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8 Hallmarks of Professionalism, plus 365 Creative: January 6

January 6, 2012

Yesterday I vented about a rude and decidedly unprofessional email I received earlier this week.

It felt good to write it all out and let it all go.

And again, it gave me the valuable opportunity to reflect on what it means to be professional, especially if you are in any sort of business that involves interacting with other people. Though this is by no means an exhaustive list, but I think it’s a good start. Feel free to share your ideas in comments!

1. Accept responsibility. If you make a mistake, own it! You don’t have to berate yourself, or grovel to your client. Just do what you can to make things right. A few years ago I had a client I was unprepared for. My expertise was not up to snuff and, harder still, my youngest kid was always with me. Toddling about in dipes. I was exhausted. Being a freelance designer working from home, I was doing what I could, but I went far beyond my scope with this client, and didn’t deliver work that was even up to my standards. This client was an inherently difficult person to deal with. She was defensive and arrogant right off the bat, but ultimately that doesn’t matter. If I knew then what I know now I would have either gently guided her elsewhere from the beginning OR I would have steeled my nerves, put on my very best smile, and done my best work–regardless of her attitude. Some people you can’t please, no matter how many hoops you jump through. You have to be prepared to let some clients go. But usually, people will appreciate the work you do and even forgive mistakes, if you approach them directly and honestly. In the case of my difficult client, I apologized for my error by email and then returned every dime she paid me. I never heard from her after that, and honestly, that was fine by me.

2. Excuses, excuses, excuses. There’s a difference between making an excuse for yourself and offering an explanation. An excuse is essentially a justification of something. An explanation is communicative clarification. For example: You don’t meet a deadline for reasons that are perfectly valid. Perhaps you were sick. Maybe your dog died. Life happens, and most clients will understand this. But don’t diminish their expectations by giving them an excuse for why you failed to meet the deadline. Simply say something like, I apologize for not meeting the deadline we agreed to. I was dealing with a pressing personal issue that demanded my full attention. Then, offer a remedy. Can you finish the work in a timely manner? Do you need to refer your client to someone else? Perhaps it’s time to return what they paid you? Obviously, if you have a mostly familiar, informal relationship with your client your explanation can reflect this. I have a few clients I know will understand if life gets in the way because they know that doing my best work for them is important to me. So if I’m sick (as I have been this week) or if my dog died (which happened in October, sniff) then I can just tell them that, and all’s well.

3. Take a step back to think. Sometimes, clients will piss you off. (Case in point, that dang email from the realtor, though she isn’t my client–I’m hers!) Sure you could stoop to their level and fire off something snarky and rude in response. But it’s always best to take some time and think about things. Go for a walk. Take some deep breaths. Eat chocolate. Then brainstorm a response, and don’t hold back. Vent all you want but don’t hit send. As you begin to calm down, pick out the important points you need to make. Be constructive and direct, and always be polite. You can try relating, if that’s possible, to how they feel. And definitely draw your boundaries. If someone is outright rude and abusive to you, let them know that you won’t tolerate being treated as such and they should find assistance elsewhere. But remember, always be as kind, polite, and direct with people as you expect them to be with you.

4. Be humble. I don’t care how well you know your business, or how many years of expertise you have. Don’t flaunt what you know. Always speak to your client with respect and answer their questions (no matter how obvious to you) with sincerity. There are few worse things than being in the shoes of a client who’s faced with a deliberately condescending “professional.”

5. Be specific. Don’t be vague. If your client needs information, offer it directly, specifically, and respectfully. Anticipate teaching moments, then offer your ideas in an upbeat way. “Here’s something I learned when I did such and such…” or, “in my experience, this technique works really well.” Be positive. Be helpful.

6. Write professional emails. Never. Ever. Ever…write an email to a client that includes text speak (Srsly!!) or anything less that proper grammar, complete sentences, good spelling, and a professional opening and sign off. Don’t be lazy about this–the tone and language of an email speaks volumes about you as a professional!

7. Don’t be a gossip or a complainer. Don’t talk about other clients behind their backs. It’s just never a good idea. Also, don’t gripe about things constantly. Never tell your clients you hate what you do. Why on earth would they want to work with you if you do that??

8. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Just don’t let the period fall after the word “know.” Follow that with, “I’ll go find out and get back to you!” That is integrity.

The bottom line, really, is this: Professionals always choose integrity, positivity, and respect. They are accountable to their own actions and don’t take themselves too seriously. True professionals are a joy to work with!

What does this mean to you? What has your experience been like? Please share your thoughts!


And on a more colorful note, here’s today’s creative moment. My sweet niece Chloe, proudly showing me the oranges she picked last week during a baby shower we were all attending in Phoenix. I haven’t had much time to start going through my photos from this trip, so I thought digging this delightful one out would be a good creative thing to do on a Friday.

And those, by the way, were damn good oranges.  🙂

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