The Importance of Professionalism

Posted: February 15, 1999 by Sutton Landry in Marketing, Operations, Planning, Startup

Classic Cincinnati Post column from 1999

In the era before personal computers, when the typewriter was the “word processing” tool of choice, there was a saying that reflected the prevailing behaviors and attitudes in the corporate business world, “No one was ever fired for buying IBM.”  In short, no one was ever fired for buying brand name products or services with a universal reputation for quality.  As I learned during the past two years while conducting interviews of large employers in the region for a task force of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, that same attitude still prevails today.  Purchasing managers value the assurance of brand name quality and are reluctant to try Brand X, the typical small business.

So how can the small business owner compete in such an environment?  How can s/he hope to make a sale to a large organization?  The answer is by being professional, even more professional than the brand name competitors.

   What exactly do we mean by being professional?  Here’s what I mean:  exhibiting the qualities, skills, and behaviors of the best firms and individuals in your particular field and the business world at large.

Brand name companies are distinguished by high quality tangibles, things like a prestigious business address, professionally printed business cards and literature, a courteous staff, and well-dressed employees.  Small business owners need to incorporate as many of these tangibles as possible in order to create a professional, brand name image.   But use your resources wisely.  Start with the less expensive tangibles like professionally designed and printed cards and literature (stop using the cute paper from the office supply stores).  If you use an answering machine, be sure that the message indicates the name of your business, not just your phone number!  Think seriously about purchasing voice mail services or hiring an answering service.   Buy one or two classic, conservative business suits and wear them to business meetings and appointments.  Lastly, when you can truly afford to do so, go ahead and lease space at a prestige address.

Besides tangibles, brand name companies have a reputation for top notch skills and usually have an impressive list of clients to confirm the quality of their work.  If you have a similar list of past clients, by all means, use it.  If you do not have such a list, then you will need to emphasize the quality of your education and training, provide examples of projects you have worked on as an employee,  and use different strategies to convince the potential customer of your qualifications for performing the particular work in question.  One of the ways that you can do this is by providing a copy of your business plan to the prospect (many of whom will request your plan).  While this is not a perfect substitute for a list of satisfied clients, it is evidence that you are a serious and focussed business owner and worthy of further consideration.

Finally, you need to emulate the behaviors of brand name firms, especially in the ways that they establish and maintain relationships.  Woody Allen once said that “80 percent of success is showing up.”  That percentage might be a bit high, but Allen was certainly on the right track.   A more accurate formula for successful relationships looks like this:  show up, pay attention, and follow through.   Once you secure an appointment with a key prospect, your job is to learn as much as you can about both the company and the individual buyer.  Your first objective should not be a sale but rather to learn what problems and issues that buyer has so that you can help solve them in the future.  When you start offering professional solutions rather than selling “stuff,” then you have the basis for a long-term, professional relationship.

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