How to Be Professional

It is important to be pleasant, attractive and knowledgeable all the time to maintain a positive business image, but that’s just part of being a professional. This everything-you-need-to-know guide will show you 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

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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 healthcare 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 really a good idea to be wearing those 4-inch heels when you have four properties to show that day?

Wear good socks and keep your feet looked after. Always. I’ve never forgotten the tile roof salesman who came into our house and politely took off his shoes – only to reveal that one of his socks had a hole in it exposing his big toe. It totally biased me against him and his pitch. Ugly bare feet can be unsettling or disgusting for some, too, so keep your pedicures up in sandal season.

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.

Do not dress too casually. Note that there is such a thing as business dress and dress accordingly.

Be Prepared

Businesswoman looking at her watch

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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. Andi if you are late (sometimes it’s unavoidable) apologize first thing when you arrive.

Show up ready to go to work. Inside you may feel tired, droopy, 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. Do what you have to do to make it so.

Bring all your supplies/equipment with you. Showing up without the equipment you need to do the job is not only unprofessional; it makes you look like an idiot. My favorite is the would-be tree pruner who showed up at my door; he’d be happy to prune my trees, he said, if he could just borrow my ladder. Ummm…. No. Learn more about.

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. Drinking (most of the time. If you are coughing, do ask for a glass of water.) Chucking children under the chin or hugging them. Hugging anyone. Using the client’s bathroom (unless absolutely necessary). Using or touching anything of theirs without permission. Sound daunting? Just think of it as being on your best behavior and you won’t go too far wrong.

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 curse out or “give the finger to” that person who just stole your parking space – they might be someone you want to do business with!


Asian businesswoman shaking hands with man

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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. And you certainly don’t want your client to think you’re making moves on their spouse.

Learn how to chit-chat. On the other hand, you don’t want to come off as Mr./Ms. super serious all business and nothing but. Especially when you are meeting a client/customer for the first time, a little general chit-chat can go a long way towards 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. And always double-check all your numbers. The client that spots an error is the client you’ve probably lost.

Say thank-you.  Always thank a client for his/her time at the end of a meeting. And if it transpires that they do some 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!)

Do not cancel or reschedule appointments except for very good reasons.

Customer Communication

Two caucasian men shaking hands in an office

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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.

Get rid of/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.

Speak clearly and at an appropriate rate, without mumbling.

As a professional, you’ll be expected to do it many many times. And you’ll also be judged many times on what your handshake is like. So it’s worth the time to learn how to get it right. No pump handling or fish flopping!

Phone Etiquette

Man answering phone in theatre upsetting fellow audience members

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Turn your phone off when you’re meeting with a client. We all know that taking calls when you’re meeting with someone gives the person you’re meeting the message that you’re unimportant to them. But guess what? Checking who’s calling or picking up your phone because your email has just pinged does the same thing.

Turn your phone off in social venues where a ringing phone 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 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 that’s more secluded such as a foyer. The people around you who don’t have to listen to you talking into your phone will appreciate it and its behavior that will save you from embarrassment or worse in the long run. Who wants to be wining and dining an important client when the spouse calls to blast you about forgetting it was your turn to take the kids to their game?

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. But also, as a professional, it’s your place to keep confidences. No one wants their financial advisor/lawyer/hairdresser/chiropractor talking about them – and they’ll assume you would if you talk about someone else.

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 your voice mail regularly. There’s nothing more frustrating for customers than to keep getting the “voice mailbox full” message when they’re calling you.


Email screenshot

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Like phone calls, business/professional-related emails need to be answered – within 48 hours if possible and within three working days at the outside.

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. Never start a professional email with “Hi” or “Dear”; use the person’s name alone or with “Hello”. “All the best”, “Cheers”, “Sincerely” are all good choices for closes; “Love”, any combination of initials, such as “TTYL” (“Talk to You Later”) or any emoticon are not.

Use full English sentences and words in the body of your professional email; email is not text. And always proofread and spellcheck your email before you send it. Errors make you look like an idiot, not a professional.

Turn off your email program’s ping or beep alert and check email at set times during the day instead. 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

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Keep your personal and your business social media accounts and/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. Seriously. The wet T-shirt contest you participated in when you were in college. The selfie taken when you were totally blasted. The sex-themed joke you felt you just had to share with all your friends. 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. I’m not saying that you can’t have opinions; only that you should 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 pages/profiles professional. Foul language, off-color jokes or remarks and potentially offensive videos have no place on professional pages. If in doubt, don’t post!

If you are trying to use social media to market your business, my best advice is to 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."