Take A Load Off
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One of the most natural entrepreneurial tendencies is to try to do everything yourself, but that's neither a practical nor a particularly productive use of your time. "My philosophy is `Defer to the experts,' " says Michael Lamb, host of "Moneyroom," a nationally syndicated radio talk show he broadcasts from his home office in Wichita, Kansas. "If you need something done that's critical to the quality or image of your business, find someone to either help you with it or actually do it for you."
Typical functions that might be outsourced include graphic design, advertising, accounting and bookkeeping, secretarial work, and Web site design and maintenance. You might also want to outsource all or part of your marketing efforts. "Everything in business [relates to] marketing, and people often don't know how to get and retain a customer," Lamb says. Consider a marketing consultant who can help you develop and implement a marketing plan or a marketing firm that will actually perform specific portions of your marketing program. Telemarketing firms can answer incoming calls, provide information and take orders. They can also do outbound lead generation using a calling list you've put together or do telephone follow-up for a direct-mail piece you've sent.
Beyond routine business functions, Lamb advises you to look for ways to outsource anything you don't enjoy doing, even things that might not directly relate to your business. Hire a cleaning service, a professional errand-runner or a shopping service. If you're a very small or solo operation, you can even outsource a support system in the form of a business coach.
How do you find an outsourcing resource? The first step is to network. Ask friends, colleagues, customers and vendors for recommendations. Check the Yellow Pages for companies under the category of the service you need. Contact your chamber of commerce and other local business associations. If a nearby college or university has a business or marketing department, consider offering your company as a project for its students; that's often outsourcing at its best, because you'll get some top talent at a low cost.
"Any area that doesn't directly contribute to the generation of revenue or in which you don't have sufficient expertise is a possibility for outsourcing," Lamb says. "You need to have the time to do the things you're best at or that you need total control over. Outsourcing provides you with that time."
Jacquelyn Lynn is a freelance writer in Winter Park, Florida.
Too Busy? Say No
Keeping your customers happy is an important part of keeping your customers, but you can't always do what they want. Ellen DePasquale, president of Small Office Success, a financial advice and information company in Queens Village, New York, says there are three reasons to say no to a client: when you're too busy to do the job right and on time, when you don't possess the right skills for the job, or when there's a question of ethics. But if you handle the situation with tact and diplomacy, you should be able to retain the client for future work.
If you're simply too busy to meet the client's stated deadline, be honest. Explain your own time constraints, and offer him or her a deadline you can meet. "The client may be willing to wait," DePasquale says. If not, consider referring him or her to someone else who can handle the project. If you don't have time to do the job right, don't accept it and risk either missing the deadline or delivering substandard work.
Honesty is also the best approach when you don't possess the right skills. When possible, refer the client to someone more qualified. You might also consider accepting the project and subcontracting it to someone else. But if you do this, remember that you are ultimately responsible for the quality and delivery of the work.
Ethical issues are more delicate. If an ethical question affects only a small part of a large project, you may want to back away from just that portion; however, never do anything that makes you uncomfortable, or that you wouldn't want others to know about. "You have to show your ethics and demonstrate the way you want to run your business," DePasquale says. "Be professional and diplomatic. You don't have to burn bridges, but stand your ground."
Turning clients down may well be one of the hardest things a small-business owner has to do, DePasquale says. "But you have to be true to your own goals as an entrepreneur," she advises, "and have the strength to say no when it's appropriate."
One of the more frustrating aspects of being a solo operator is that there's no one around to pat you on the back for a job well done. That's why you need to do it yourself.
"I've learned I have to take care of myself," says Lyn Richards, owner of Dog Logic, a Manchester, New Hampshire, resource center for owners of large and giant breed dogs. "When you're working by yourself, you need to be the source of your own feedback."
While you can simply tell yourself you did a good job on something, it may be more effective to give yourself a treat of some kind. "When I've accomplished something special, I take breaks," Richards says. "I play with my dogs or lie in the sun with a book for half an hour. I do something that's meaningful to me, and then I return to work charged up."
Richards suggests setting productivity goals, then rewarding yourself when you achieve them. Hitting a smaller goal might earn you lunch with a friend; something more significant might get you an afternoon off. "Make it something that's within your means," says Richards, "and meaningful to you."
For most of you, the telephone is more than a tool--it's a lifeline, your primary method of communicating with your customers. But what if the number of a pizza delivery service, a hotel reservation line or a movie theater is just one or two digits different from yours, and your lifeline is clogged with incoming wrong-number calls that cost you time and money and prevent your own customers from getting through? Unfortunately, there's no easy solution.
The first step is to call your local telephone company and explain the situation. Ed Patterson of BellSouth Small Business Services says most phone companies will work with you and the other company to reach a resolution. You may want to consider getting caller ID, which allows you to screen incoming calls. If most of your calls are routed to voice mail or an answering machine, Patterson advises clearly identifying your company on the message so wrong-number callers will hang up without leaving a message.
If the problem is severe, you may have to change your number, which means reprinting stationery and business cards and notifying your customers. In this case, ask your phone company to provide a dual or split referral announcement on the old number. That means callers to the old number will hear an announcement similar to this: "If you're calling ABC Co., that number has been changed to 555-1234. If you're calling XYZ Co., that number is 555-9876."
Incoming wrong numbers are especially problematic on toll-free lines, when you not only have to deal with the interruptions but also pay for the calls. Patterson says if you notice a pattern of wrong-number calls, notify your toll-free service provider immediately so it can help you find a solution--don't wait for calls and costs to mount.
If you don't need nationwide service, you may want to consider blocking calls that come from specific states or geographic areas to reduce the frequency of wrong numbers. Many toll-free providers will credit your bill for incoming wrong numbers as a customer service gesture, but they aren't required to. Before you get a toll-free number, Patterson suggests asking the provider what their policy is on the issue.
Pass It On
Succession planning is typically viewed as a big-business issue, with executives wondering who will succeed whom as people jump off the corporate ladder. But making plans for what will happen if something happens to you is possibly even more important when you're the driving force--or only force--behind your company, says attorney Janet Maltagliati, a principal who specializes in corporate law and estate planning with Newman, Goldfarb, Freyman & Klein PC in St. Louis. "You've worked hard, perhaps your entire life, to build this business. You don't want it to crumble when you die," Maltagliati explains. "You also need to think about what would happen if you became disabled or when you decide to retire."
If you die as a sole proprietor without making other provisions, legally, the company ceases to exist and its assets become part of your personal estate. In the case of a partnership or corporation, the company still legally exists and your share becomes part of your estate, but someone needs to step up and take over, and you should decide in advance whom that will be and how it will happen. "You want to make sure whomever takes over doesn't just drive the company into the ground," Maltagliati says. "It's a good idea to groom that person ahead of time to step into that position." She also suggests you create a living trust to keep your business out of probate after your death.
Another important consideration is your customers. "You want to make sure they're taken care of," Maltagliati says. Be sure someone--a spouse, relative, or trusted associate such as your accountant or attorney--knows where and how your files are set up, so documents and information can be retrieved and customers can be notified of any change in ownership.
BellSouth Small Business Services, (404) 927-7439, http://www.smlbiz.bellsouth.com
Dog Logic, (603) 668-8157, http://www.doglogic.com
Moneyroom, (800) 634-4530, http://www.moneyroom.com
Newman, Goldfarb, Freyman, & Klein PC, (314) 727-0220, fax: (314) 727-9246