How to Be Professional

It is important to be pleasant, knowledgeable, and dressed appropriately all the time to maintain a positive business image, but that’s just part of being a professional. Learn how to put together and maintain the whole professional package from how to dress to impress through how to behave around and communicate with customers and clients.

Dress the Part

Professionals in their attire
Kristian Sekulic / Getty Images

Nothing too tight, too short or too revealing is a good general rule to follow when dressing as a professional. Buy and wear garments of the best quality you can afford.

However, how you dress as a business professional will greatly depend on what business you’re in. If your business involves leading bicycle tours, then obviously spandex is a fine choice. If you’re a health care professional, you’ll be wearing a uniform.

The general dress watchword for professionals is conservative. Want to be taken seriously? Dress seriously. Save the trendy pieces for off-duty times.

Be sensible. Is it a good idea to be wearing those 4-inch heels when you have four properties to show that day?

Pay attention to your accessories. Don’t overdo the jewelry. Professional and tacky do not go together. If you need to carry a handbag, a portfolio, or a briefcase, it should be current and in good repair. Shoes should be conservative, appropriate to your profession, in good repair, and polished if necessary.

Be Prepared

Businesswoman looking at her watch
Hero Images / Getty Images

Show up on time for appointments. Showing up late for a party is fashionable. Showing up late for a business appointment is rude. Avoid being late by planning to be early. If you are late, apologize first thing when you arrive.

Show up ready to go to work. Inside you may feel tired, droopy, and panting for another caffeine hit, but you cannot be dragging yourself around or begging for cups of coffee on a client site. No matter how you feel, you have to present yourself as enthusiastic to go right to work—and do it.

Bring all your supplies/equipment with you. Showing up without the equipment you need to do the job is unprofessional.

Act business-like at all times. You wouldn’t walk into a client’s house, throw yourself onto their sofa, and put your feet up on their coffee table, would you? Well, there are lots of other behaviors that you need to avoid too: smoking, eating and drinking, hugging anyone, or anything else that is not directly related to the job. If someone offers you a cup of coffee or a glass of water, that's OK, but don't solicit the offer.

All times means everywhere. You need to act professionally outside client sites and in your office too. Rude or obnoxious behaviors will be noted by anyone who witnesses them and, if they don’t cost you your current client, may cost you a client down the road. So don’t be rude to that person who just stole your parking space; they might be someone you want to do business with.

Behavior

Asian businesswoman shaking hands with man
Lane Oatey / Blue Jean Images / Getty Images

Don’t be over-familiar. A professional is not a friend. As a professional, you want to be friendly, of course, but you don’t want to be encouraging personal confidences or sharing them.

Learn how to chit-chat. On the other hand, you don’t want to come off as super serious and nothing but. Especially when you are meeting a client for the first time, a little general chit-chat can go a long way toward making you look human and your client comfortable.

Have your paperwork in good order. If you’re using a tablet, smartphone or laptop, that’s great, but whatever you show the client still needs to be organized, neat, and understandable, whether it’s a project plan or an invoice. Always double-check your numbers. A client who spots an error is a client you’ve probably lost.

Say thank you. Always thank a client for her time at the end of a meeting, and if they do business with you, say thank you for that, too. A ​handwritten note is a great way to do this. And don’t forget to ask for a referral or testimonial if things went well.

Customer Communication

Two caucasian men shaking hands in an office
Fotosearch / Getty Images

Give clients and customers face-time when you’re talking to them. Put your phone away and look them in the eye. Customers and clients want to feel that you’re giving them your whole attention, and you don’t want to lose customers by making them feel unimportant.

Listen to your clients and customers actively. Use behaviors such as mirroring and rephrasing to let them know that you hear them. Practice active listening.

Eliminate habits that interfere with communication. Don’t eat or chew gum when meeting with a client. If you’re meeting in an office, don’t play background music; it can make it very difficult for some people to hear what you’re saying, even when played at a low level.

Learn how to give a firm handshake. As a professional, you’ll be expected to do it many many times, and you’ll also be judged many times on what yours is like. It’s worth the time to learn how to get it right.

Phone Etiquette

Man answering phone in theatre upsetting fellow audience members
John Lund/Paula Zacharias / Getty Images

Turn your phone off when you’re meeting with a client. Taking calls or otherwise checking your phone when you’re meeting with someone gives the person you’re meeting the message that they're unimportant to you.

Turn off your phone in social venues where ringing would disturb others, such as performances, movies, concert recitals, etc. In other situations, such as restaurants, setting your phone to vibrate is a good option. It does not make you look professional to be sitting in a restaurant with others and talking incessantly on your phone; it makes you look obnoxious.

If you do receive an important phone call that you must take while in a social venue, excuse yourself and take the call outside or somewhere inside such as a foyer. The people around you who don’t have to listen to you talking into your phone will appreciate it.

Do not discuss the call when you return. Simply say something such as, “Now, where were we?” and carry on. For one thing, no matter how important the call was to you, chances are extremely high they won’t care.

Do not ignore phone calls. Business calls should be answered by the next day at the latest. Can’t manage it? Then it’s time to invest in some additional phone services or hire a receptionist or answering service.

If you use voicemail phone services, check it regularly. It is frustrating for customers when they keep getting the “mailbox full” message when they’re calling you.

Email

Email screenshot
Epoxydude / Getty Images

Like phone calls, business/professional-related emails need to be answered within one business day if possible.

Design a professional signature using your email program and then use it on all your business-related email.

Use business-like salutations and complimentary closes. Start a professional email with the person’s name alone or with “Hello." “All the best," “Cheers," and “Sincerely” all are good choices for closes.

Use full English sentences and words in the body of your professional email. Think of email much as you would a professional letter, and always proofread and spellcheck your email before you send it. Errors make you look unprofessional.

Turn off your email program’s ping or beep alert and check email at set times during the day. You have a lot of important things to do each day and the more often you drop everything to read the latest email that’s come in, the fewer of them you’ll get done.

Social Media

Young businesswoman reading emails on smartphone while riding on escalator
d3sign/Getty Images 

Keep your personal and your business social media accounts or profiles separate. If you’re on Facebook, for instance, you should have both a business page and a personal one. LinkedIn is one of the few exceptions to this as it's currently a network solely for professionals.

Don’t post anything on any of your social media pages that you don’t want to have follow you around the rest of your life. Increasing numbers of businesses and government agencies are data-mining social media—including some that might have become future employers or customers of yours if only you hadn’t made that stupid post back then.

The same applies to your comments on other people’s posts and websites. Choose which opinions you “like” or share carefully, keeping in mind that some of your opinions may alienate potential clients.

Keep your posts on your business profiles professional. If in doubt, don’t post.

Choose one or two platforms, post regularly, and be responsive. Answer people’s questions and respond to their comments, even if it’s just with a “like."