Running your own business can be a lonely job. You are faced with a myriad of decisions to make alone from day one, covering every aspect of business: accounting, marketing, premises, employment law, tax and the rest. Luckily there is a lot of help out there – all you need to do is ask.
What is a business adviser?
A business adviser is anyone that can offer a helping hand. That might include an informal contact such as your entrepreneurial neighbour or the ‘bloke in marketing’ you know. People who have ‘been there, done that’ have invaluable knowledge to impart.
There are also more formal advice networks available, in the form of professional business advisers. These advisors have either expert general business knowledge or expertise in a particular function of business such as marketing or funding. You can contact your local Business Link or Enterprise Agency for support. Advice can be in the form of one-off help, short-term support or an ongoing mentoring relationship.
Advice is also offered by parties such as banks, insurance companies and accountancy firms. Their advice may certainly be valuable – but be aware that they may be promoting their own services.
Nevertheless, getting advice from as many people as possible is a good thing to do. Manny Gatt, managing director of Business Link in Nottinghamshire, explains: “Business people learn by doing – as well as learning by example and through talking to peers. The role of the business adviser is simply to speed up the process of learning.”
An adviser should be able to listen, analyse problems, find and offer impartial information, problem-solve, suggest innovative ideas, develop action plans, challenge you and find you specialist help if they can not offer it. They are mentor, coach, networker, facilitator and researcher all rolled into one. “It’s the old adage – two heads are better than one,” Gatt says.
But if you do seek advice, how can you make sure you get the most out of your appointment with your business adviser?
Getting the most out of a business adviser
When meeting with your business adviser, don't turn up with no idea of what you want – or armed only with hurriedly scrawled ideas and questions. It’s a commonplace occurrence and a surefire way to waste your and your adviser’s time.
So what should you do? Preparation is the key to a productive session. According to Louise Third of the Institute of Business Advisers (IBA). “It’s important that you as the client are in control of the meeting. So be prepared to take lots of pre-thought out questions.”
She advocates being clear in your own mind about what you want out of the meeting, before the meeting. Be clear about the purpose of your visit; for example, to get help in devising a recruitment policy. Prior to the meeting, list your objectives and compose your questions. Third suggests taking a page with some reminder bullet points and – if you have one – your business plan. Any facts and figures about your business will be helpful.
What does a business adviser want from you?
Alice Talo is a self-employed business adviser working from home in Birmingham. She has some practical pointers to offer when it comes to making the time count.
As a starter she recommends that people seeking advice always keep appointments and call on time. For first time appointments it’s helpful if they bring along their accounts, a business plan, operational information, lists of customers, suppliers, creditors and debtors and any relevant material. For example you might want to draw up some advertising ideas if you are seeking marketing advice.
Although it is helpful if a client comes to her with a specific issue they want to explore – such as how to get funding when the bank has turned them down – she also likes clients to stay open so they can look at all aspects of developing the business.
An example of how she works is the advice she has offered to a company that provides scientific services. After visiting its owners at their premises and getting a feel for the business, she recommended focusing on expanding their customer base.
Talo first got them to define what they wanted in a customer – in terms of size and the amount of custom they could offer – and then decide whether to attract the attention of those targeted customers by email, post or visit. She advised taking on the services of a designer and copywriter to create some marketing material and together they have looked to double the customer base in two months.
How can you be sure of the service?
It’s important to be sure of the service you are getting from your business advisor – both in terms of the quality of advice you will be receiving and in an assurance of confidentiality. An advisor’s membership to a relevant professional body will offer you some guarantee of protection from poor quality advice. That might be general bodies such as the IBA but could equally apply to specialists – such as members of the Institute of Marketing.
Gatt recommends looking for a business advisor you relate well to – someone you like and respect so you can build a trusted relationship. But what if you do not feel comfortable with your business advisor and the suggestions they make for your business? As Gatt says, there are lots of business advisors out there – just change.
Remember, though, that business advisors can not run your business for you. As Talo says, “We can find a way to help your business together, but I can’t wave a magic wand. I don’t always have the answer – in most cases people have the answer themselves.”
At the end of the day, it’s your business.
Always turn up on time for the interview. Advisors are busy people, too, so it is you that will lose out by getting a shorter appointment
Prepare any specific questions or issues you want to raise in advance; write them down to remember everything you want to ask
Take along any accounts, business plans or other relevant information. For instance, if you need help with marketing, take examples of your current advertisements and those of your competitors
Even if you are looking for specific advice, be open to other ideas. You never know what an objective advisor might suggest for developing your business
Choose an advisor you have utter confidence in and seek advice from a range of sources before making a final decision