There are countless variations of the phrase "My word is my bond," but what it boils down to is this: Your promises should have the same binding weight as your signature.
Keeping your word is a business policy that should go without saying. And it usually does--until it gradually starts to break down. (Caveat: I strongly advise against verbal or handshake agreements--here's a great article from fellow Inc. columnist Harvey Mackay on why).
It typically takes a while for a business to gain good standing. In fact, before your company's reputation is fully established, initial customers often take a chance on your start-up based on their trust of you as an individual. Your business truly becomes an extension of you.
How can you ensure that your word (hence, the word of your business) is actually worthy of trust? It starts with a painfully honest assessment of what you say and what you do. From there, you can make a dedicated plan for improvement.
I warn you: I did this myself. To be frank, it was a bit of a chin-chuck to my ego.
Upon scrutiny, I found that I got caught in something "less than the truth" more frequently than I thought. And while I don't premeditate ways to bend the truth or even have malicious intent when I do, the brutal question I needed to face was this: If what I'm offering isn't quite the truth...then what is it?
Are you actually trustworthy? That depends on your answers to these three questions.
Do you do exactly what you say?
This one was easiest for me to think about when I put my "Daddy" hat on. If you have little kids, you know extremely well how dangerous it is to exaggerate or be vague with them. If you say you're going to the park today, that does not mean tomorrow. If at 11:50 a.m. you say you're heading to the pool in 10 minutes, you better cross that threshold at noon.
Try to do the same with your small business. For instance, don't tell someone you'll call them "right back" if you know you may take a while. Comb through all the filler phrases and niceties you use, and eliminate those that aren't true.
You'll likely find that they are rooted in rationalization, distraction, procrastination, and attempts to avoid hurt people. Build up your truth muscle by thinking of your words as contracts.
Do you do it when you say you'll do it?
It's time to reset our brains and respect appointments for what they really are: Contracts for each others' time. So when you show up late, or unprepared, the message you send is a breach of contract: You just don't respect the other person's time.
Sounds harsh, but it's the stone cold truth--it's a respect thing. You don't know what type of sacrifices a person may have made to prepare for your appointment. So extend him or her the same respect. Bonus: Being prepared and early (which is how a smart entrepreneur defines "on time") will greatly reduce your own stress.
Do you only speak when you actually know?
You can tell a lot about people by the company they keep--whether businesses or individuals. In business it's wise to clearly understand the difference between close and casual contacts--and how those associations reflect on you. One category is no better than the other, but things become complicated if you're unclear about who is who.
Reserve your glowing recommendations for contacts and businesses you can truly vouch for. If you lack full information, don't be afraid to temper your responses--e.g. "I've heard good things, but never worked directly with them." Don't justify misbehavior, or speak about a complex situation if you don't have the details. Sometimes, a little bit of information is more dangerous than offering none.
I hope these tips help you assess your own honesty quotient--and ensure that your word is as good as gold.