About a year ago I decided to take my Web design skills and go freelance. I liked the company I worked for, but I (somewhat naively) believed that working on my own would mean I could live life a little more independently. Of course, anyone who has started their own business knows that’s never how it works out. In fact, if you want to be successful with your own company, it will pretty much be a 24/7 job.
That’s not to say it isn’t rewarding, of course. There’s something fundamentally exciting about every project I finish and every new client I sign on.
After a year, though, it was time to look into some other options to make my business run a little smoother and free up some time for life outside of a development environment.
Cell Phone Separation
I quickly realized that the first thing I needed to do in order to maintain my sanity was put some space in between me and my cell phone. It was strange that such a small device had so much sway over my life, and I was determined to break free.
Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds. When you run a small business by yourself, missing a call means missing potential revenue. You can’t just ignore a call because you’re tired or in the middle of lunch or just not in the mood to deal with a client. Working freelance means there’s no such thing as “Paid Time Off.” Nevertheless, I was determined to secure a little time for myself and my family, and the cell phone seemed like it had to be the first casualty in this attempt.
Ideally, I would have had my own staff to start taking calls for me, but after only a year I definitely wasn’t in a position to start hiring others. Plus, it’s hard to post a job listing for an office manager when your office consists of a currently unused bedroom in your house. It’s a little embarrassing.
A Small Business Answering Service
I had heard a lot about getting some kind of answering service to cure my imposed cell phone addiction, but in my mind that was just an automated software solution that told all potential clients what buttons to press if they hoped to speak to a real person at some time. That wasn’t the impression I wanted to give. I needed to look professional, but I also wanted to eliminate any unnecessary steps between the client and me.
As I was researching all these options, though, I realized it’s not all about automation. There are some companies out there that specialize in providing a live small business answering service that even new freelancers can afford. For a monthly fee I could have a real person answer my calls 24/7, take messages, screen out the telemarketers and the other useless calls, and even help with my appointment management.
I may not be in a position to hire an office manager yet, but so far I’ve been pleased with my service. I can actually spend uninterrupted time with my family and they put a professional face on my business, which is really important when your office otherwise consists of ugly yellow carpet, a folding table, and a single computer.
What Image Do You Want to Project?
As a Web designer, I’m all about presentation. I understand that a website is usually the first contact a customer will have with my clients, and they have to put their best foot forward. So when it comes to initial impressions, I admit I’ve become something of a control freak (which is very likely one of the main reasons I spent so much time on the phone in the first place). That’s why it was a little hard for me to just trust an answering service–-even if it was staffed by actual people.
I needed to know for sure that when current or potential clients were routed to the answering service they would have a good experience. I knew that if the service came across as confused or disinterested, it would only plant the seeds of I-bet-she-works-at-home-on-a-folding-table doubt. I couldn’t have that. Not if I wanted to actually keep my business.
The answer was simple (and it gave an outlet to my controlling nature). I simply started calling myself from someone else’s phone. I just pretended to be a new customer and put their service to the test. Sometimes I’d pretend to be an irate customer shooting out complaints in rapid-fire succession, and other times I would play the confused and helpless soul who wanted to start a Web business because they heard on the news how much money others were making on the Internet, just to see how they would react. Yes, it made me feel like the overly suspicious girlfriend trying to catch a cheating boyfriend in his web of lies, but the simple truth of the matter is that no one is going to protect your business but you.
Challenges and Solutions
There are a lot of alternatives out there, and as freelancers we have to be willing to test out something new (like I did with the answering service). At the same time, we need to exercise a certain level of caution. If the new service or tactic isn’t performing like you had hoped, get rid of it and move on to something else.
Freelancing is tough work, but so far I’ve found that the rewards are directly proportional to the difficulty. Taking it one challenge at a time has proven to be the best way to keep my sanity and my business running at an even level. In this case, an answering service was the simple solution I needed to start reclaiming a portion of my real life, and after my “undercover” tests, I felt like I had made a pretty good choice.
How do you make sure that you aren’t missing calls when you are busy or out? Share your answers in the comments.
Image by whiteafrican