Q: I've started a small promotional printing business at home but find it difficult to get clients because I still have a daytime job. People call, get the answering machine and hang up. I've thought of sending out postcards listing my hours as evening hours. Do you think people would be turned off by not being able to make contact during the day?

A: I don't necessarily think potential clients would be turned off by not being able to talk to you personally during the day. What will turn them off is getting a message on an answering machine that doesn't give them the information they're looking for. Although I don't know what your current message says on your machine, I'm guessing the reason potential clients hang up is that you haven't provided them with options.

What do I mean by options? I mean it's time to invest in a more sophisticated system that will allow users to get the information they need even when you're not there. Because you work during the day and rely on your phone system to be a kind of personal assistant, it's worth it to make that investment. And, in actuality, it can make you look quite professional. Think about it: When you call a large corporation, don't you often get a voice-mail message instructing you to punch in various numbers on your keypad to take you to the information you need? You can allow callers to press different numbers for leaving a message, hearing certain prerecorded information about your company, even forwarding the call to you or someone else (though you might not currently have this option since you have a job).

When creating your voice-mail message, make sure it's professional and polite. Begin the message by stating the name of your business, e.g., "You have reached XYZ Promotional Printing." From there, you can allow callers to choose from a variety of options: In addition to leaving a message, they can listen to a list of your services, obtain your address, find out how to place an order and so on. Basically, you want to provide them with the kind of information you think they're looking for that can be easily and clearly conveyed in a voice-mail message. If you're not sure what they want, think about the kind of information you look for when calling a company for information, and that may help you come up with some answers.

Another option is to use an answering service to handle incoming calls. If you do this, however, make sure you periodically call the service yourself to make sure it's polite, prompt and accurate-the last thing you want is someone rude answering your business phone. In your case, though, I would recommend starting with a beefed-up voice-mail system. Contact your phone company to find out what options are available, then contact a few private voice-mail services to compare prices and features. See how many new clients you get once you've implemented this system, and make any adjustments from there.

I would steer clear of sending postcards to potential clients stating your hours; this may send the message that their daytime calls aren't welcome. In fact, if you set up your voice-mail system right, you don't even need to state what your hours are-and when clients do call, you'll send the positive message that you're there to serve their needs at any hour.


Karen E. Spaeder is editor of Entrepreneur.com and managing editor of Entrepreneur magazine.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.