-to-end quality of your service or product — from initial contact right through to final delivery.
- Reliability: Speed of response and getting things done when you say you will get them done.
- Customer service: How you handle clients, phone etiquette, how you greet clients at meetings, problem-solving, and all forms of client communications, right down to spelling and punctuation (beware the Grammar Police).
- Brand and marketing: The ‘look and feel’ of your company, brand design and consistency, email addresses and business cards, even the tone of voice you adopt in external communications and marketing campaigns.
- Trustworthiness and ‘social proof’: Does your company exist beyond your website? Do you have a corporate mailing address and a local phone number? Do customers refer others to you, are you referenced on directories and websites, are you mentioned on social media, and do clients regularly write reviews about your brand?
- First impressions: Arguably the most important of them all. You might have been fine-tuning your brand for 20+ years, but if a new client picks up just one negative impression upon first contact with you — be it a brusque phone greeting or the projector breaking down during your meeting — it can throw all your hard work under the bus.
According to Terry Wildemann, speaker, author and leadership coach, a good first impression can set solid foundations for future business dealings, whereas the implications of poor first impressions can be devastating:
“First impressions are made within 3 seconds. They are based on many things that enter our energy field in a blink of an eye — such as one’s energy, attitude and mindset, wardrobe style and color, grooming, body language, words and more.
“When done well, all of these things signal confidence, competence, credibility and congruence. When done poorly, learn from it, improve, shift and move on.”
Tips to Help Your Business Look (And Act) Professional
Of course, you can improve all of your professional standards by investing in relevant training, such as leadership or customer service training. You can improve company communications and rewrite your marketing materials. Or you can go full-throttle by hiring a fancy branding agency.
In the meantime, there are a ton of other low-cost solutions you can implement virtually overnight to boost your professionalism, add client value, and improve those vital first impressions.
Customer Service: If you don’t have time to answer calls politely and promptly, delegate it. Outsource your call answering requirements to a live receptionist service, which ensures all incoming calls to your business phone number — whether they’re from clients, sales reps, or even family members — are handled professionally.
A Local Presence: Even if you work from home, you can setup a corporate office address for your business card and marketing materials. These services vary:
- A standard P.O. Box is often the cheapest option and gives you a basic no-frills mailing address.
- A standard virtual office gives you a business address in an office building with a mail sorting and mail forwarding service.
- Other types of virtual office include a business mailing address, plus additional services as part of the package. For instance, Alliance Virtual’s Platinum Plus plan includes a business address, mail forwarding, business phone number, live call answering, appointment scheduling, and 16 hours’ access to meeting rooms every month.
Meeting Venues: Remember, first impressions matter. Try to avoid meeting in coffee shops, unless you’re on familiar (read friendly) terms with your client. There are literally hundreds of thousands of meeting rooms around the country, and for many of them the cost is negligible. You can easily check-in to a small, well-equipped conference room for $15-$20 per hour (or if you’re on Alliance’s Platinum Plus plan it’s already included).
Mail On The Go: Sometimes you need an important document quickly, and you can’t wait for it to be forwarded. The good news is, a growing number of virtual office companies now work with digital mail services to give you instant ‘virtual’ access to your mail.
Here’s how it works. Your virtual office provider scans your incoming mail and takes a photo of each envelope. You decide whether to trash it, forward it, or have the receptionist open and screengrab the contents. Some operators offer this service in-house, others use third party providers such as Anytime Mailbox and Earth Class Mail. Either way, it’s a great way to cut down on paperwork and it means you get instant access to important documents.
Security: On the one hand, the problem with working from home is that some people feel it looks amateurish and unprofessional. But there’s also the security element. Do you really want to publish your home address on your website? Add to that, clients might feel uncomfortable sending sensitive information to your home address, and for good reason. When your toddler scribbles their finest masterpiece all over a precious contract, you know it’s time to re-think your choice of company HQ. That’s where a business mailing address or a virtual office comes into its own.
These are just a few ways to boost your company’s professionalism, and there are plenty more where they came from.
Best of all, none of these solutions will break the bank. You don’t need to hire a full-time receptionist and you certainly don’t need to blow your small business budget on a physical office. These services do it all for you, which means you can invest the savings back into building your business. Maybe you’ll go full-throttle on that fancy branding agency, after all.