Sorting the good advice from the bad
As a small business owner it sometimes feels as though every man and his dog is queueing up to give you advice on how to run your business. Given that no-one can be an expert on everything and there will be times when you do need external advice, how on earth do you work out who to listen to? Gill Hunt, managing director of Skillfair, the online marketplace for consultancies and independent agencies, looks at how to sift the good advice from the ‘not so good’.
What advice do you need?
The first question to ask yourself when reading or hearing advice should be ‘is this relevant to my business?’. Unsolicited advice coming via the press or email bulletins tends to make sweeping assumptions about the problems a small business faces – if these assumptions don’t apply to you then you can happily ignore the advice. A better approach is to earmark some time to think about your business, possibly in conversation with a trusted business contact, and list out the areas that you are worried about and where you feel that some external advice would be useful. Having set your own agenda you can then start looking for a suitable source of advice.
Where should I look?
For any business topic there many, many sources of advice – from government funded websites through small business forums, magazines and advisors whose stock in trade is helping small businesses in their specialist area. If your concerns centre on tax or regulations then a good place to start is the website or helpline for the relevant government department. Most of these give good, straightforward advice and can act as a good primer to understand the terminology. Online forums & magazines can give you an insight into how other small businesses have tackled the same issues but for many people there comes a point when they really need one to one advice and guidance from someone who’s an expert in their ‘problem topic’. Finding a business advisor is fairly easy, there are usually several at any networking meeting you attend and websites like Skillfair can find you even more at the touch of a button, the problem then is working out which advisor to choose!
Choosing an expert
Finding and buying advice is just like buying in any other product or service, but because business advice involves people the basic checks that businesses apply to buying stationery or raw materials often get abandoned.
- Make sure you have at least 3 advisors to choose from so you can compare approaches & prices.
- Watch out for hidden agendas – does this advisor want to sell you something else, such as a telemarketing service, an IT system or factoring services? That may not be a problem but you need to bear it in mind when considering their advice
- Do they know what they’re talking about? Qualifications or membership of a professional body will give you confidence but that may not be enough. Do some homework before you interview a prospective advisor to enable you to ask some questions you already know the answer to!
- Talk to other business owners about the advisors they use and how much they charge. Always ask any prospective advisor for references that you can contact.
- Particularly with general advisors make sure that they’re not trying to cover too broad a range of topics – all advisors should be willing to say ‘I don’t know enough about that’ in some areas, if they try to give you advice on everything the chances are their knowledge will be superficial at best.
Making it Work
Having found someone you trust you need to set aside time to work with them on your problem areas. The advisor needs to understand your business and will work with you to develop a plan for the future – but they can’t do it by themselves! You’ll need to invest time and money in carrying out any plan, whether it’s a new marketing strategy or revamping your employment contracts, so make sure you’re clear what the advisor will do for you and what they won’t before you start. If you just want someone to bounce ideas off that’s fine – and this type of business mentoring or coaching can be very valuable – but if you expect the advisor to carry out any plans then you need to agree that with them from the beginning or you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Is it worth it?
If, like most small business owners, you’re working long hours just trying to keep the show on the road, you may wonder if getting external advice is worth the effort. You may feel you know ‘just about enough’ about most topics and don’t really need expert help. This may be true, but the greatest value of an external advisor is that they don’t have preconceived ideas about your business and what will or won’t work for you. They may come up with ideas that you’d discarded long ago but that are perfect for the business now, or they bring ideas from other industries that bring a whole new angle to the way you work. Either way, hiring an advisor will force you to spend some time thinking about how to improve your business rather than concentrating on the daily grind – and in a highly competitive world that is exactly what you should be doing!
Promoting the exchange of expertise, Skillfair (www.skillfair.co.uk) offers a unique service for both consultants and clients. Through the on line meeting place clients can invite more than 1200 quality checked consultants and advisors to respond to their requests for expert help. Consultants can access these projects and use the service to find others offering similar or complimentary services to work with them on bids or ongoing projects.