Friday, January 18, 2008

What Professionalism Isn't

I found a post today at JCME's blog about professionalism, and it got me thinking. You'd think that the word isn't hard to define, but my view of it has changed a lot since I started. While my definition of what it is might be a work in progress, experience has definitely taught me what professionalism isn't.

Being a robot. "Business" doesn't mean "no personality." Clients are more likely to bring you repeat business if they like you as a person. It's okay to loosen up a bit when talking to clients and let your personality come through. Naturally, you'll have to use your best judgment when talking about outside interests and family situations, or when making jokes. You'll have to pick appropriate times and places, and make sure your brand of humor isn't the type that might offend. But bear in mind that your clients are people too, and they can relate to you on a personal as well as a professional level.

Being a know-it-all. You might be good at what you do, but that doesn't mean you know everything there is to know. Talking with clients can be a frightening prospect for beginners, because you'll worry that you might not know everything. But people who come across like they know it all can strike clients as condescending and unwilling to listen to their needs--even if you think you're just sounding professional by lecturing the client on everything he's doing wrong on his current campaign. Sometimes when you're meeting with clients, the best strategy is to listen.

Taking on more than you can handle. I don't offer graphic design or programming services. I'm learning more about these things every day, but I still don't trust my skills enough to be comfortable selling them to clients, and I'm not sure I'll want to even when I'm confident in them. Sometimes being professional means knowing your limits and being able to tell clients when a job wanders into territory you're not too familiar with. It's fine if you're not good at everything; in fact, many clients prefer to hire freelancers who have a specialty in only one specific area.

Saying "yes" all the time. When I started, I thought that being professional meant never saying "no." As you might expect, this got me into some really bad situations--allowing myself to give deeper discounts than I should have; making myself accessible on IM all the time; even taking frequent, uncompensated, rambling phone calls after business hours. Every time I got into a situation like that, it was a learning experience--and eventually I figured out that professionalism doesn't mean that you have to give everything clients ask for. You do want to make your clients happy, but not at the expense of your business, your other projects, or your sanity.

Taking on every project that comes your way. There was a period of time where I thought turning down work was unprofessional. If I didn't get a great vibe from the client, I would think something like "well, Bob Bly would probably be able to handle it, so I should too." Actually, someone with more experience might have listened to his instincts and passed on that job--or added a hassle surcharge. It's okay not to take every job that comes your way. Some projects might not interest you, might not pay rates you can accept, or might just seem a little shady. Part of professionalism is developing good instincts about when a job will be more trouble than it's worth.

At the moment, my definition of professionalism involves being confident and knowledgeable in your area of expertise; being conscientious in dealing with clients; having high standards for quality of work; and knowing what you can and can't take on. Do the best job you can with every project and set limits both you and your clients can live with, and you'll be most of the way there.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link, and I'm glad I made you thi-... that would rhyme. No. I won't say it.

I think professionalism is a measure of who you are as a person, too. How you behave in business, how you react to clients, how you achieve your goals or accomplish your tasks, how you encourage communication and feedback. Your professionalism says a great deal about who you are as a person, not just as a businessman (or woman).

And you're right - professionalism doesn't mean you can't wear Nike sneakers or a baseball cap. You can wear a leather jack and listen to rock in your spare time. But you handle yourself well, calmly, and with an air of good expertise and a blend of sociability.

Make sense?

Anonymous said...

When I lost my first job out of college, my employers told me that I wasn't "fitting in to the corporate environment." I became terrified that I would never find myself another job. But my mother told me, "Of course you don't fit into the corporate environment! It's not the right place for you!"

I've since excelled in less strait-laced environments and learned that, while not super-corporate, I am still a professional, and a damn fine one at that.

Thanks for pointing out that professional doesn't have to mean "no personality."

Susan Johnston Taylor said...

I agree. Sometimes it's necessary to say no! I just tagged you for the meme "I am writer, hear me roar!" Share 3 writing tips, then tag 5 more writers.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@James: No rhyming allowed!! (just kidding. Feel free to post your comments in Iambic Pentameter if you want.) Anyway, that's great advice. It definitely took a while for me to learn that I could be professional and still be human. Thanks for the great series of posts on the topic, too--your blog always gets me thinking.

@Stephanerd: I didn't fit into a lot of corporate environments out of college. If I had landed somewhere that suited my personality, I might still be working for someone else today; as it was, though, I got turned off enough that I started my own business because I thought I couldn't fit in, either. But I've dealt with a lot of different businesses since then, and I've just realized that corporate offices are a lot like relationships--some just don't have a personality that meshes with yours, and every so often you're lucky enough to find one that does.

@Susan: It sure is. Thanks for the tag!