It's the happiest of all outcomes. You've launched a small business that sells your skills and talents, and now you have so much business, you can't do it all alone anymore.
The question now is: How to grow your business while still assuring clients that they will get what they're paying for: your personal expertise?
Here, tips from the experts - Brendan Calder, an adjunct professor of strategic management at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and Catherine Graham Bell, Kingston-based image consultant - on how to grow your business without alienating your clientele.
There are two ways to expand your business, you can hire someone full-time to "be your brand", says Calder, or you can hire contractors whose work you already know and trust, says Bell.
- Choosing someone who can represent you and your brand - as well as you can - is
an art in itself.
- "The only way to find these guys is to observe," says Calder. Be on the lookout for people at conferences - anywhere - who can represent you. Look for a person who could be you if they had your name! Watch how they work, he advises.
- When you think you've found someone "who fits", says Calder, do the "Toledo test." Imagine spending a weekend in Toledo - or anywhere you would never go! - with them.
- If they are still who you would feel comfortable working with, confirm that they, in fact, have the skills you need.
- Make it clear to them that what the client is buying is "you". Say to them: "I'm the brand. Do you like me?" You need to make it clear up front that you are what is being sold.
- Then put them on assignments with short turnaround times so you can gauge the quality of their work.
- If they're not working, get rid of them.
- Don't worry that the client will be disturbed to see someone else working on their project, says Calder. Use phrases like: "this is our work" so they know you're involved and they're getting the results of "your work" and standards. The fact that you are overseeing it is implicit in the fact that you're letting this person use your brand name.
- Get over the fact that you aren't personally doing the work. The client isn't interested in you, says Calder. They care about results. They want the results "your work" will give them.
- Another person on the team can actually make a client more comfortable, says Calder. "Clients like to know there's someone to answer the phone in case you're gallivanting around!" What you are as a team is all part of the same person all the time, says Calder.
Sometimes it can be easier to go from a one-person business to hiring contractors on a when-you-need-them basis, says Bell. The advantage to this solution is that you stay in control about who serves the client,, while not having the overhead of a full-time hire.
For example, a client needed an expert on body language for a corporate training seminar Bell was hired to give, and it wasn't something she had expertise in. So she hired someone to do it on contract. "I had already heard this woman speak, and I felt confident in recommending her. And I was there with her," Bell says.
Among the ways to ensure the client still gets your expertise when you are hiring someone on contract:
- The key to hiring well is having seen the person in action, says Bell, and liking their work.
- Secondly, on a first contract, you will need to be available to oversee their work. But after working with them once, and feeling confident about the quality of what they deliver, you can contract them in future without having to be present to watch over their delivery with a client.
- Even though the contract work is temporary for a project, hire that person as if you were hiring them fulltime, says Bell. "I always say, when you hire, do so with the goal and mindset that you are hiring someone with the skills to replace you if they have to do similar things. Ask yourself: 'Can this person take over?' Some people are afraid to do that, but it's important," says Bell.
- Also, take the contractor's image into consideration. "Are they professional? Are they exuding the same messages you are?", asks Bell. "Their image has to be congruent with the company image and the message you want to portray."
- Remember, image is more than personal appearance, says Bell. Ask yourself if they are going to be able to make casual conversation with the client and put them at ease. Can they go into a room and network and strike up conversations? Are they visible in the community and involved?
- If you hire more than one team member, you need to match the strengths of each team member to each client. "It may not be their hard skills, but their soft skills" you need to match, says Bell. For example consider how they will relate to that client.
- Ensure the client recognizes that you are overseeing or confident that the work performed for them meets your standards. Say something like: "I'm leaving you in good hands," Bell suggests. This confirms the person has the skills that are needed, and you're putting the client at ease, she says.
- Take steps to let the client know you are part of the process and you are going to have frequent communication and follow-up with your contract representative - that you're not just going to disappear.
- Remember, clients expect you to be involved. If you send in an employee and the client never sees you again, and things don't go well, it's not good, says Bell.
- Refer to the person as part of your team. Make it clear that you are setting the program up, but "another one of my team" will be taking care of you, she suggests.
- Fully inform your contract employees so they can pass on information to the client. Don't think of this as insider information, but as information that will let your contract employee do a good job for you and your client.