Become a ?Call Center? for Small Businesses

By Kevin M

Friday Income & Cash Flow ForumThis is a weekly open forum dedicated to increasing income, cash flow and customer base, for anybody who needs to increase business or supplement a paycheck. Salaried employees, homemakers, small business owners, commissioned sales people, entrepreneurs, retirees?this is FOR you, and we?d like to hear FROM you. What works in one household or business may not work in another, but then again it might. Or it might be modified and adapted to different situations.

Nothing contained in today?s post is likely to make you rich, but it can put some extra cash in your pocket if you?re a homemaker, retiree, currently unemployed or already working from home and looking for an additional revenue stream. It doesn?t even require you to leave your home.

Even as weak as the economy and job market are, businesses are often in need of all kinds of services. Finding out what those services are, how you can provide them and how you can market your business are all that you need.

Note to small business owners: you might consider taking someone on in this capacity as a way of freeing up your time and improving your sales process without spending a lot of money.

Become a ?call center? for a small business

If you have a pleasant phone manner and you?re based at home, there?s a built in niche to become a call center for one or more small businesses.

Times are tight and a lot of small businesses are working on very thin profit margins that don?t allow them to have employees on staff. Some had them, but were forced by business considerations to let them go. But that doesn?t mean they don?t have needs for extra help. In many businesses, the owner is out doing the actual work of the business and has little time to take phone calls even for new customers. As well, he or she might have to take the calls on a cell phone while out on a job or driving?not always the most convenient or friendly situations to handle phone calls from.

Another note to small business owners: new customers don?t like voice mail! Having a live, pleasant person to speak to upon making a call to a business is often the difference between a new customer and a hang-up. The caller may be nervous, unsure of the business, or even of the work he or she needs to have done; a warm, understanding voice answering the phone is the first step in the sales process to convert the caller from a prospect into a customer.

Another market to consider for this service is immigrants! Many of the skilled trades and small businesses being operated today are handled by foreign born people, who may speak something less than perfect English. Having a native English speaker answering the phone could be a real boost to their business. You can add value with little more than your natural command of the language.

The Mechanics of Running an At-Home Call Center

There are various factors unique to any particular business, but here are some of the more general ones.

Types of calls. There are different types of calls that will come in?new business calls, existing customer or job calls, vender calls, and complaints. You may be able to work out an arrangement in which you take only certain calls, by having those calls sent to your phone, while the rest go to the business owner?s line.

Equipment. All that?s needed here is a dedicated phone line and a computer with email and internet access. A fax machine may be good to have as well, but it?s importance seems to be fading. In order to keep you from being chained to the phone in your house, you might want to enable your landline to bump calls to your cell phone for the times when you aren?t at home. Beyond this, an old fashioned phone message book may be a good investment to keep you organized as well as to maintain records of calls taken for compensation purposes.

What to charge. There?s a lot of flexibility here. You can work on a small, flat salary?say $50/week, depending on call volume; you can work on a per call basis, or you can work on a commission basis. The best might be a combination of methods?a small salary (to keep you ?available?), a per call fee as an incentive, and a small commission to entice you to let your inner sales persona work to it?s fullest!

Method of payment. It would be optimal if you could be paid on a W2 basis, that way taxes would be taken out, and income tax filing would be easier, but most businesses will prefer to pay you on a contract basis by 1099. That will streamline their filing requirements, and one of the things you want to offer is simplicity in using your services. The upshot for you however is that you will probably be able to charge more for your services since the business won?t have to pay withholding taxes, social security or unemployment. You will also be able to write off expenses related to your call center, thus reducing your tax liability.

Where to find business

Of course, as with any business, you will need to market your services, and here are some recommended steps in that direction:

Word of mouth. This is always the cheapest, simplest form of marketing. Let everyone you know in on what you are doing; you never know who might know someone looking for exactly what you?re offering. Literal word of mouth is good, but email is even better since it can be forwarded.

Responding to job ads. A good way to approach this would be to call on any ads looking for a receptionist or related position. Chances are what they mostly want is someone to answer the phone, and that?s an opening for you. A business might be on the fence about hiring someone full-time, and you might help make their decision for them with your lower cost alternative.

Preparing a flyer. Having a marketing piece giving some detail on your services is a must have. You can distribute this by mail, by email, by postings in busy places like grocery stores or even hand deliver them to small businesses in your area. If you go the mail route, check with your local library to find business directories for your area; this will make the job of finding clients much easier. You might also use this method to focus your search on businesses that you have some familiarity with. It?s much easier to make successful connections when you can ?speak the language? of a business.

Calling small businesses in your area. Calling around can help to identify businesses with a legitimate need. You don?t need to be a salesman to do this (though it wouldn?t hurt), just approaching people with a basic message may be all it takes. If there?s a need, the conversation will likely flow smoothly from there. Even if the owner expresses no interest, try to get an email address to send your flyer to. If they don’t provide an email address, always follow up by mailing a flyer. Just because they have no need today doesn’t mean they won’t six months from now.

Take an ad in a popular foreign language newspaper. There is a growing immigrant population all over the country and this may be an opportunity to tailor your business to cash in on the trend. Once again, this is an opportunity to sell your services as a speaker of the dominant language to those who aren?t as proficient. It may help to have the ad written in the both English and the language of the target audience.

Other considerations

You can go just about as far as you want geographically, because you will be working from home so distance won?t be an issue. Just be careful that if you do take on multiple clients, that no two are engaged in the same business. That will eliminate any possibility of confusion as to which business people are calling in on.

If you take on more than one client, you probably want to develop a very generic phone script for answering the phone, one that will enable you to engage a caller long enough to determine which business he or she is trying to reach. But don?t over complicate this; a very simple, ?This is Sam, can I help you?, may be all it takes.

I?m actually doing this right now, acting as a call center for a friends business. He?s on the road on jobs or doing estimates so I handle new business calls. What we?ve done (and what you may want to try as well) is to have the contact information?phone number and email address?changed to go to my phone and email on ads and on the company website. It creates a seamless flow.

Become a virtual assistant

This is really an extension of the call center concept. It?s what you can do if you have the time, skills and inclination to take it to the next step. Basically, what you do is add other functions to your service portfolio and charge accordingly. You can add light jobs, like typing and billing, or go deeper with bookkeeping, problem resolution (with customers and vendors) or even take on marketing functions.

Virtual assistants are an up-and-coming business because they fill voids in small businesses where there?s a need for additional help, but not sufficient revenue to support a full time employee. VA?s are used to handle limited tasks, such as market research or writing reports, or they can perform the full range of back office support, depending upon the needs and budget of the business.

Because they are generally less expensive, many virtual assistants are foreign based. As a result, they also often have only a limited comprehension of English, which is a frequent source of misunderstanding and complaints. However, since your work will be concentrated on only one or a small number of businesses in your area, you?ll be more user friendly, giving you a significant advantage.

If you?re a salaried worker, retiree or a homemaker, what are you doing to find new sources of income? If you?re a business owner, or in some capacity responsible for bringing business in the door, what is it you?re doing to attract customers and cash flow in this economy? What ideas have you heard about or know others to be doing? What?s working, what?s not?

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