Professionalism, from the Magic Kingdom to Your Own

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Last week, as you’ll remember, I visited Walt Disney World with my family and was highly impressed with the professionalism of the whole Disney organization.  Professionalism, to me, means caring competence.  A professional knows how to do his job and wants to do it as well as possible.

Professionalism is a means to many ends.  But the biggest benefit, I believe, is that it inspires confidence among the people you do business with.  Put on your customer hat for a minute and you’ll see what I mean.

Suppose you visit the dentist’s office and the office is dirty, the receptionist is rude, and the dentist is running an hour late.  How much confidence are you going to have in this dentist’s ability to fix your teeth?  Very little – therefore, you won’t be going back.

Okay, suppose you visit a gigantic theme park and there’s trash everywhere, the fancy monorails keep breaking down, and the employees can’t answer a simple question?  You won’t be going back there either.

Here’s the last example.  Suppose you call the proprietor of a real estate networking web site to follow up on a business idea and the guy doesn’t answer his phone, only gives you a hurried minute of conversation, and generally treats you as an unpleasant intrusion on his happy day?  You’ll take your idea somewhere else.

I Made it All Up

I’m happy to report that none of these things happened to me!  It’s true that I have, in the last few months, had my teeth cleaned; visited Walt Disney World; and talked to our own Josh Dorkin on the phone.  However, these were all very pleasant experiences – even the dentist!  Why were they so great?  (Excluding the obvious reasons at Disney.)  Because in all three cases, the professionals I dealt with exuded an attitude of caring competence.  They treated me as someone important, and in all cases, obviously knew how to do their jobs.  Never for one moment did I think “this is amateur hour.”

I can think of four key components of professionalism.

  1. Professionals know their business. When a business contact asks you a question to which you should know the answer, you’d better know it. For example, right now I’m talking to several lenders about refinancing my properties. Reasonably, they’re asking me questions about how the properties are doing. Are they fully rented? How much do I owe? How’s the cash flow? Of course I’ll have to document my answers, but if I stammer during the initial conversations, they won’t take me seriously.
  2. Professionals treat their contacts as important people. When I deal with people at Disney, the dentist’s, or BiggerPockets, I never get the sense that I’m bothering them, interrupting them or otherwise screwing up their day. They are cheerful and pleasant. Does this mean they really like me? Who knows? But when they’re dealing with me, mine is the only business they have in mind. I like that.
  3. Professionals stay organized. Organization is really a tool for professionals. A professional knows his business, in part, because his information is organized – he has the information he needs at hand. A professional can focus on one business contact at a time because her day is organized – she doesn’t allow distractions to intrude on the time reserved for her current task.
  4. Professionals keep their promises. Say you’ll have something ready in three days? You’d better have it ready in three days. If there is a possibility the request will take longer, be honest. By keeping your promises, you establish that you are trustworthy.

Of course, it may be easier for the Disney people to show highly professional attitudes, since there are a bazillion of them. Actually, Walt Disney World employs 66,000 “cast members.” One reason any specific cast member has a lot of time for you is that she doesn’t have to do the jobs of the other 65,999. Similarly, the dentist’s office has plenty of hygienists, as well as a pair of dentists (husband and wife) to keep operations running smoothly. Even Josh employs people to keep BiggerPockets together – I think.

It’s a lot harder when you’re just one person running a whole business, because you really do have a lot of different things you need to do at the same time. If you’re working on a painting job, it’s hard to stop to answer your phone, and even if you do, you might not be able to spend a lot of time on the conversation. If you do, you’ll probably be distracted.

The real challenge may be that many of us are overly ambitious. We have so much we want to accomplish that those goals and tasks are going to bump into each other. We can help prevent that by managing our time, and managing our promises.

Remember the expression “underpromise and overdeliver?” Disney is a master of this, and you can be too. Simply bump up your estimates by a reasonable percentage. For example, suppose a tenant asks when a project will be completed? You think it’ll be done in six days. Tell the tenant eight days instead. She may be disappointed at first, if she was really hoping for six. But then consider – if you do it in six days (which is when you think it’ll be finished), you’re a hero. If you blow your estimate by two days, you still kept your promise. (Note – this does not give you permission to waste a couple of days! Do the work with the attitude that you really only have the original six.

Managing your time will prove harder. The best things I can recommend are to stay very organized to minimize the length of time you spend on non-contact business, and to set specific hours for different tasks. For example, you can ask prospective tenants to call you only between 6 and 9 p.m. And never interrupt one phone call to answer another unless you know that the second call is a lot more important.

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