Dear Karen: What are my odds of staying in business when so many firms are consolidating or going under?
Answer: The odds are poor if you get discouraged by today's pervasive negativity. Your survival chances improve if you manage your professional network creatively and draw on existing relationships.
Stay in touch with colleagues and customers, said Joe Takash, president of Victory Consulting in LaGrange Park, Ill.
Contact three to five a week and ask them how they're sustaining their business and what they suggest for yours.
Offer to lend your experience, knowledge and contacts to them, and they'll never forget it.
"Even if it's just inquiring whether someone needs to talk, the more you give, the more you get," he said.
Also look for ways to improve your visibility. "Brainstorm things that can keep you in front of your customers, clients and vendors in a manner that serves you by serving them," he said. That might include a weekly e-mail of practical business tips or inspirational quotes. Make it short -- less than 30 seconds to read -- and helpful.
Training, advice for entrepreneurs
Dear Karen: Is there low-cost help available for my business? I don't have the time or money to get an MBA.
Answer: There are many low-cost educational and consulting opportunities available. Small Business Development Centers (lasbdcnet.lbcc.edu) and the SCORE organization ( www.score.org) offer one-on-one counseling, workshops and training courses.
Colleges give extension courses and entrepreneurial classes that don't require full-time enrollment. This spring, Dan Nathanson, visiting professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, is teaching a course on business planning for established entrepreneurs. The 15-week, hands-on class costs $1,995, Nathanson said.
Student teams from Cal State Fullerton's Small Business Institute (business.fullerton.edu) do 12-week consulting projects under the supervision of faculty experts. The students aren't selling anything and provide fresh perspectives to many "stuck" entrepreneurs, said Michael D. Ames of the university.
They recently extended their services to Los Angeles County, he said, and cost ranges from $995 to $2,995 depending on your revenue.
Pricing pressure? Improve service
Dear Karen: My customers are more concerned with price than quality. Must I lower my prices?
Answer: If you can't cut prices and remain profitable -- don't. Show customers your pricing strategy and how you've arrived at it, said Tom DeCotiis, chief executive of Corvirtus, an employment testing firm in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"Make sure you ask yourself hard questions about the necessity of your costs, particularly in labor and outsourcing," he said.
Emphasize customer service so that your firm is so essential that clients won't want to leave, even for lower prices. "Insist that your employees provide a great experience every time, and teach them how to do it," DeCotiis said.
Also, make sure that complaints are handled quickly and positively.
Got a question about running or starting a small enterprise? E-mail it to email@example.com or mail it to In Box, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012.