A certain amount of stress or anxiety from time to time is to be expected when owning and running a small business. As a business consultant and coach for dog pros I’ve seen many a dog pro struggle with fears of failure or bite their nails during slow times. But in my experience much of the stress dog pros face can be sidestepped by taking some simple proactive measures. Over the years I’ve noticed three common sources of avoidable stress and have watched my clients successfully learn to keep them at bay.
1. Not Busy Enough
It’s understandable to feel anxious, even deflated, when the phone isn’t ringing. Who wouldn’t? But dwelling on the situation makes matters worse. A watched phone doesn’t ring, and waiting for it to do so only makes for increased anxiety.
Instead, get active. The downtime while your schedule is freed up from clients or classes is a great opportunity to work on the business. Usually lulls happen, at least in part, because not enough attention has been paid to ongoing development.
Here are some things to fill the empty space:
Pursue new marketing projects.
This is a great time to dust off ideas you may have discarded due to lack of time. The answer to “When will I ever have time to do something like this?” is: Right now. Maybe launch that newsletter you’ve been contemplating, or put together an event to draw some attention.
Reconnect with referral sources.
Strengthen any relationships that have been ignored too long. Drop by with thank-you goodies, send a letter or email update about any new offerings you have, or present someone with a shared marketing opportunity such as a booth at your event or holding a lecture in his or her space.
Identify and target new referral sources.
If there’s a vet, boutique, shelter, etc. that you haven’t had time to connect with, no time like the present. Think about what would be useful to them, then find a way to fill that need. Behavior handouts for vet clients? A free daycare or boarding pass for the staff at the boutique to argue over? A loose-leash walking clinic at the shelter?
Design a new service.
You can use your new marketing channels to get the word out, and use this as an excuse to get back in touch with referral sources. And don’t forget to let past clients know about the exciting new opportunity to work with you again.
Get in touch with past clients.
It’s often hard, despite best intentions, to stay on top of client follow-ups. If you’ve fallen behind now is a great time to send a check-in email. It’s good business practice and often leads to additional work.
Update policies, procedures, forms, etc.
Revamp the systems that will help you run the business more efficiently once all your efforts get the phone ringing again.
No one wants a lull in business. But if it happens, grab the opportunity. Turn the situation into a chance to get caught up on the business side of things and to renew your commitment to pushing your business forward.
2. Too Busy
It’s a great problem to have, but it’s still a problem. Being too busy can be as stressful as the other way around. Besides exhaustion there are the worries about keeping up, being able to get back to people in a timely manner, and having the time and energy to take good care of each client. Oh—and maybe having a little time to oneself, too.
Here are some ways to get control:
Use a set client schedule.
Never ask a client, “What day/time is good for you?” Choose your appointment openings ahead of time and write them into your calendar. Cluster them for efficiency and to keep other blocks of time free for business and personal use. Offer the same appointment times every week if you can. Then tell clients and potential clients what appointments you have available and let them choose the best fit from among the choices you offer. Pre- set appointments will make better use of your time and help protect your schedule from chaos.
Tell them when you’ll call them.
Being at the beck and call of a cell phone or Blackberry at all times means constant interruptions. Constant interruptions equal poor productivity. And many people find it frazzling as well. Instead, compose a compelling, professional outgoing message and auto email that makes people want to wait for you, and then tell them exactly when you’ll be in touch. For example, “I/We return phone calls Monday through Friday between the hours of ___ and ___.” People are much more likely to wait if they know when to expect to hear from you. (Read “Let It Ring” for more ideas on managing your phone time.)
Tell them you’re full.
Private appointments booked two months out? Boarding space spoken for until February? Daycare or walking spots all taken? You can save time by letting potential clients know with your email auto reply and outgoing phone message. Tell them, for example, that “We’re so glad you called Good Dog. Our agility classes are currently full. The next round of these exciting programs begins in early February. If you would like us to contact you when registrations begin, please tell us your name and number… We look forward to meeting you and your dog in February.”
Private trainers might let people know that “Our new client appointments are full through January. If you would like us to contact you when the next open appointment is available, please leave your…” You can keep a couple slots available for true emergencies and if there is someone local you’re comfortable referring to, you can include that information as well. You’ll find that most people will wait for you, though. Booked that far out? Wow, you must be good.
Look for technological shortcuts to anything that eats up your time. Class registrations, for example, can be done online. If you’re busy and still doing them by hand, it’s time to get a system built into your website.
You may be convinced that you can’t afford it, but really you can’t afford not to. Spending a small amount on office or admin help will free up your time to see more clients or pursue additional marketing to keep business up. This is a perfect example of spending a little to make a lot more. If you’re hesitant, start with just a few hours a week. You’ll be addicted in no time, and be able to breathe a bit easier.
Plan vacation and downtime.
If you don’t make it happen, it won’t. Plan downtime into every week. Literally open your calendar and block it out. If you’re staring at your calendar and thinking there’s just no way, turn a few pages or advance a few clicks until you get to a week where the time is not yet fully spoken for. Block out the time that week and all the weeks after and then plan around it, treating the time as untouchable.
Do the same for vacations. Even if you have to plan many, many months ahead do it so you know it’s there. If you provide ongoing services like dog walking and daycare, let clients know well in advance so they have plenty of time to make alternate arrangements. Then make sure you go, no excuses. Your business will be healthier in the long run if you do.
If things feel like they’ve truly gotten away from you, to the point where there is no time to catch your breath to take any of the above steps, it might be time to power down for a reboot. Choose a few days, a week if you can, to shut down in order to take a breath and reorganize. If this seems impossible, look far enough into your calendar that you find a blank space and claim it right now. Then make a list of what you want to do with that time so you’re ready when it arrives. (Revise policies and procedures? Assess and adjust rates? Develop a new class or program offering? Hire help or get someone working on updating your website? Re-design your schedule?)
3. Not actively working on the business
This can be a source of stress whether business is busy or slow. Most dog pros understand the importance of working on the business rather than just in it. But it’s a difficult goal to maintain. Marketing and business development are not as attractive to most trainers as working with dogs, and it’s hard to prioritize and do something that doesn’t have a deadline. A client is expecting you at 7pm. Your class starts at noon. That article/blog/website update/class curriculum/fill-in-the-blank doesn’t have to be done on any particular day.
Problem is, if you don’t actively work on the business the likelihood of a future slowdown becomes much higher. This knowledge is often a source of anxiety and, for some, feelings of guilt or inadequacy as they worry over all the things “I know I should be doing.”
Here’s how to set the guilt and worry aside:
Set goals and work backwards from them.
Every year block off space in your calendar for four goal meetings with yourself, one per quarter. Give yourself at least a couple of hours, and take a whole day if you can. Take stock of how things are going. Make decisions about what you think needs to be done to market and develop the business, and to streamline its efficiency. Then list out the steps you will take. Make the steps as detailed as you can—it will make each one easier to take.
Set reasonable goals.
It’s better for the business to accomplish a small amount on a steady basis, rather than giving it an occasional burst of energy only to fizzle out from the effort. And it’s easier to stick with your program when the goals are easily reachable. If your brainstorming produces a wealth of ideas and a long list of possible to-dos, prioritize and choose a manageable set of activities, keeping in mind all the demands on your schedule and assuming everything will take twice as long as you think.
Schedule when and what.
Before you wrap up your meeting with yourself (or any partners you may have) turn your to-do list into an action plan by literally scheduling in the time for each item. Block out periods of time over the quarter that you will use to work on your plan. Write into those reserved times exactly what you will do with each one. Give everything more time than it would seem to need, and schedule the most important things in first. Then do not give into any temptation to “borrow” from these blocked out hours—they are what will make or keep your business strong and keep stress at bay.
Again, some stress is inevitable when you own your own business. But the less, the better, and with some planning and proactive steps you can create insurance against the most common sources, improve the health of your business, and enjoy it more, too.