Ask most people what they like about working with any small business and you’ll hear answers such as their “personal approach” or “I’m not just a client number to them” or “I get to work with the principals of a firm instead of some trainee just out of school.”

Yes, those are the things that your clients will say when things are going well. But should the perceived service level drop, those same enthusiastic supporters–your best advocates in good times–begin to question their decision about working with a small advisory firm. In particular, the characteristics of your firm that they used to find charming, such as a live person taking messages instead of a system putting a call through to voice mail, suddenly become indications that maybe they need to look into finding a somewhat larger, “more professional” firm.

The good news is these small-business quirks don’t have to be fatal. In fact, many can be fixed with the application of simple technology that provides big business tools while allowing organizations like independent advisory firms to stay true to their core values. As you complete your year-end review and your plans for 2010, consider taking the following eight steps, or any that apply to you, to help ensure your advisory firm doesn’t fall into the “too small” trap:

Success Step Number One:

Don’t have one phone line for all your business communications

Nothing says “too small” like a phone number that returns a busy signal, or a phone that rings and rings until the caller finally gives up. In today’s business world, when someone actually places a telephone call (instead of sending an e-mail) they expect it to be answered. If it’s not answered, at the very least they expect to be routed to an auto-attendant or voice mailbox. While a standard public branch exchange (PBX) phone system might be too costly to install and require too much specialized knowledge to maintain, virtual PBX services can provide the same professional “face” without the equipment investment or the maintenance. These services automatically route calls to extensions you set up, and provide voice mail services so callers can leave a message. Callers will never get a busy signal or be stuck in a ringing loop, giving them the confidence that you have the staff to service their business.

Success Step Number two:

Don’t use a portal e-mail account for your business

An e-mail address that reads @gmail.com, @aol.com, @yahoo.com etc. makes you look like a small-timer with a serious lack of working capital, and perhaps one that doesn’t expect to be in business for very long. Since your business has a Web site, most Web hosts allow you to create one or more e-mail accounts with an address of @yourdomain.com. If you don’t have your own domain yet, buy one! You can create one for less than $10 per year (sometimes substantially less) if you look around a little. Then put up that Web site so clients can get to know how good you are, and new clients can find you.

Success Step Number Three:

Don’t make your clients wait while you switch your phone over to accept a fax

The corollary to this misstep: give your clients an earful of fax screeches when they try to make a call. Either way, your clients start to wonder whether you’re big enough to handle their business. An Internet fax service solves both issues by allowing you to send and receive faxes via your e-mail account or a secure online server. Your clients never know the difference–to them they’re sending to and receiving from a fax machine–but it’s much more efficient for both of you. As a bonus, you’ll also be able to send and receive faxes from anywhere you can get an Internet connection, making you far more reachable than you would be if you were relying on a fax machine in your office.

Success Step Number Four:

Don’t give clients a series of phone numbers to call

Business cards (or e-mail signatures) with too many phone numbers on them can be confusing to clients. Often they’re not sure which number to call and when, so sooner or later they decide the best number to call is your competitors’. Here’s where a virtual PBX system can again come in handy. It allows you to provide a single phone number for clients to call, then rings multiple phones (office, home, mobile) either all at once or in a sequence you determine. It takes all the guesswork out of calling for your clients while assuring you’re always reachable, which is often the reason they agreed to work with you in the first place.

Success Step Number Five:

Don’t wait a day or two before responding to client calls or e-mails

Clients love when you’re giving them all the attention. They love you a whole lot less when you’re giving all the attention to someone else. Deep down they know you have other clients, but they don’t like to think about it. Checking voice mail regularly is good. Having your voice mail messages find you is better. Virtual PBX systems allow you to send voice mails to your e-mail inbox so you’re always aware that a caller left a message, and expects a prompt reply. That expectation applies even more to e-mail. Be sure to check it often. If your business is such that you can’t open a laptop regularly (or can’t access the Internet everywhere you go) invest in a mobile phone with e-mail capabilities. The more reachable you are, the better service you’ll be able to provide.

Success Step Number Six:

Don’t include texting abbreviations, typos, poor grammar, and other errors in written communications

As the line between our business and personal lives continues to blur, it seems some people think that it’s okay to communicate with business associates the same way they do with friends. It’s not. Using text abbreviations (such as “r u” for “are you”) makes you look like someone playing at running a business. You might think typos and poor grammar will make your blog look more “real,” but they do little for creating a professional image for your business. Take the time to create well-crafted business communications and then proofread them thoroughly before sending. You’ll be amazed at how that attention to detail helps you stand out from the crowd.

Success Step Number Six:

Don’t include texting abbreviations, typos, poor grammar, and other errors in written communications

Every business experiences a technology glitch (or even an outright outage) now and then. But if you’re constantly apologizing because this or that system isn’t working, pretty soon your clients will seek out a competitor whose technology does work. Unless your business is in IT desktop consulting, you may not have the technical knowledge to deal with IT problems quickly. Rather than continuing to tear your hair out trying to learn IT management on the job, why not just outsource it? There are firms that will manage the equipment you already own, and others that will let you create your network on their equipment. Either way, keeping your systems up and running becomes their job, which allows you to put more focus on doing your real job for your clients.

Success Step Number Eight:

Don’t lose all your clients’ files

Telling a client you lost data due to a hard drive crash is like telling the teacher the dog ate your homework. It may be true, but it doesn’t excuse you from the loss. Nor does it present you in a very good light. The IT departments at the typical enterprise-size business set up and perform automatic backups on a frequent basis, sometimes more than once a day. That way if a hard drive crashes the data can still be recovered. If you don’t want to hassle with that yourself, there are hosted services that will back up and store your data for you via the Internet. Remember, there are only two kinds of users: those who have had a hard drive crash already, and those who will. Make sure you have a solution in place.


Steve Adams is VP of marketing for Protus ( www.protus.com), a provider of software as a service (SaaS) communications tools for small-to-medium-businesses (SMB) and enterprise organizations. Steve can be reached at sadams@protus.com.