By Audrey Glassman
This shouldn't come as a shock, but etiquette ain't just for pinky-extending, tea drinking socialites, and it ain't just about how you treat other people either -- it's about how you conduct yourself in the privacy of your own office. Even if your office is a home office, business etiquette is serious business. Have you ever committed one of the following faux pas?
1. Thou Shalt Not Invite the Home Back into Thy Home Office
Maybe you sometimes find yourself reading the day's junk mail while watching CNN, snacking on pretzels and Hawaiian Punch, and rubbing the dog's belly while talking on the phone with clients. And maybe you once let junior answer the business phone in his Darth Vader voice. That always cracks you up!
But it might not crack up your clients.
Y'see, the problem with the home office is, well, it's in your home, and at home you probably feel comfortable, and when you're feeling too comfortable, it's easy to lose the cool detachment that's a major part of professional behavior.
Therefore, you need rules. Only you can determine which ones will work: no interruptions between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., no dogs allowed, no snacks until the project's halfway done, whatever. Then you need to enforce them as though your life (or livelihood, at least) depends on it. Because it does.
For many IPs, home and office need to be separated like church and state. If you can't stop yourself from acting more like a college student home for spring break than the professional that you are, it might be time to think about renting an office space outside your house.
2. Thou Shalt Not Show off Thine Gadgets
Without a private assistant to help you, gadgets can become both truly indispensable and a sign of the demand for your time and skills. So you bring along your trusty Palm Pilot, your laptop, and your cell phone whenever you meet with a client at her office. In the course of your meeting, your cell phone rings. You throw up your hand, indicating that your faithful, old-time client needs to shut up for a second, please. After all, your client can surely see that you're a very important person...
Oops. Maybe the client won't see it that way. In fact, maybe the client will think you're... inconsiderate and too busy for her. That's bad.
When you meet with a client, she deserves your undivided attention. Turn off your techno thingamajigs. If you must be available at all times (never know when they'll find that kidney donor), use a beeper on vibrate mode.
3. Thou Shalt Not Forsake Appearances
You like to jog. Good for you. Stay in shape. Live forever. And since a day has only 24 hours, you might even go for a quick run right before dropping in to say hi to a client. You're an IP, after all. You can do as you please. Just keep in mind that you'll look as unprofessional -- as utterly non-professional -- as every other sweat-stinking jogger will.
One of the best IP perks is that you can wear whatever you want when you're not with clients. If you get your kicks by placing business phone calls in your Speed Racer pajamas, go for it. But remember: just because you answer to no one doesn't mean you dress for no one. Be sure to distinguish between dressing for the home office and dressing for client meetings. When in doubt about your appearance, err on the side of formality -- and never underestimate the importance of first impressions.
"I try to dress very professionally when I'm meeting with a prospective client for the first time," says Liz Kiernan, a freelance fashion editor in New York. "After that, I pretty much wear what I want. I would never dress like a slob; I feel and look better when I'm wearing nice clothes. But after that initial meeting, the pressure's off."
4. Thou Shalt Get Back to Them in Good Time
A client calls as you're heading out the door for your afternoon racquetball match. You pause long enough to hear the answering machine pick up and your client desperately wailing your name. And because you're totally committed to working out... you walk right out the door.
You may be a staff of one, but this doesn't make you free like the wind. Don't be lax in getting back to your clients. "The single most annoying thing you can do to your clients is not return their calls quickly," says Herb Vernick, an independent insurance broker in the Philadelphia area. It makes them feel like a low priority.
The ideal thing is to set office hours and make them known to your clients. Vernick spells out his policy clearly so that his clients know exactly what to expect: "If they call before two, they know they'll hear back from me before five. If they reach me after two, they can expect to hear from me before ten the next morning."
5. Thou Shalt Not Bite Off More Than Thou Can Chew
Sometimes you make promises that are a wee bit ambitious in the hope of impressing a client. Privately, you hope that because you really want to deliver what you promised you'll acquire magical powers that will allow you to. Usually this doesn't pan out.
Everyone has to learn not to bite off too big a piece of the pie, and the sooner the better. "In the beginning, I felt every offer was an opportunity," says Wilda Northrop, an artist living in Pacific Grove, California. "So I ended up taking on too much and then delivering some bad work."
Remember that clients judge you not only by the work you do, but also by how promptly you do it. You may have left the corporate sector to get away from the nine-to-five grind, but time still counts.
Keep your commitments realistic and be willing to go into overdrive to get work done when you over-promise. Sometimes you can't. Then it's time to face the music. Which brings us to our next indiscretion...
6. Thou Shalt Not Be a Coward
Oops. You really did overextend yourself. You've been awake for 47 hours straight trying to meet a deadline. You're starting to hallucinate and you can no longer ignore the pit-of-the-stomach realization that you can't honor your commitment. So you call your client's office at 8:54 at night. When you reach her voicemail, you pretend that you're both surprised and disappointed that she hasn't answered the phone herself.
Very, very, very unprofessional.
When you have to deliver bad news, do it face to face. If a meeting isn't possible, a real live telephone conversation is the best and only alternative. Any kind of message -- voicemail, email, or with a real, live secretary -- will seem like an evasion of responsibility, a refusal to face the music, and you'll lose your client's esteem. Maybe you'll lose the job, too.
The best damage control is forthrightness: describe the problem clearly, and explain how you plan to solve it.
7. Thou Shalt Not Gloat
Your liaison at a big-company client is complaining about the daily grind, and what a rude miscreant her boss is. You tell her about your life as an IP, how you set aside ten minutes each day to reflect upon the time you spent as a wage slave and another twelve to pity those who are still wearing the shackles. You urge her to free herself from her corporate torpor.
But did you ever consider that, for some completely justifiable reason, she can't, and that you're rubbing salt in her wounds instead of supporting her ambitions?
Be clear: Your friends have to listen to your rants about the joys of self-employment. Your clients do not.
8. Thou Shalt Not Keep 'Em Guessing
"I was once working for a client based in Rome and the staff there would fax me at all hours -- during their office hours but during our sleeping hours," says Danielle Claro, a New York media consultant. "Clients feel free to contact me after hours, knowing I work at home," Claro says. "I find this irritating because, although I work late at night, I don't work all the time."
The easiest solution is to set ground rules with your clients, who will probably appreciate the direction. After all, you may be the only IP with whom they do business, and they may not know how to play with the likes of you.
Incidentally, remember this in your dealings with other IPs, too: Just because you're on the same team doesn't mean you can call them after hours without checking first.
9. Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk
You and your client are growing more and more comfortable with each other. You chat about weather, sports, the stellar acting of the "Bay Watch" cast. You're getting chummy. You start to talk about the jerk in bookkeeping. You bond over your contempt for the bookkeeping fool. But the jerk in bookkeeping...
...is your client's employee.
There are many temptations in this cruel world to be less than a stand-up guy or gal. And it may be extra tough for you, a team of one, if the Evil You on your left shoulder is bigger than the Good You on your right shoulder. You may feel a bit isolated and tempted to be less than your perfect self. But you must keep in mind that as chummy as you might become, clients are clients first and buddies second. It's bad form to bad-mouth anyone or gossip or complain about work in their presence.
Even when your clients are idiots, you shouldn't be one.
10. Thou Shalt Not Be So Good at the Little Stuff that Thee Become an Over-The-Top Freak
You see a relevant article in a magazine you know your client doesn't read, so you clip it and drop it in the mail with a short note. "He'll think I'm swell, a real sweetie," you think. You write out thank-you notes when clients send new business your way. You forward email lists of jokes to all your clients because they're so, so funny.
But you know what? You're getting freaky. And really annoying. Stop it already.
Email jokes are one of the techno-nuisances of our times. Don't be part of the problem. Be the solution.
'Tis Not Rocket Science
Being courteous isn't rocket science, it's not brain surgery, and you're not playing a doctor on TV. To stay on this side of propriety all you need to do is exercise a little common sense. Good luck.
February 7, 2000
Primary Editor: Eric Gershon
Illustrator: James Stringer
Production: Keith Gendel
We'd love to hear your comments about this article!
Audrey Glassman, author of Can I Fax You a Thank-You Note, is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with her, or with any of the other IPs named in this article.