Communicating Competence

For your small business, image matters right down to the bottom line, so here are some key areas that should look good

I'm reluctant to tell this story because you might not believe me. But it's true.

The other day I was filling my gas tank when a van drove up to the pump behind me. It was old and filthy, with no hubcaps, a crack down the entire windshield, and a front bumper so badly smashed that a small part of the engine was exposed.


  Now picture this. The sign on the van read: "Cleaning Service -- Honest, Dependable, Flexible -- Homes, Apartments, Offices." For all we know, this could be a five-star cleaning service. But its image says otherwise. You couldn't make this stuff up.

Your image speaks volumes before you say a word. But does it say what you intend? Successful small-business owners set the stage in the following areas:


I'm always impressed by impeccably dressed business leaders -- men and women who hold themselves to above-average standards, such as CEOs Jeff Immelt of General Electric (GE), Larry Ellison of Oracle (ORCL), and Andrea Young of Avon (AVP). They look like leaders. So should you.

I once asked a top recruiter about the first thing he notices when meeting potential candidates. "Do they look the part?" he said. "Do they dress appropriately to fit the culture?" If someone walks into the room and looks like a leader, the interviewer can relax and mentally check off the "appearance box." So check off the first box -- it's critical to winning over your listeners.


Jury consultant Jo Ellen Dimitrius gets paid millions of dollars a year to choose jurors who might react favorably to her clients. She spends a lot of time studying body language. She once said a slumping, slouching posture is associated with a lack of confidence and leadership ability, while good posture is most often associated with confidence, competence, and control.

This reminds of me of a client, a top executive for a technology outfit, who was preparing to give a major presentation to the company's primary investor -- a famous CEO who is one of the wealthiest men in the world (and a tough critic).

In addition to positive news about the product, its patents, and engineering milestones, my client also had to address the uncomfortable fact that his company had hit a snag in development and would have to delay the launch of the product.


  His body language presented a problem. Everything about it said, "We're in deep trouble. We don't have a clue as to how to solve this glitch, and the delay might very well become permanent. I'm lost. I can't lead this team, and your money won't last as long as J. Lo's first marriage."

Of course, that wasn't the case at all. Far from it. In fact, my client's engineering team had jumped far greater hurdles in the past. The team members all felt confident they could easily overcome the current stall, and the product would go on to become a smashing success (which it eventually did).

I watched as this executive rehearsed his PowerPoint presentation. The problem resided not with the content on the slides but rather with the delivery. His body language was a mess -- eyes cast downward, hands awkwardly tucked in his pockets, swaying back and forth. This guy was a poster boy for poor body language. He seemed insecure and out of his league.

Fortunately, this story has a good ending. Once we eliminated the distracting habits, he rocked the house during his presentation. He made solid eye contact with everybody in the room, pulled his hands out of his pockets, and used purposeful, assertive hand gestures. His posture and stance exuded power, confidence, and competence -- he had charisma. In fact, I heard later that the lead investor expressed confidence that the project was in good hands.


As a small-business owner, how much care do you put in your environment, your surroundings?

I once had the opportunity to interview the founder of an exclusive resort in Carmel, Calif. While we were talking, he would pick up the smallest, most inconspicuous piece of trash from the property -- stuff I wouldn't even have noticed. He even made sure a crease in a lamp shade was facing the wall. If you've ever seen the TV show Monk, you get an idea of what this guy was like.

But the hotel has consistently won the coveted Mobile five-star rating for more than 20 years. The owner told me that a clean environment is the ultimate show of respect for his customers, but the example must start at the top.

How many business establishments have you entered, only to be turned off by a dirty restroom or stacks of clutter on the desks? If you put care into your surroundings, your customers, colleagues, and employees will notice and show you respect in return.

Marketing material

Your marketing material often represents the first experience customers have with your brand. What does it say about you? Does it convey that you're sloppy, inconsistent, and small-time, or does it speak of your success, professionalism, and attention to detail?

A consultant once handed me a business card on cheap paper with a small quote in the lower corner -- "for your free business cards, contact XYZ." Free! For all I know this consultant could have been extremely successful, but if he couldn't drop a few bucks on professionally designed cards, I doubt it.


  What about your Web site? What does yours say about you? I know you think it might be cute and inexpensive to have your 12-year-old design your small-business site, but take my word -- it shows. Stand out by spending the cash to have a pro do it. It makes a difference.

I once heard a marketing expert say it's important to "look as great as you are." Do so, and you'll stand apart from your competitors. Your appearance, posture, surroundings, and collateral all set the stage for the exchange of information. Just make sure they say the right things.

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