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Three Keys to Building a Professional Image

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

Whether you work in an office, a restaurant, a retail environment, or anywhere else you deal with the public, customer service is challenging! Ultimately though, it’s about solving problems and interacting with others, without bias, which is especially challenging when we are dealing with difficult behaviour and angry people. We must build the ‘habit of mind’ necessary to handle conflict skilfully, particularly under pressure.

1. Show a Professional face:

The process of building a professional image begins with realizing we have both a personal face and a professional face. Your personal face is the one that only your family and close friends see – and they have earned it!

Your professional face is the one that everyone else should see. It is the one you would probably show if you were making an instructional video for YouTube, or if someone else was recording you, which can happen! Having this public face is not about being artificial or insincere, it’s about being appropriate to the situation. How you interact with your grandmother is likely different than how you speak with your boss or your best friend… but all of those faces are still you!

So everyone has a personal face and we also need a professional face, but how do we switch from one to the other? How do we keep our ego out of the conversation and keep our professional face firmly in place in those challenging situations? Imagine you are an actor in the most important role of your career. Saying a unique word silently to yourself will be a simple, tactical warning – a reminder that you are “on stage” and must perform professionally.

A great word to use is SHOWTIME, so write it down, imprint it on your memory, or have it on a banner over the staffroom door! SHOWTIME is a positive cue that will help you mentally prepare and create that tactical mindset to keep you focused at all times… even under pressure!

2. Make a Professional Choice:

Every situation you encounter offers you the option of choosing to react or choosing to respond. Responding is typically a positive choice, while reacting is a negative one. Deciding which action you will take can have a significant impact on how your day unfolds.

Conflict or tension often moves us into a defensive position. We have an emotional reflex like anger, fear, or humiliation, and we re-act, or mirror what is being said or done to us. If we feel insulted, we may react with an insult. If we feel threatened or insecure, we may put down those who have treated us badly.

In difficult situations, it’s important to remember that a reaction is based on an emotional understanding of only a small part of the situation. Some people will even try to annoy us intentionally, because they want to be in charge. When you choose to react you are defensive and driven by your emotions. You have given the other person control and you are following their lead.

External conflict or tension can also trigger a response; however, this is a conscious and deliberate act. It is a more advanced level of thinking and reasoning that requires us to acknowledge our biases and suspend preconceived ideas to effectively manage situations.

A response is deliberate action taken to accomplish a goal based on a thorough understanding of the situation. When you choose to respond, you are prepared and calm, guided by logic and reason. You are in control of yourself and of the situation. You are focused on working collaboratively towards a win/win resolution and you have the power to change the direction of an interaction.

3. Use Professional Language:

People who are most successful in dealing with the public use professional language to demonstrate their competence and increase the other person’s cooperation. They convince others to do what is needed by helping that person see the advantages to them of doing so!

  • Professional language is any language that is fact based. Choose words based on your senses: what you saw, what you heard, or maybe what you smelled. Using words based on beliefs or assumptions often comes across as judging, and none of us respond well to being judged by others!

For example:

  • When fulfilling a customer’s request, explain the steps necessary, identify timelines and let them know when you can have it done, instead of telling them they are being “unreasonable.”

  • When coaching an employee, say that you heard them interrupt a customer, or saw them walk away from a customer, rather than telling them they were being “rude.”

  • When documenting an interaction in your security notes, write that the subject had red eyes, slurred speech, and smelled of alcohol, instead of saying that they were “intoxicated.”

  • Professional language is any language that is positive. Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t! Involve others in your decision making when possible, and never promise someone something you cannot deliver.

For example:

  • When discussing pick-up times with a customer, tell them you can definitely have that ready by Friday, instead of saying you can not have it ready by Thursday. If you’re able to have it ready a day early, the customer will be delighted!

  • When dealing with an unhappy customer:

  1. Acknowledge their emotion so they know they’ve been heard, “I can understand why you’re unhappy about this.”

  2. Express willingness and confidence, and “Let me check and see what can be done to clear this up. I’m sure there is an explanation.”

  3. Make them feel that you’re on their side! “Once we have all the facts, we can review the options and choose the one that will work best for you.”

  • Professional language is any language that gives people choice and generates voluntary cooperation. Persuade others to voluntarily cooperate and you reduce the risk of confrontation, disruption, and escalation in your environment!

For example:

  • When resolving a problem with an employee you could ask them what they think is fair, instead of asking them what they want or, even worse, telling them what they are going to get. You will likely hear a very different response!

  • When trying to get a four-year-old to brush their teeth, telling them they have to do it if they want to hear a story usually isn’t very successful. None of us like to be told what to do! Instead, asking them if they would like a story after they brush their teeth will be much more likely to generate voluntary cooperation.

To summarize, we build a professional image with these three keys:

1. Show a professional face by silently saying the word SHOWTIME as a reminder that you are on stage and the world is watching!

2. Make a professional choice to respond by understanding your personal biases and not mirroring the treatment you are receiving.

3. Use professional language by saying only what is fact based, positive and generates voluntary cooperation!

When you keep your professional face in place, make professional choices, and use professional language, you can continue to build a professional image in even the most challenging of circumstances! Try these three keys today and let us know how they work for you!

To learn more about how to deal with difficult conversations in various customer-facing roles, take our Strategic Conflict Resolution course.

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