Creating a Professional Impression

…even when you work at home!

Okay, let’s face it. There are times when working in an office is just easier. You tend to have everything you need right there at work and if you don’t, there’s way to get what you need (the supply closet, an acquisition form) . . .

Some time ago I was on a mid-morning conference call while the kids were in school. I strategically schedule any work-related phone calls for school hours because it’s much more difficult to sound professional if there are children anywhere nearby. As any mom will tell you, total chaos is bound to break out once the parent in the house is on the phone. It’s like kids are born with some sort of radar that immediately detects an adult conversation.

The call had gotten underway and was going along smoothly when all of a sudden my mailman — I say mailman instead of letter carrier because (1) he’s a man and (2) he brings us the mail and (3) I’m not very politically correct — drove up my driveway to deliver a package that wouldn’t fit into the mailbox. My dog, who usually sleeps at my feet while I’m working, started barking as if we were under attack in broad daylight and the only chance of survival depended upon her deafening the beast.

I quickly covered my hand over the phone (my low-tech attempt at mute since I can never remember where that button is) and began worrying whether the client on the line had heard the commotion. She, of course, had heard the barking and I nearly laughed when she immediately commented on how nice it was that I was able to bring my dog to work! I didn’t laugh, I just agreed with her and the conversation quickly returned to the work at hand. It IS nice that I get to bring my dog to work everyday (all 50 steps of my commute) and there was no need in that instance to explain that I work from home. There are occasions when I do mention that I work from home and to be honest, most folks care less about the location and more about the quality of the work you do and how professional you are (or aren’t).

When you work from home, no matter how well you try to plan ahead, things like the dog barking incident are bound to happen. But there are some things you can do to make a more professional impression right from the get-go, even if you’re working out of your home office. And, best of all, they’re all available right here on the Internet.

Here are the things I’ve done (and something I still need to do) to help create a more professional working impression:

  1. Get a separate phone and fax number.
  2. Depending on the kind of work you do, you may want to have an entire new phone line installed to use strictly for your professional communications. I don’t personally need an entire phone line (though I did back in the days of dial-up) so most recently I’ve opted for an online service called MaxEmail. It allows me to have a separate phone number strictly for voice mail messages that are then converted into an mp3 and sent to my email addy. And, you can also have the voice mail number configured to accept faxes, too (at no additional cost). The faxes are then converted to a PDF file and sent to you via email as well.

    It’s ‘almost’ like having a secretary all your own. Pricing depends on exactly how you’d like things to work, how many faxes you’ll be receiving, and how many voice mails you’d like to set up but there’s also a 30-day free trial so you can test drive before you decide.

    So how much does it cost me to have voice mails and faxes neatly sent to my personal email address? The package I have costs me $84 per year and it’s totally worth every penny for the convenience of having Internet faxing and voice mail.

  3. Use a professional email account.
  4. If you are employed by a company but working at home, it’s likely that your email address is provided for you. But if not, nothing screams I’m working from home quite like a hotmail email address. And a Yahoo email address isn’t much better even though they do provide some alternate selections these days (@ymail.com or @rocketmail.com). Still, it’s strictly web-based unless you want to pay for pop access and frankly I don’t like paying for something I can get elsewhere for free.

    For whatever reason, a gMail address (which is web-based but also provides free pop access) has a more professional appearance than the other freebies out there on the Internet. I also, obviously, own my own domain names so I have email accounts specifically for managing those domains, like this one. I also work for 2 companies that provide me with email accounts so I manage those as well.

    So how do I successfully juggle all those email accounts? I use the Internet’s best email cient of course. It’s free, it’s easy to set up, you can totally control all of your email accounts from one hub and it gets the job done.

  5. Set up sig files, websites, and profiles.
  6. When you choose the email account you’ll be using for work you should also set up an appropriate signature file (a.k.a. sig file – that little blurb that gets automatically placed at the end of each email you compose). Most web-based email providers include that option and if you’re using Thunderbird or Outlook you can also note which sig file (generally a txt file) you’d like to associate with which account.

    A silly signature file is likely to give you a less than professional appearance, unless you’re a comedian or working for FunnyOrDie.com.

    What should go in your sig file? Well, if you have a website you’d certainly place a link to your website in your sig file along with your other professional contact information. Websites aren’t necessary for everyone working at home, but if you’re selling a product or service you might want to create one. Otherwise creating a professional profile on a site like LinkedIn can do the trick. And you can also create a custom-looking sig file right in your LinkedIn account that will provide some basic info along with a link to your profile page (nothing like killing two tasks with one keystroke online).

  7. Create the proper paper support.
  8. If you’re not a W-2 employee, it’s likely you’ll also need to create a professional-looking letterhead or some nice looking business cards that don’t have the tell-tale printed-at-home-perforated edges. I know, Avery did come out with clean edged business cards, but I still like the look and feel of business cards that are professionally printed. And these days, it’s not an expense that breaks the bank.

    I have business cards provided for me (for my day-job) but I once ordered some professionally printed brochures to use with an online retail and local wholesale business I owned. I figured it was better to hand someone a brochure than a business card since I actually had a product line I was selling. I ordered a really slick tri-fold brochure that was the same size as a piece of typing paper so that I could insert a page devoted to wholesale or retail pricing. That way, I wasn’t bound to setting my price for the next couple of years and I didn’t have to order two sets of brochures for the retail and wholesale side of things.

    When someone local asked me about my business, I could whip out a brochure that gave all of the information neatly and they were always impressed. I also mailed some to family and friends for fun. If you select the 8 1/2 by 11 sized paper – it fits quite nicely into a #10 envelope. The process was fairly easy and I ended up with 500 really nice brochures for around $250. The certainly helped me increase my sales and gave a sparkling impression when dealing with local shops who were placing wholesale orders.

    So where did I find a tri-fold brochure that allowed my small retail and wholesale business look as good as the big boys? I used PsPrint’s brochure printing online process. I’ll bet they do business cards, too. Maybe I should go back and create some TelecommutingJournal business cards to hand out!

    Update: 15% DISCOUNT on all Brochures

  9. Call in for back-up.
  10. Creating a professional impression is not only about the tools you use but also about how you use them. If you have a terrific signature file visible on each and every email but neglect to answer emails you receive in a timely matter – no body cares how great your sig file is. If you set up a voice mail and never check it then it’s pointless!

    One of the major pitfalls of working at home is the responsibility of having to wear all the hats yourself. There’s no secretary prioritizing your phone messages, no janitor vacuuming your office floor every night, and no IT person to call when things go wrong. While no one you work with is going to notice your carpet is a bit dirty they will notice if you don’t return calls or answer emails. They’ll also notice if you can’t produce a file you’ve promised to produce or supposed to have on hand.

    As a work-at-home professional you can’t afford to skimp on the IT functions of your working solutions. If you’re working for some nice company who provides you with all of the hardware and software you need along with a spiffy network connection, you’re a step ahead of the game but still need to be responsible enough to maintain your equipment and abide by the TOS of your telecommuting agreement. Otherwise you’d better be able to handle all of the basic IT concerns like keeping your PC and laptop running safely and efficiently and protecting your data at all costs.

    So the last thing I want to mention is that even if you have all of your ducks dressed and queued in the most professional of lines, failing to maintain your data could be the end of everything you’ve worked so hard for.

    I currently house my backups on an external hard drive (which I believed to be the very best solution back when I set that up). While I’ve upgraded over time and have regular back ups scheduled I am worried that it’s no longer the ideal solution for me. While it does give me some peace of mind and ease of use, my external hard drive is physically located right next to my PC tower. So, knock on wood, if my house suffers a natural disaster, it’s quite likely my external hard drive isn’t going to survive any better than my PC tower. What once gave me great peace of mind (I do love my external hard drive) now does little to assuage my fears. Sometimes even us work at home loners need to call in some back-up!

    I’m currently looking for an online backup solution that I feel is safe and affordable so that I will no longer depend solely on my external hard drive backup. I do have concerns about privacy and safety and I don’t need to back up everything I do (since the company files I work on are already housed on an external network), but I think I’d feel much more secure about data archives if I had the vast majority of my other work-related files on a remote backup. Personally, I’m now in a tiz about backing up all the digital photos I take and never get around to having printed and put into an album.

    So far, here are the online back-up vendors I’m considering:

    *Mozy
    *Carbonite
    *eVault
    *Iron Mountain
    *iDrive
    *HP Smart Online Backup
    *SOS Online Backup

So that’s it – five things I do to help create a professional impression even though I’m working at a desk right here at home! Oh, and go ahead and put the dog on the back porch before your conference call begins . . . just in case.

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