The one trait all successful business owners have in common is that they ask for help when they need it. And the good news is help is readily available. You can find a business counselor or coach in just about any location not far from you and sessions are often at no charge, especially if you’re planning to start a business.
Whether you see a business counselor through a free service or choose a fee-based business coach, here are some tips counselors and coaches want you to know to get the most from their sessions.
1. Come with something, rather than nothing. I recently had an ideal business client, at least that’s how I viewed him following our counseling session. He wanted to start a lawn care and landscaping business and was employed fulltime doing just that for a local municipality. He had already asked his supervisors if it would be OK to start a business on the side, one that he could do in the evenings and weekends. They gave him the OK, had him sign the necessary secondary employment documents and were pleased that he was making plans for his professional future (after all, jobs with government entities are not as secure as they once were).
He already had his own equipment, a business license, name and business cards. He came to me to find out how to reach business owners in his local community. We talked about his target market, his services, how to gather the information needed to set prices, his competition, how to ask for business-a myriad of topics that ended in steps he would take to launch his business.
He felt energized afterward, and I felt refreshed, thinking, “Why was that session so productive and how can I have more clients like that?” Here’s the answer. He came with something. He had experience in the industry, a current job and savings to fund start-up expenses, equipment, and an idea of his target customer. I contrast him with another client who came in recently wanting to start a business “to help women with things like housing, childcare, life skills, because I know so many women who really need help.” You get the point.
2. Trust the counselor. Confidentiality is important and business counselors will honor it. If it makes you feel better for them to sign a confidentiality statement before reading your business plan or swear they won’t steal or share your business idea, fine. But trust me. Business counselors have been exposed to all types of business ideas and very little is unique to them. Even so, they’ve chosen a career as a business counselor and are not looking for a unique idea to pirate.
3. Be open and honest about your financial situation. A business counselor can be a great resource to find funding and they can help you put together a funding proposal, but you must be open and honest about your financial situation and the earlier the better. A business counselor, especially in the first session, may not want to come right out and ask “How much money do you have to start this business?” or “How much do you have to put toward a loan?” but it’s important for them to know early to help you find appropriate funding resources. Vague statements such as “I should be OK in getting a loan,” or “I should have enough collateral to apply for a commercial loan” really doesn’t help. Provide details to the counselor and the earlier you do this the further along you’ll be.
If you’re an existing business owner and the counselor asks to see financial records, avoid responding with, “My accountant takes care of all that, so we’re good there.” Financial records can reveal quite a bit about management of the business. Use the counselor’s expertise and tools for financial analysis. The counselor can save you money by examining your records.
In additional to your financial situation, Warren Williams, head of Turning Point Business Coaching in North Carolina adds, “Be open to what the coach can teach you. A good coach truly has your best interest at heart, for they genuinely want to help you (as well as your business) be successful. Remain open to the opportunity to make your business better by making yourself better”
4. Do your assignments. Business clients tend to disappear or play “hide and seek” once the counselor gives them an assignment. An assignment might be to do some market research. If you’re not familiar with what or how to do it, simply say so. Don’t nod as if you understand. Avoiding follow-up calls from the counselor or not responding to emails because you didn’t complete your “homework” just delays the process of reaching your business goals. Let the counselor know you’re having difficulty with the assignment and could use more guidance. No need to feel embarrassed.
5. Understand the counselor’s role. As with any type of counseling, the idea is to help you discover solutions as opposed to telling you what to do. “Counselors provide a sounding board for you. They’ll challenge you and help you see situations in new ways. They’ll help you find solutions, not impose them,” says long-time North Carolina business counselor Maggi Braun. Don’t feel frustrated because you didn’t get the “answers” you were looking for.
6. Be willing to consider many ideas. Whether you’re a new or established business owner, keep an open mind. This is closely related to the previous point. Think of your time with a business counselor as an exploration session. Many ideas or solutions may come to the surface. Be willing to consider them and then winnow out the best. If you have to do a pros and cons sheet to find the right one for you, do it. Being wedded to a particular business name, idea, process, procedure, etc. can keep your business from moving forward. Be willing to approach the business from a different perspective and be prepared to spend time after each session digesting the ideas discussed.
7. Plan for more than one session. One session with a business counselor really won’t do justice to the counseling experience. At least three sessions will give you a good foundation on how to proceed. As mentioned at the beginning, cost shouldn’t be an issue because you can find free business counseling services at your local colleges and universities. Your local library, chamber, business license office, or even a web can provide a referral.
Barbara L. Hall is director of the Small Business Center at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in Salisbury N.C. She is also currently enrolled in the Masters of Entrepreneurship Degree Program at Western Carolina University. Webmasters and other article publishers are hereby granted article reproduction permission as long as this article in its entirety, author’s information and any links remain intact.