Every day, home-based entrepreneurs are challenged with trying to present a professional image to the outside world. It's tough trying to woo a potential customer over the telephone when your 4-year-old son is screaming for a Popsicle.
Despite the obstacles presented by everyday life, successful home-based business owners use a variety of techniques to maintain an aura of professionalism. They range from having the right kind of office equipment to having a separate business telephone line and set office hours.
"We don't volunteer that our office is in our home," said David Stauffer, a writer and editor who shares a home office with his wife and fellow writer, Susan Bury. The Washington, D.C.-based writing and editing team has been home-based since 1983, serving mostly corporate clients.
They offer these tips for being professional while working at home:
* Don't give your business a cute name.
* Incorporate your business.
* Keep children, pets and washing machine from being heard by callers.
* Open accounts with at least one national courier and a regional or local messenger service.
* Buy a high-quality copier and fax machine.
* Try never to miss a deadline because your family or household chores interfered with your work.
Virginia McCullough, an author and consultant to other authors, never sees clients in her Chicago home, although she is willing to meet them in their homes.
"With two teen-age children in the apartment, I never know what would happen," said McCullough, who frequently meets clients in hotels, cafes and coffee shops.
She doesn't have a fax machine or a separate business telephone line. She does, however, send clerical and other jobs to a secretary, who also works at home.
"It's important that all your support people be as professional as possible," McCullough said.
Marketing consultant and author Jeffrey Davidson chose his Falls Church, Va., apartment because it had a perfect room for an office. Although his 18-month-old daughter, Valerie, is welcome to visit at the end of the day, Davidson's office is off-limits the rest of the time.
"We are training her to recognize that the office is a different place from the rest of the house and not a place for fun and games," said Davidson, the author of several books for the home-based business owner.
Jim Walker's children are grown, but his dog, Chelsea, has embarrassed him a time or two while he was talking on the telephone with clients.
Whenever someone approaches Walker's door, Chelsea, a boisterous Doberman, barks and raises a ruckus, skidding across the hardwood floor.
"I never know when the mailman is going to come," said Walker, a marketing strategist with 20 years experience in financial services.
His solution: He shuts Chelsea in a back room of his La Crescenta, Calif., home before answering the telephone.
Although consultants and writers traditionally work at home, a slump in Southern California's commercial construction business recently forced a local glass contractor to set up shop at home. He prefers to remain anonymous because he wants to keep a low profile in his residential neighborhood.
His trucks and employees rendezvous at a friend's warehouse before going out on jobs, so his neighbors and customers don't know he's working from home.
Sometimes you can't avoid having business associates visit your home office. According to Paul and Sarah Edwards, authors of "Working From Home" (Jeremy Tarcher, $12.95), you can maintain a professional atmosphere with these tips:
* If your residence is hard to find, mail visitors directions in advance.
* Hang a simple sign -- not too commercial -- by your front walk with your name.
* Arrange for a convenient place for visitors to place their hats, coats and packages.
* Have coffee, tea or water available when guests arrive.
* Keep the bathroom fresh and well-supplied.