FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH
|By: Ron Brounes||
The other day I realized I had finally “made it” into the real world of small business. No, unfortunately I did not land that huge account, primed to put me on the road to financial independence. I did not sign over the distribution rights for “FWIW”, enabling it to appear in every newsstand, bookstore, and coffee bar across the country, so that millions of readers could reap the benefits of its business advice. I did not even apply to list B&A (not to be confused with Bank of America) on the New York Stock Exchange. Quite the contrary. Instead, I encountered a serious problem that small business owners have experienced forever. I recorded my first official “bad debt” expense, finally giving up on collecting my much deserved fee from a completed project.
Oh sure, I’ve had “deadbeat” friends stiff me on payments in the past; but that’s to be expected (if you know my friends). This case was a real life client, a referral whom I had actually worked with on one previous occasion. In fact, that project resulted in a prompt payment, a letter of sincere appreciation, and a new “rush” job that needed to be performed over the course of that weekend. I worked both Saturday and Sunday (despite my incredibly hectic social schedule) to complete the task. I then delivered the finished assignment and waited for some feedback. No response.
Several phone calls ensued. No response. Assuming all was well, I sent my very reasonable bill. Another month passed. No response. I sent that first late notice and phoned a few more times. No response. Six months saw countless progressively ruder phone calls, numerous delinquent payment letters, and several unsolicited late night pizza deliveries. No response. Each time, I was told the woman was either out of the office or too busy, and would return my call promptly. Not only have I not received my overdue compensation, but I have yet to get any explanation. No “your work stinks” or “you really missed the boat on this one” or “my dog ate your bill(s).” Those, I could handle. What I can’t take is the rude, unprofessional behavior she has exhibited. In any case, it’s time to move on (especially from this rather wordy “pity party”).
LESSONS TO LEARN
Adversity helps toughen us up to face the cruel business world. (That and a buck will get you a cup of coffee, though not at Starbucks.) Still, experiences such as this one can provide excellent lessons for the future. When we’re first starting out, many of us are too trustworthy for our own good. We are so eager to please; so afraid to say or do anything that may possibly turn off a potential customer. In reality, a few precautionary measures can actually contribute a certain degree of professionalism (as well as peace of mind) to the workplace.
Develop and implement a simple engagement letter for each and every assignment. The standard form should specify all relevant details of the job: the actual work to be performed, the fee structure, the time frame, etc. Whenever possible, have the client sign-off on the letter before commencing any project. For longer, more substantial assignments, obtain a retainer up front. Meanwhile, keep all parties updated on the progress being made throughout. Notify them immediately of any potential problems that may cause you to run over budget or push back the expected due date. Everyone hates surprises. Conversely, coming in under budget or ahead of schedule on that first job could lead to additional work down the road. Once completed, request feedback to ensure improvement for the future. On the other side of the fence, make all payments on a timely basis and pass along useful comments whenever appropriate. A carefully placed “job well done” makes for a nice touch in a professional relationship. (SW Bell always appreciates my monthly compliments.)
A LITTLE COMMON COURTESY
In every day business practices, we should treat people the way we would like to be treated ourselves. Something as simple as telephone etiquette, contribute to the way we are perceived as professionals. Return each and every call promptly, the same day whenever possible. A wise (and successful) sage once told me, “If someone had wanted to speak with me tomorrow, they would have called me tomorrow.” Though that phone call may not seem important to you, it is apparently important to them. One day, the shoe may be on the other foot, and you will appreciate a prompt response.
Similarly, don’t leave potential customers on hold for seemingly hours at a time. “Traffic and weather together” or country music rarely make waiting on hold any more bearable (24 hour sports is a different story). If you insist on voice mail, update your greetings on a timely basis. Messages revealing that you were out of the office three weeks ago may indicate your lack of attentiveness.
Always attempt to confirm all business appointments. A simple phone call can often serve as a friendly reminder to the busy exec, and save you valuable time should the meeting have to be postponed. If you need to cancel, always be prepared to reschedule on that same phone call. Remember, once removed from that appointment book, it may be difficult to get back on. “Out of sight, out of mind.” Additionally, when soliciting business or even a simple informational meeting, exercise patience and realize that your business is not always everyone’s top priority. Then again, don’t be afraid to “cross that line” when the situation warrants. Professionalism and etiquette are not invitations to be walked all over and taken advantage of. Come to think of it, I’m not ready to give up on that delinquent bill. Now where did I put that number for Dominos?
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FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH is a publication of Brounes & Associates focusing on business marketing and general communications strategies. Please call Ron Brounes at 713-432-1910 for additional information. Look for past and future issues of this periodical at all newsstands, bookstores, and coffee houses across the country. If unavailable, ask the store manager or direct inquiries to this office. Sometimes, they are hard to keep on the shelves.