There is an old adage in the business world that says, "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have."
It's all about making a good first impression on the people who can decide your fate. If you look happy to be where you are now, you're likely to stay there. But if you look like you aspire to something more, you might just catch the eye of someone looking for an ambitious go-getter and start moving up the company ladder faster than those who dress for comfort or appear to prefer fashion sense to business sense.
The same thinking applies to business communications. Things that may have been expedient when you started out can make you look pretty insubstantial as a potential business partner – especially if you're aspiring to go after bigger fish.
It doesn't have to be that way, though. There are many tools out there now that can help you dress up your business communications without breaking your budget.
Take your email address, for example. Many consultants when they first start out will use an email address with the domain @hotmail.com, @gmail.com, @aol.com, etc. They do it because it's free, it's easy, and they can count on those providers to manage the back end.
In terms of business communication, the problem is it also says, "this e-mail is coming to you direct from my couch, where I am watching Oprah while writing it." That may not be true, but that's what it says - just as surely as that beat up old pair of Birkenstocks says "I'd rather be kicking back at the beach sipping Mai Tais than stuck here at work."
Instead of settling for a generic email identity, tell people you're a substantial business by purchasing a domain name that ties into your business and routing your email through it. Domain names through some providers cost less than $10 per year, and they'll give you the email address for free. Odds are you spend more than $10 a year on breath mints so you make a good impression. Isn't it worth that much for customers and prospects to see your business' name every time they receive an email from you?
Then there's your phone system. Again, in terms of business communication, nothing says, "I'm doing this until I can find a real job" like a telephone that gets answered by you when you're there, and goes to an answering machine you bought at a big box retailer when you're not. When that happens, it sounds like you're not planning to be there very long - even if starting a business has been your lifelong dream.
What you want to look at instead is a virtual public branch exchange (PBX) phone service. This is a service that provides you with all the benefits of a standard PBX - such as a professional greeting, auto-attendant, multiple extensions, voice mail, company directory, call forwarding, etc. - without the huge investment in capital equipment as all of the PBX work is done at the service provider's end.
A virtual PBX is particularly good for companies with workers who are out of the office a lot, or who work outside the main office. Unlike a standard PBX, the reach of which is limited to the four walls of the building where the equipment is housed, a virtual PBX extension can be forwarded to any phone anywhere. If the main office is in Iowa and one of your employees is in California, you can have extension 101 and 102, respectively, and no one will be the wiser.
For mobile workers, the same feature extends to cell or home phones. In fact, you can set up the phone system to ring the office, mobile, home, branch office, or anywhere else all at once or in sequences, so you’re always available to your customers and prospects (if you want to be). If not, or if caller ID shows it to be someone you don't want to speak with at the moment, they go to a professional voice mail system that can then notify you by email that you have a voice mail waiting. It can even email a voice file so you can hear the message without dialing in to the office. All of this can be yours for $10-$50 per month or so, depending on your needs. Some people spend more than that a month just on shoes.
There's still something to be said for having professional-looking letterhead and envelopes with pre-printed logos and address information. While most business communication is handled via email these days, more formal communication (such as letters of agreement, formal welcome letters, thank you notes, etc.) make a better impression when they come on a quality paper stock that has been professionally printed.
Local quick-print houses can create all of that for you at reasonable prices. There are also online companies that will do the same. It's a small investment that can make a huge impact on the people you're trying to impress. Like a nicely pressed silk tie or earrings that sparkle, it's often the little things that make the difference.
One last thing to consider in business communications is the content of your messages itself. If business writing has never been your strength, or spelling is to you as spaghetti sauce is to a white shirt/blouse, consider upgrading your skills in these areas. Many community colleges offer business writing classes that can help you learn to write better. You may not end up being William F. Buckley, but you also won't have people wondering how you ever passed your sixth grade English class.
On the spelling front, don't trust it all only to the built-in spell checkers in popular office software. They can't distinguish between "to," "two" and "too," but there's a good chance your readers can. Use the wrong one and again you'll sound foolish.
Either shore up your capabilities in this area or find someone to proofread your materials before you send them. If there's no one in your business to help you with it, English majors at local colleges or junior colleges make good candidates for this type of work. Most will be happy to earn a few extra dollars – it beats working the all-night shift at the Quik-E-Mart. And if they catch one major gaffe a year, they'll have paid for themselves many times over.
In today's electronic world, the odds are your business communications will be seen and/or heard many times more than you will personally. Make sure you've dressed yours for success.