Over the years, JAN consultants have fielded questions from aspiring entrepreneurs with many different types of disabilities and every conceivable variation of business idea. Frog farm – we’ve heard of it. Opera singer and teacher – how wonderful! Used automobile sculptures – why not? Many of the business ideas we hear about are absolutely brilliant – inspired – practical – imaginative – marketable – and feasible. But to get from here to there takes lots of good information and support, and on the part of the individual wanting to start a business, both knowledge and practical skills.
Many so called “soft skills” cannot be emphasized enough as being critical to the success of both planning and operating a small business or self-employment. Soft skills are frequently characterized as those that encompass proficiency with verbal and nonverbal communication, a positive attitude and enthusiasm, teamwork and networking behaviors, problem solving and critical thinking skills, and acting with professionalism. The very process of researching and planning for a business requires skills that will be necessary in the start-up and operations stages of business development. As a result, these are skills we try to focus on from the outset — either as best practices or in the context of accommodations — and encourage JAN customers to develop further both in how they interact with us, as well as those they reach out to with other programs and services in their local areas.
Based on our experience, I’ve highlighted below some “Dos and Don’ts” that frequently come up with our customers. Often they seem small or common sense, but they frequently have huge implications in how seriously one’s ideas will be taken by others, and whether an individual is perceived as committed to a business idea and the development process.
Tip 1: Be Specific
You’ve requested information from a program or agency and they’ve responded to you by preparing information based on your request. You have follow-up questions. What do you do?
DO: Review the information they sent to you carefully. If you need support to do this, let an appropriate person/service provider know. I cannot emphasize this enough. If they’ve prepared the information for you, take the time to review it thoroughly.
DO: Once you’ve reviewed the information, write down (or prepare somehow) follow-up questions that reference as specifically as possible the material you received. This communicates to the person or agency that you value their time; this also makes it more likely they will be able to respond appropriately to your questions, as well as be willing to network with you in the future.
DON’T: Ask extremely general questions – ask questions that show you have reviewed the information and reference it. This demonstrates good critical thinking and communication skills – you are sharing the concrete steps you’ve taken to review the information and follow-up if applicable. Again, if accommodations are needed, JAN consultants can assist with this.
An unhelpful question tends to be very general – “I don’t understand the information you sent to me. Could you explain it?”
A helpful question is more specific – “On page 3 of the information you sent to me you talk about Social Security work incentives and self-employment. This is confusing to me. I wonder if you could explain more clearly how these rules work. If you need more information about my specific situation, I’d be glad to share this information.”
Tip 2: Always Be Professional, Even When Irritated
You’re in the process of putting together your business plan and are following up with business development organizations to schedule an appointment with a counselor. Some agencies you’ve contacted have not called back in a timely manner, so you’re feeling frustrated. What do you do?
DO: Keep a good record of the dates and times you’ve contacted an agency and cite this information when you call back. If they have not called back in a reasonable amount of time (I usually say a few days unless they’ve said it will be within another time frame), call back and let them know you called earlier, left a message (if you did), and have the date/time information ready.
DO: Make sure you are (and sound) assertive, not agitated. If you’re not sure, take a break before contacting them. Don’t make the call until you are in a calmer state of mind.
DO: Write down what you want to say beforehand. Being prepared in this way tends to present clarity on your part and lessen anxiety.
DON’T: Never take out your frustration on the individual you finally get to talk to whether it’s a receptionist or the counselor. While it’s perfectly understandable to feel frustrated when you’ve made repeated calls, you don’t know why there was a delay in getting back to you. Now that you’ve gotten ahold of the person you want to speak with, use this opportunity wisely.
REMEMBER: You are building social capital with every contact you make. How you present yourself in each conversation — even in these initial steps — is setting the groundwork for your future plans. People always remember when they are treated kindly and respectfully. You can’t control how other people behave, but you can always be professional from your end, even if you decide not to work with that person or agency.
Tip 3: Be Reliable
You have scheduled a meeting with your vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselor and a small business counselor. You’ve been trying to schedule this meeting for many weeks. Due to unforeseeable health issues, you need to reschedule the meeting. What do you do?
DO: As soon as you know you will not be able to make the meeting, let both parties know. Let them know by the means you know they are most likely to receive the message. If not sure, contact both by email and phone.
DO: If possible, try to reschedule the meeting during that conversation. Let them know you are committed to meeting and regret having to reschedule.
DON’T: Unless appropriate, don’t feel you need to give explicit details about the medical reasons for the cancellation unless it is relevant to your relationship with that individual and the issues at hand. In other words, they don’t need to know all the details, just the parts that are relevant based on the type or relationship you have and the purpose of the meeting.
REMEMBER: We all have unforeseen things happen when we may need to cancel meetings. The important part is to be courteous and timely in the cancellation process. Unfortunately, we hear too often that individuals simply do not show up at the meeting and call afterwards to apologize. This makes it much less likely these persons will want to work with you again.
Office of Disability Employment Policy (2012), Skills to Pay the Bills – Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success. Retrieved from http://www.dol.gov/odep/topics/youth/softskills/softskills.pdf