|Developing a Reputation|
|Part VI: Be Credible|
By Scott Allen
There's a great deal you can do to improve your reputation without spending any money. In fact, so far everything we've covered is pretty much free of charge. However, credibility is one element of reputation that can be bought as well as earned. There's more to credibility than just what you say and how you say it, and when you're first starting out, you'll probably have to buy your way in. While these things don't necessarily make you any more qualified, some provide third-party verification that you are qualified while others just add legitimacy to your business. Many will have some other benefits, as well. The ultimate goal is to look professional-like you're serious about being in business.
Credentials & Certifications
Since you don't have any references yet, certifications are one of the few available ways to get a third party to vouch for you. Some credentials you can just test for, while others may require coursework or other activities. Two excellent places to start are Brainbench and Prometric. Both offer a variety of certification tests in Information Technology, healthcare, general business, accounting & finance, and more. Brainbench also offers a wide array of tests on basic skills and general business skills. Brainbench allows you to make your transcript publicly available to prospective employers or customers, a very popular feature. While Brainbench's testing programs are all proprietary, Prometric offers the official certification programs for many major companies, including Microsoft, Sun, IBM, Oracle, Nokia, and more. Prometric also has certified affiliate testing and training centers all over the world, so you can take tests in person rather than online.
There are as many certification programs out there as there are industries, and it would be impossible to cover them all here. You'll need to research what sort of programs are available in your field. Buyer beware, though-not all certification programs are worth what you pay for them. Look for programs that follow the ISO/IEC 17024 standard or that have been accredited by an organization such as American National Standards Institute, Standards Council of Canada, National Committee for Certifying Agencies, or Council on Licensure, Enforcement, and Regulation. Industry-specific professional associations are another good place to start (see below). Also, for those of you in the Information Technology industry, ITCertInfo.com is a great place to find out about all the vendor-specific certification programs, as is our Computer Certification Guide Site.
Professional & Business Associations
While some of the certification programs they sponsor may be quite expensive, simple membership in most professional associations is not. Membership in a professional organization shows that you are serious about your business, but it also provides you with educational and networking opportunities. Extensive lists of professional associations and organizations sorted by industry can be found at Internet Public Library and Association Central. Be sure to find out if the organization has a local chapter so you can maximize your benefits. Also, many industries have multiple competing professional associations. Ask around in your industry, and find out the credentials of the associations themselves in order to pick which one is best for you.
Besides the industry-specific associations, there are also several organizations for consultants in particular and small or home-based businesses in general. Many are regional in nature, and are again too numerous to list here. A couple of larger organizations you may want to check out are National Business Association and National Association for the Self-Employed. Both are reasonably priced and offer a variety of benefits.
In addition to these larger organizations, you'll want to get involved in your local business organizations. If you do local business, it's essential to join your local chamber of commerce. This is probably your best source of exposure to prospective local customers, and is worth far more than the same amount of money spent directly on advertising. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce maintains a list of local chambers. International listings are available from World Chambers Network. I also recommend joining the Better Business Bureau, which promotes fairness and integrity in business. They also offer business guidance and dispute resolution services. Membership demonstrates your belief in fairness and integrity, as well as showing that you're serious about your business.
Show That You're Serious About Your Business
Perhaps most importantly, maintain the trappings of professionalism. Even if you home office and are on a tight budget, you can still keep up a professional appearance. For starters, you don't have to spend a bunch of money on custom stationery and business cards, but pick a consistent look-and-feel and get some paper and envelopes that matches your business cards well. If you're just doing business cards and stationery, you can get what you need at your local office supply store. If you're going to be doing brochures, mailers, and lots of other printed materials, check out Paper Direct's extensive line of specialty paper products. They can give you a distinctive, consistent look on a small budget.
Shell out the money for a business phone line. It's dirt cheap compared to other forms of advertising, and the yellow pages is still one of the best sources of local business leads. It also just doesn't come across as professional to have your answering machine list the names of your spouse and all your kids. If you're really tight on your budget, find out when the deadline is to get listed in the phone book and delay it until then. Of course, if you're getting business cards and other materials printed, you don't want to have to be changing it.
As you can see, there's a number of ways you can build reputation before you have referenceable customers. Many of them don't cost any money, just time. For the few that do require monetary investment, you'll need to weight that against pure advertising and other expenditures, but I'd tend to lean towards the things we've discussed here-they'll have immediate benefits, but will also have a far more lasting impact than a handful of ads.
A wise man once said, "You must become like that which you wish to be." Successful consultants have earned their excellent reputations. Become prolific, ubiquitous, generous, dependable, and credible yourself, and reputation will follow.