The Definition of Professionalism

I’ve been pondering professionalism lately.  It’s a rather ambiguous term the way we use it, don’t you think?  And if that wasn’t annoying enough, the very concept that there is a word that indicates appropriate behavior for a business person bothers me just a little bit because it implies to me that one might have two sets of standards…one for business and one non-business situations.  But if I’m honest, there ARE certain things I do differently when I meet with clients in my home office.  Even my kids notice me getting ready and ask, “Mommy, do you have a client today?”  I put on a little bit nicer clothes, I do my hair and makeup.  I wear SHOES.  So is THAT what professionalism boils down to? Wearing shoes?

Yep, I’m going to go all word study on ya.  And where better to turn for a word study than the dictionary, right?

  • professionalism (noun):1. professional character, spirit, or methods. 2. the standing, practice, or methods of a professional, as distinguished from an amateur.

And since the world “professional” is used in the definition, we kind of need to define that too.

  • professional (adjective): 1. following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain

SO Helpful.  It says professionalism is basically how you intentionally act when you’re getting paid.  HOW. INSIGHTFUL.  But in our capitalistic society where we’re constantly tweaking the formula for financial success, we hear the term and think of a lot more specific things.  We’ll say, “They seemed very professional!”  There are probably even some specific things that popped into your mind the moment you read that.  But when we sift through all the subjective stuff, what do we REALLY mean by that statement?

I believe we mean that the person conducted themselves in a way that made us confident in their skills and commitment to us.  They convinced us that they cared very much about our business, that they knew what they were doing, and that they would deliver it as expected and it would be worth the money we paid them.  But what was it about them that convinced us of all that?  Was it their modest, tailored clothing that said, “I care about looking nice without being flashy.”?  Was it their luxury car that said, “I am financially successful.”?  Was it their million dollar smile that said, “I like you.”?  Maybe it was their relaxed or intensely focused personality that made us comfortable.  Or their soft or firm tone of voice.  What about their style, their words, or even what they chose NOT to say?  While the field of business makes a difference in all of these topics, they are all objects of scrutiny to people advising professionals how to act to secure business from you and I, the consumers.

Personally, I think that every person trusts for different reasons.  Everyone has had unique life experiences that mold and shape them and cause them to trust or distrust for an equally unique recipe of reasons.  Some people trust the business man with the luxury car because they think he’s motivated mainly by money and assume he’ll work hard for them even if his personal feelings towards them may change.  Others DON’T trust the same person because they don’t think a person who cares a lot about money will have their best interest at heart.  Some people are looking for a person who dresses conservatively, others are looking for people who wear name brands, still others want a person with more unique self-expression in clothing.  Some individuals resonate with an upbeat personality because they see energy.  Others see a bouncy person and think “flighty; untrustworthy.”  There’s a certain image we conjure up when we think of a “professional business person” but when it comes down to it, professionalism is deeper than that and different to each one of us.  It’s easy to recognize these little things in the decisions we make for ourselves all the time.  But as a business person trying to appeal to more than one person, how do you decide what “character, spirit, or methods” to apply to your business?

It seems to me that clients are looking to answer one primary question: Will my expectations be met?  Of course they have to like the product or service at the price you’re charging, but that won’t mean a thing if they begin to pick up signals that make them feel like they would have to lower their expectations to match yours.  So your number one goal as a professional should be to communicate clearly and concisely what they can expect from you.  Precision is key.  You don’t want to pretend you’re delivering MORE than you can, nor do you want to under sell yourself.  You need to nail it.  To do this there are two things you need to sit down and ponder:  1) What are the general expectations of your target market? 2) What are you communicating by your words and actions to your potential clients?  Ideally, these two lists should align closely.  If they don’t, then one of them needs to change.  Either you need to make some personal changes to meet the expectations of your clients or you need to start expecting the quantity and quality of clients you’ll attract without changing.  Simple as that.

Make those lists.  Don’t worry about the very differing opinions of everyone regarding professionalism unless they are also your own.  Bottom line: BE the business person that you would want to hire.  And if that’s not achieving the desired results, figure out which list needs to change.  When you have met or exceeded the expectations of your clients, they will walk away happy with your level of professionalism, whatever that may be.

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