From the August 1998 issue of Startups

You don't need to be told how important it is for your calls to be answered when you're not in the office. Although voice mail and answering machines work well, you might want to consider an answering service as a more personal alternative.

"We're able to provide a personal touch that isn't available with voice mail, and we present a more professional image than a machine," says Marilu Propps, owner of Conrad Executive Services, an answering service in Indianapolis.

Having your phone answered by a live operator projects a caring image and can make your company appear larger than it is. An answering service can also save you time because operators can handle simple tasks, such as providing a mailing address, so you don't need to return those calls. And if you provide the service with the appropriate information, operators can advise callers when you'll be available to return calls and can give individual callers specific messages. It's common for operators to get to know both you and your regular callers, which makes them even more efficient.

Of course, answering services are typically more expensive than voice mail, but proponents claim they're worth it. Propps charges $50 per month for unlimited calls between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Some services charge for each call answered, and rates vary depending on the coverage hours.

When shopping for a service, Propps advises looking for a firm that's been in business long enough to have a verifiable track record. Ask about operator turnover rate; consistency is an important part of their service. Also ask for and check references. Many services offer a free trial period; consider taking advantage of that. Finally, if you sign on with a service, periodically check up on them by calling yourself, and don't hesitate to let the manager know when performance is particularly good or bad.

On Your Mark

When it comes to trademark infringement, two situations are cause for concern: when you do it to someone else and when someone else does it to you, says Stephen Elias, an attorney and co-author with Kate McGrath of Trademark: Legal Care for Your Business & Product Name (Nolo Press).

Elias says the following should be trademarked: business and product names, logos, sounds, shapes, smells, colors, packaging and other unique characteristics that distinguish particular products and services from those offered by competitors. If you infringe on someone else's trademark, at the very least, you could be ordered to cease and desist, which means the costly process of changing your company or product name.

If you're concerned you might inadvertently be infringing on someone else's trademark, see an attorney who specializes in patent and trademark law for advice. You'll also need an experienced attorney if someone infringes on your trademark because customers might confuse you with the other company, resulting in your losing business or getting a tarnished reputation.

Elias offers these tips for protecting your company and product names:

  • Conduct a trademark search to confirm that the name--or a name so similar that yours would confuse the public--is not already in use.
  • Register the name with your state's trademark office (usually the Department of Commerce or secretary of state's office) and with the Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, DC.
  • If your mark is federally registered, use the trademark registration symbol to let others know you're serious about protecting your mark.
  • Use your mark. If you fail to use it for two years or more, it may be considered abandoned and others may be able to legally use it.

What's Your Point?

When you introduce yourself to people, how long does it take to explain what you do? Do you quickly grab their attention, or have they stopped listening before you make your point?

Think about how long it takes a typical elevator to travel between two floors. That's about all the time you have in a business situation to make an introduction powerful enough so the other person clearly understands what you do and wants to know more.

Creating a good elevator introduction begins with identifying key problems your ideal prospect has that you can solve, says Hilton Johnson, a sales coach with Sales University, a virtual sales training organization in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida. When people ask what you do, ask whether they are familiar with those key problems, then explain that your business solves them.

If you were a computer consultant, for example, your introduction might sound something like this: "Do you know small businesses need current technology but can't afford to keep someone on staff full time to deal with their computers? Well, I manage technology for those companies, keeping their computers up to date and operating at maximum efficiency."

"[Your introduction] should take 12 to 15 seconds," Johnson says. "The goal is to get the person to ask for your card or offer theirs."

Follow Their Leads

Referral organizations, sometimes called tips clubs or lead exchanges, have proved to be great marketing tools for homebased business owners. They typically meet every week, with each member bringing a business lead for another member. But Ivan Misner, who founded Business Network International (BNI), an international networking organization based in San Dimas, California, says his members report a number of other benefits in addition to the obvious perk of finding new customers:

  • Support. Members function as a mutual support group, sharing ideas and advice with one another, usually at no charge.
  • Easing isolation. A referral group offers an opportunity to regularly meet and interact with other businesspeople. Referral groups also provide the introduction for what often develops into strong personal friendships.
  • Motivation. Because meetings are usually upbeat and positive, members report feeling "pumped up and excited" when they leave.
  • Improving presentation skills. Members introduce themselves and their companies at every meeting. The more they do it, the better they get at it.

For What It's Worth

Are you charging enough for your products or services? Many homebased business owners aren't, often because they aren't sure what a fair rate is or don't have enough confidence in the value of their goods and services. When evaluating and setting prices, Jan Franck, president of Des Moines, Iowa, marketing communications consulting company Franck Communications, suggests keeping these issues in mind:

  • The going rate. Determine the acceptable rate, both high and low, in your industry. Ask colleagues or contact trade organizations that track such data. Then average that rate with your experience and expertise.
  • Exclusivity. If you're an expert or are one of only a few who do what you do, you can likely charge more than if your field is crowded with competition.
  • Capacity. Think about how busy you are and how much work you can actually handle. Franck advises raising your rates when you're busy; you may end up pricing yourself out of some business, but the business you keep will be more profitable.
  • Value. Analyze the real value of what you do. If you're providing something your clients can't do without, you can charge more for it.

Business Network International, (800) 688-9394, misner@bni.com

Conrad Executive Services, 5555 N. Tacoma, #108, Indianapolis, IN 46220, (317) 251-5821

Franck Communications, (515) 225-9633, janfranck@aol.com

Nolo Press, (800) 992-6656, http://www.nolo.com

Sales University, (954) 491-8996, hilton@salesu.com