By Jeff Colburn
When I started my first business I was pretty naive. I thought I could just let people know about me and honest, sincere, intelligent people would use my services. Okay, you can stop laughing now. There are a million little things that you will learn as you progress with your business, but let me bring you up to speed on a few important ones.
It's hard enough dealing with all the problems that will crop up, but you also need to be careful of scams. Many scam artists prey on business's, both large and small. If you receive a bill in the mail, check to be sure you ordered, and received, the product before sending out a check. If you didn't order the product, don't pay for it. Also, if someone calls about renewing something, like a yellow page ad, be sure this is the company you think it is, and that it's really time to renew. The scam artists may threaten you by saying that they have a recording of Mr. X (one of your employees) ordering the product and if you don't pay they will take you to court. If this happens, keep a record of all the contacts they make with you, and file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and contact your local police department.
This happened to my girlfriend, Linda-Ann. A company called and told her secretary that they were associated with AT&T, which they weren't, and wanted to know if she wanted to renew her Yellow Pages ad. The secretary knew that Linda-Ann had an ad in the Yellow Pages, so she said yes. However, when the bill arrived it was from a totally unknown phone book. Linda-Ann called and told them to cancel it, and the battle began. They said she had given them permission and they even had a tape recording of her secretary agreeing to it. Linda-Ann contacted the police and AT&T and found out that this company had been doing the same thing to many local companies, including the Chamber Of Commerce. She lodged a complaint with the police, the Better Business Bureau and even contacted the local newspaper, which did a story about her experiences. She then wrote this company and told them all that she had done. They eventually sent Linda-Ann an invoice canceling what they said she owed. She never heard from the company again.
Scam artists may also offer you a discount if you balk at paying for the product. They will also try to get you to pay for return shipping and a restocking fee. Just remember, if you're the victim of a scam, pay them nothing.
Also, be very careful about anything that requires you to buy a starter kit. This is often the mark of a scam.
Now that you're running your own business, take full advantage of the freedom this gives you. Create, or have created for you, stationary, envelopes and business cards that reflect your personality. Choose a paper that you like for these and design products that have a "look" so that clients will recognize your stationary at a glance. I use the same font and grey paper for my letterhead, envelopes and business cards (on cover stock). This shows my clients that I care enough about my business to create a professional image, and it helps me to stand out from the crowd.
Invariably you well get some complaints, but remember complaints are good. Yes, we try to make all of our clients happy from the start, but if someone has a complaint, listen. Don't become defensive. A complaint can often point out a problem with your product or service that you were unaware of. While I don't look forward to receiving complaints, I scrutinize them carefully, learning what I can and doing whatever's necessary to correct the problem. I also do what I can to make the client happy. When I was a freelance photographer there were a couple of times when I reshot an assignment for free to satisfy a client. Another time, when I was doing some computer work, I redesigned some graphs for a client. The graphs were exactly what they asked for, but when they saw them it wasn't what they had "envisioned." Even if they will never use me again, I don't want a client to be upset enough to tell everyone they know not to use me. Give them a refund, let them keep the product at no charge, send them a replacement, give them a free upgrade, whatever it takes. Then even if they do complain about you to others, they will often tell them what you did to correct the problem.
To really succeed you need to strive to exceed expectations. If you can make the client say, "Wow," then you will have a client for life.
Remember to always be honest. Never make false claims or stretch the truth. It will always come back to haunt you.
As things get busier remember to delegate work or get outside help. Need a part time secretary? Use a secretarial service. Are your promotional mailings getting to be too much for you? Outsource them to a fulfillment house or get family and friends to help. My girlfriend helps me attach address labels and stamps when I have a mailing going out. It never hurts to have others do these things so you can concentrate on running your business and finding new clients. Just be sure you can afford to do this so you don't go broke. You may be able to get free help by becoming a mentor for a local college. They send out students who work for free or very little in exchange for work experience. I also know a man who hires ex-convicts because he gets a tax break for doing this. Check with your tax preparer.
Every business needs to promote itself. You can do this with a lot of flash, or with simplicity. The secret is to try several promotional plans to see what works best. You could have themed parties, support a local little league team or charity, offer your services free to some local organizations or simply pass out pens with your company's name and phone number on them. If you do pass out pens or other types of products, be sure they are of excellent quality. A client will love your pen if it works, and hate it if it skips and clogs. Be creative and have fun with your promotions.
When I was a freelance photographer, I made monthly desktop calendars on my computer. It was printed on a piece of paper with a 3x5-inch photograph attached to one side. This was then mailed out to clients monthly with a promotional cover letter. The client would fold the calendar so they could see the photograph and month, then on the backside was a promotional statement about my company, so that anyone sitting across from my client would see an ad for my business.
Several years ago, I came across a wonderful promotional piece. While walking in a mall, I spotted a folded $50 bill lying on the ground. I couldn't believe my good fortune. I picked up the bill but when I unfolded it I found myself looking at a business card. It was a simple fold over card, but a section of a $50 bill had been printed on the back. I'm assuming that the business owner simply dropped a few on the ground wherever he went. Did he get any business from this? I have no idea, but I'll wager that people scrambled to pick up his cards.
There are a million things you need to know to run a business, I just hope this article will save you some of the wasted time, money and frustration that I've encountered over the years.
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