The Professional Edge: How to Stand Out as a Small Business Owner

The transition from being an employee to owning a business often requires a recalibration of how we perceive professionalism. As an employee, you follow guidelines and standards set by the organisation. However, as a business owner, you are the organisation. Therefore, you set the tone for how your business is perceived.

Interestingly, while professionalism is often talked about, it’s a quality that can be hard to measure but easy to recognise. A significant part of that perception stems from small yet crucial behavioural elements that cumulatively build your professional image. This blog aims to shed light on these foundational aspects and offer actionable advice.

I often recount how, despite feeling disorganised or even tardy, my clients have praised me for my professionalism. One experience particularly stands out; I had a brief and, in my view, rushed conversation with a colleague, only to find that they posted glowing comments about my professionalism online. Clearly, perceptions can be complex and this blog aims to demystify how to consistently appear professional in your business dealings.

The Five Foundations of Professionalism

Before diving into the specific elements that constitute professionalism, it’s crucial to establish a solid understanding of what ‘professionalism’ means in a business context. Being professional is not merely about adhering to a dress code or using formal language; it’s an all-encompassing attitude that informs your actions, interactions and even your thought processes.How to be perceived as a professional in your small business - Picture of an orange balloon in a row of white balloons

Professionalism is about consistently meeting and exceeding expectations, showing respect for others and demonstrating competence and efficiency in your work. So how can you achieve that as a small business owner or freelancer?

1. Reliability: Commit and Deliver

Reliability is the cornerstone of professionalism. It’s essential to make promises that you can keep and to follow through on those promises. When you say you will do something, the onus is on you to do it, ensuring you stay within the budget and time frame. Reliability builds trust and fosters long-term business relationships.

2. Honesty and Transparency

We’ve all been there—something goes awry and there’s a temptation to sweep it under the rug. However, being upfront about issues can be an asset to your professional image. Honesty and transparency can turn a potential disaster into an opportunity for strengthening client relationships. When you come clean about a mistake or a delay, it humanises your brand and makes clients more forgiving and understanding.

The key to successful transparency is timing and framing. Address issues promptly and constructively, focusing on the solution rather than dwelling on the problem. This approach doesn’t just minimise damage; it can actually enhance your reputation as an accountable and responsible professional.

3. Punctuality: Be on Time

There’s a saying that goes, “If you’re on time, you’re late.” Punctuality signals respect for other people’s time and a level of organisation that reassures clients and colleagues alike. Arriving early for meetings, whether online or face-to-face, gives you a few extra minutes to prepare and sets a positive tone for the interaction.

But punctuality isn’t just about physical meetings; it extends to all aspects of your business. This includes responding to emails in a timely fashion, meeting project milestones and even timely invoicing. Being punctual in these areas reinforces your reliability and builds a cohesive professional image.

4. Empathy

In a business world increasingly dominated by digital interactions, the power of empathy should not be underestimated. Understanding your client’s point of view, their needs and their concerns goes a long way in establishing a professional image. It shows that you’re not just in the business to make money but are genuinely interested in providing value.

Notably, empathy doesn’t mean saying ‘yes’ to every client request. It means understanding their perspective and if you have to say ‘no’, explaining why in a manner that shows you’ve considered their viewpoint. This level of attentiveness and care is what sets truly professional businesses apart from the rest.

5. Systems: Create a Workflow

In today’s fast-paced business environment, working without systems is akin to setting yourself up for failure. Systems help ensure that you cover all bases when you undertake a task or a project. Whether it’s onboarding a new client or handling customer complaints, having a system can make the process more streamlined and less stressful.

Moreover, having well-documented systems in place can be a lifesaver when you start scaling your business or decide to bring on additional staff. These systems serve as a handbook for maintaining your established levels of quality and professionalism. They also free up mental bandwidth so you can focus on tasks that require your unique skills, rather than constantly reinventing the wheel.

Using Technology to Enhance Your Professionalism

In an age where technology is interwoven into almost every aspect of our lives, it is increasingly critical to consider how technology can either enhance or hinder your professional image as a business owner.

The notion of professionalism extends far beyond face-to-face interactions and paper-based transactions; it also encompasses how efficiently and effectively you use digital tools to manage your business, engage with clients and even market your services.

The right technological tools can streamline your operations, help you manage tasks and even automate customer interactions, thereby elevating your professional standing. So how can you use technology in your business to enhance your professional reputation?

Use Task Management Systems

Using a task management system like Asana, Trello, or any industry-specific solution can be a game-changer for your business. Such platforms allow you to map out projects, assign responsibilities and track progress. They serve as your digital assistant, keeping you on track and making sure nothing slips through the cracks.

Implementing a task management system not only organises your work but also provides transparency for any collaborators or team members. You’ll find that over time, as you use these tools, you’ll refine your processes and become more efficient, thereby further enhancing your professional image.

I discuss some of the pros and cons of popular task management systems in my blog – Project Management 101 – how to find the right app for your business.

Make Use of Digital Calendars and Online Booking Systems

Your calendar is arguably one of your most vital organisational tools. Apart from merely keeping track of appointments, a well-maintained calendar can also serve as a strategic planning tool. Digital calendars, such as Google Calendar or Microsoft Outlook, offer features that allow you to set reminders before an event. Whether it’s a 10-minute reminder for an online call or a 30-minute heads-up before a face-to-face meeting, these nudges help maintain punctuality.

Another impactful way to manage your calendar and boost your professionalism is by integrating an online booking system. These platforms allow clients to book appointments based on your real-time availability, eliminating the tedious back-and-forth of email scheduling. It provides a seamless experience for the client while also reducing the manual effort required to manage appointments.

Online booking systems often come with features such as automated reminders for both you and your clients, thereby reducing the likelihood of missed appointments and demonstrating your commitment to punctuality and efficient service. I recently discussed how you can use online booking systems to maximise productivity in my blog here, along with discussing the best online booking systems to use in 2023 here.

Use Email Templates to Improve Customer Service

As you find yourself answering similar queries or discussing recurrent issues via email, it’s beneficial to create templates for these common situations. Email templates help ensure consistent, professional communication. They save time and can be a lifesaver when you’re swamped with tasks but still want to maintain a high level of professionalism in your interactions.

However, a word of caution: while templates are useful, each email should still feel personalised. Before hitting “send”, take a moment to tailor the template to the recipient. This shows that you’re not just automating your interactions but genuinely care about each correspondence, adding a layer of professionalism to even the most routine communications.

To find out more about using email templates in your business, have a read of my blog – The Easy Way to Create Customer Service Email Templates.

Professionalism is not just a checklist or a set of rules; it’s a comprehensive approach that touches on your behaviour, your systems and even your emotional intelligence. Review your existing practices to see where you can make improvements to reinforce a professional image.

From reliability to technology, each aspect contributes to how you are perceived as a business owner. So, take the time now to consider how others might perceive your professionalism and consider implementing some of these tips to enhance your reputation.