The Five Things You Need to Look Professional

Particularly when running a business from home, there is still a slight stigma attached to using your home as the primary place of business, so you want to give your customers the same level of comfort they'd have shopping at any other high street business.

Item One: A Business Phone Number

You'd be surprised how many people forget this important item. At a minimum you want to have a dedicated business phone number, answered in your business name.

These days, you're no longer restricted to getting a second line put in. You could use one of the many (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voip-VoIP) providers to get a dedicated number, just using some PC software and your broadband internet account. Alternatively, you could use a virtual office provider to set up a phone number which would either be answered by an operator or forwarded to your mobile or home phone, or both.

The options with virtual offices these days are quite sophisticated, and you often get phone and fax numbers and (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivr-IVR) menus built into a standard package, along with operator call forwarding and SMS text messaging.

Item Two: A Business Email Address

When you sign up for broadband, your provider probably gave you an email address like lt;yourname@yourisp.comgt;. Whereas what you need if you want people to take you seriously is an email address like lt;yourname@yourcompanyname.comgt;. In other words, you need your own (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domain_name-internet domain name).

This is not nearly as big a deal as it sounds, and you definitely don't need to get the geeks involved! There are many providers of domain name services online, and nearly all of them will bundle mailboxes (email addresses) with the domain name at little or no additional charge. You can sign up for these services with a credit card and have your new domain name operational the following day (it takes up to 24 hours for a new domain name to become active).

Item Three: A Digital Letterhead

These days it's far more likely that you'll be sending electronic documents to your clients than paper ones. You may send some paper ones too (in some jurisdictions, you may still be required to send a paper invoice for services for example), but if you have a digital letterhead, you can always print it out for a hard copy.

The best format for a digital letterhead is a Word template (substitute your favourite word processor for Word if you like). A template is a locked document that enables you to create new documents using the template as a starting point. You can start a new document from your template just by double-clicking on it. Then you can turn the template into whatever you need: an invoice, purchase order, with compliments slip, etc. If you want to get really ambitious, you can create custom templates for each business document you require.

When sending documents to clients via email, it's a good thing to convert them to a (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pdf-PDF) before sending them. PDF stands for Portable Document Format, and is a file format created by Adobe. The advantages of PDF are: the reader is a free download (and most people already have it installed), so you don't have to worry about whether your recipient has Word installed; the document is read-only so it can't be modified by the recipient; and PDF's will always print out exactly as you see them on screen, so if your recipient uses a different paper format or has their printer set up differently, you can rest assured the document will still print out OK.

Item Four: Business Cards

Whatever your business, even if you think you're not going to have any face-to-face contact with your customers, you still need professionally-designed business cards. Remember, it's not just customers you may be meeting - suppliers, bank managers, small business support groups, networking events, even friends and relatives. Every time you have one of these contacts and you don't have a business card with you, it's a lost opportunity to get exposure for your product or service.

A business card is often the only contact you'll have with someone for a long time, so it's important to make an impact, and ensure that all the details are 100% correct. This is why it's best to spend a little bit extra to get the card professionally designed.

Item Five: A Contact Log

Every time you make contact with anyone, be they a customer, supplier or other form of business associate, ensure you log the contact in your business contact log. This can be as simple as entering information in the Notes field of your address book or email program. Alternatively you could use a paper system (although these tend to become unwieldy very quickly).

There are custom contact management and lead management applications on the market, however these can be expensive for the SOHO operator. The advantage of keeping notes in your email address book is that anytime you receive an email from a contact, you immediately have the contact history on hand. Even when speaking to someone on the phone, it is a small matter to ask the speaker if they wouldn't mind holding for a few seconds. You can then quickly look them up in your address book, digest the history and retrieve the call.

The contact log is vitally important - nothing gives your business a more professional tone than to be completely informed about everyone you speak to. Humans thrive on social contact, and if you are well-informed about your contacts in a business setting, it will serve to increase your business profile and people will be more likely to remember you with a positive attitude.

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