If you’re a business owner, you’re probably a bit odd. I’m not insulting you by writing that. My well-thumbed Collins English Dictionary defines odd as “Unusual or peculiar in appearance, character, etc.”
Business owners are certainly unusual in character. That’s why they became business owners in the first place. Instead of seeing the world through the eyes of a consumer, they see the bigger picture. They see markets, supply and demand, unfilled niches and future trends. Most important of all, they see opportunities.
Business owners are vastly outnumbered by consumers. We – I’m a business owner myself – have a different perspective on the world. We are unusual, unique, individual. We are odd.
This can sometimes cause problems, especially when business owners interact with customers. It’s not hard to find examples of faux pas comments by owners of companies about their products or customers. These can damage a company’s reputation – and therefore its revenue.
But it’s not just customers. When entrepreneurs meet each other, the interactions can be awkward. Personality clashes are rife. That’s especially true amongst people who have spent little time in conventional office environments. If you’ve never been an employee, it can be hard to understand the perspective of someone who has.
Communication is at the heart of good business. There are rules to follow – unwritten rules. If you don’t follow them, you’re likely to miss out on new opportunities. You may even destroy your business. I’ve seen companies driven into the ground by founders who didn’t understand or allow for the different viewpoints of others.
This all boils down to being a professional. Luckily, that’s something that can be learned. Here are some tips.
1. Hire a PR company
PR companies act as a barrier between you and your customers. That’s not their stated role, but it’s what they do. They take what you want to tell the world and translate it into a form that the world actually wants to hear.
Once your business has reached a certain size, you’ll almost certainly need a PR company to help you talk to your customers professionally. They will use the right words in the right place at the right time.
That’s something you’re unlikely to be able to do yourself – at least to start with. But you can watch how they work and learn by example.
2. The customer is always right – always
OK, we know this isn’t actually true. We’ve all had customers who were troublesome, annoying, rude or deliberately obstructive. It happens. No company can avoid it.
But you have to treat them politely and give them as much help as is practical. You have to let them believe that they are right. Because everyone is watching – including your existing customers and potential new ones.
Get this right and you’ll win new business. Get it wrong and your customers will abandon you. So swallow your pride and be nice.
3. Keep your private life and business life separate
You live for your business. That’s understood. It occupies your every waking thought, even when you’re at home. That doesn’t mean you can bring your home life into your workplace.
Here’s an extreme example of how not to do it. I once interviewed the CEO of a successful software company. Six months after I spoke to him, he arrived at his office on “dress-down Friday” wearing nothing but his underwear. He was leading a similarly-dressed young woman behind him on a chain. Not surprisingly, within a few months of this highly unprofessional event his business was dead and buried.
Your workplace is for work, nothing else. Break this rule and your business may never recover.
4. Respect your employees
The phrase “human resources” is an unfortunate one. It encourages you to think of your employees as units of production, devoid of feelings. But they are people, with their own needs, desires and emotions.
Empathy is hard for some entrepreneurs to learn, but you’ll need it if you want to get the most out of your staff. Talk to them, listen to them and try to adjust your business practices so your staff feel valued and fulfilled. They will reward you with increased productivity.
5. Learn from other entrepreneurs
There’s no shortage of information from other business founders and owners. Web video talks, books, seminars and online courses are available. These will give you insight into ways of doing business that are respectful, efficient and above all professional.
6. Think twice
A simple rule, but a valuable one. Before acting on any new decision, think twice: “Am I being professional?” If so, go ahead. If not, rethink your decision.
Professionalism is one of the skills that separate successful entrepreneurs from the rest. Hard work is only part of the equation. It’s the way you work that matters, the way you interact with employees, customers and business partners.
Remember, as a business owner your behavior is being watched all the time. You are the captain of your ship, the embodiment of your business. So lead by example. Be professional in everything you do.
Alex Cruickshank has been a business writer since 1994 and a serial entrepreneur since 1996. He owns Ministry of Prose, a writing agency based in New Zealand.