Recently, a close friend of mine asked me, "what does professionalism mean to you & how does it pertain to our apartment industry? I want our company to be more 'professional' and I want to better understand what that means." THIS - from one of the smartest most professional people I know? I took the question seriously.

My first attempt: Duh! Professional is... you know, someone who conducts business in a professional manner - you know - a professional!! It's one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot, but what does it REALLY mean?

I pondered some more and I realized it was a VERY relevant question to our apartment/property management/real estate development industry. There are numerous property management companies out there:  from the biggest of big - the HUGE REITS, to the smallest of small - the "mom & pop" duplexes managed by (you guessed it,) "mom & pop." How do we define "professional" and "professionalism" in an industry that is so wide? And, maybe more importantly, you are wondering - why would we want to? And who cares?

YOU SHOULD care. It matters to your customer. It matters to your clients. It matters to your existing and prospective employees. It is your reputation. It matters to the industry as a whole, as it is those few "unprofessional" landlords that make the rest of us look like ogres. If you claim to be "Professionally managed by ABC Management Company," what exactly does THAT mean?

(Image provided by Jesse Draper on Flickr through creative commons license.)

The first image that popped into my mind when the word "professional" is mentioned is men and women in suits. But just wearing a suit doesn't mean you are professional. There are plenty of unprofessional things done in suits these days! 

Then I thought about professional athletes - these guys do NOT wear suits at all! YET, they are definitely professional athletes nonetheless. So maybe, being "professional" means your talent is worth a lot. Then my thoughts wandered to McDonald's - they serve burgers. The burgers are cheap. It doesn't take talent to make cheap burgers. BUT, McDonald's is definitely a professional organization - and a very successful one too! Not only do they sell cheap burgers where no talent is required to make the burgers, they don't wear suits. Suits. NFL. McDonald's.

 What did these have in common that could help me to define professionalism and how does it pertain to the apartment industry?

 It finally dawned on me, what all these had in common, and why it should matter to you:

 1.) Professionalism is all about expectations and standards. As an organization, one of the best things you can do for yourself, your clients, your employees, AND your reputation, is to set a standard. The NFL has standards for their athletes - and each team has its own standards. Everyone is expected to play at or above those standards. For McDonald's, the standard is a very small narrow window of what the customer can expect from the restaurant, the food, and the service. Customers expect their experience to be the same or very similar at every McDonald's whether it is a McDonald's in downtown LA or in suburbia: It's a McDonald's burger. Having standards can contribute positively to your customer experience. If customers know what to expect, and they receive it (whatever THAT standard is that you've set) this results in a positive experience. McDonald's has a standard, and their customers know what to expect from them. A person wanting a gourmet steak burger is not going to wander into McDonald's and then become disappointed at the burger experience.

 What is the standard at your property or management company? Do you customers, vendors, and employees know what to expect? You have the ability to set those expectations - and more importantly increase the likelihood that the customer experience is positive - by setting realistic expectations that you have specifically trained your employees to attain.

 2.) So then, what's up with the suits? I realized that it wasn't about the SUITS as much as what the suits represent - it represents an image. In the NFL, each team has a uniform - which they all wear proudly. At McDonald's - there is a uniform that serves a dual purpose - to project a consistent image of McDonald's as well as to provide clothing that can be abused in a restaurant setting and still fit into the McDonald's image. Does your image project "Professionally managed by ABC Apartments?" or does it say, "the uniform stinks, I hate this job, and I don't care enough about my job to care how I look?" What image are you portraying, and does it fit into the standards that you set in #1 above?

 3.) Lastly, for an organization or a site to be "professional," the standards of conduct and the "professional" image need to apply to everyone. - Whether it is consistency in behavior, or consistency in image, or consistency in the treatment of staff, or consistency of how residents are treated, - professional in an organization is as much about consistency as it is about standards and image. I'm not advocating that you require your maintenance staff to wear suits. What I AM advocating is there is consistency in the messages that you send. Everyone on your team needs to have the same consistent (hopefully high) level of customer service that your residents can come to expect out of their "professionally managed" apartment building.

 Is your apartment community "Professionally managed by ... " What does this mean to you?

 Don't get it? RENT SODA. GET IT!

-Daisy Nguyen in Minneapolis, Minnesota MN

Daisy Nguyen is owner and CEO of RENT SODA, a business and marketing consulting company. Become a FAN of RENTSODA, connect on LinkedIn, FOLLOW RENT SODA on Twitter, visit her website, RENT SODA, or read the blog, RENT SODA, Don't Get? GET IT! for more information and regular blog entries.