Ask Dr. Job’s chief contributor, Sandra Pesmen, is a member of the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame and author of “DR. JOB’s Complete Career Guide.”

Winner of several journalism awards, Pesmen is a graduate of the University of Illinois Media College at Urbana, and is listed in several Who’s Who editions. She also has been Corporate Features Editor of Crain Communications Inc., founding Features Editor of Crain’s Chicago Business and a reporter/features writer for The Chicago Daily News.

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First Small Biz Rule: Customer First

IF  YOU'RE TRYING TO BUILD YOUR small business, your first rule should be: "Customer First."

That's the advice of Joseph Callaway, who with his wife, JoAnn, wrote a new book with that name, Clients First.  Anything that takes your focus off the customer, Callaway claims, puts your fledgling business in harm's way. 

 "And here's the payoff," he adds. "When you succeed in putting your clients first, you will find that everything else-growth, a positive reputation, and financial security-all fall into place." 

Callaway speaks from experience. He and his wife built their thriving business-Those Callaways-in a tough industry that's had more than its share of challenges. To date, they've sold over a billion dollars' worth of homes. Their book describes their late-in-life entry into the world of real estate, how they had their "Clients First" revelation, and how it has impacted their professional and personal lives. It also gives readers step-by-step advice on how to put their own customers first, as well as why each one works. 

 "Living and working this way is not easy," Callaway admits. "Putting your customers' interests ahead of your own-every time-will seem counter intuitive, risky, and sometimes even frightening, especially at first. Eventually, though, keeping your commitment to Clients First will start to feel more natural. And by that point, the benefits, rewards, satisfaction, and success will be rolling in-and you'll be proud of the person and professional you've become."

 Here, Callaway shares tips that might not be obvious but he claims will help your small business. grow and prosper:

Change your thinking about why you exist. If you go into work thinking, How do I make money? you're already off on the wrong foot. As Callaway has pointed out, what you need to be thinking is, How do I serve others? Callaway admits that taking your focus away from the bottom line may feel uncomfortable at first. Yet, ironically, it changes everything for the better.

Take your business personally. Never let the words "it's just business" cross your mind (and certainly not your lips). This old standby phrase is simply not true, especially to a client who feels as though he has been belittled, treated coldly, pushed away, or used. Remember, to truly serve, you have to care. When you keep yourself at arm's length, you can't give your clients 100 percent...and you give them an incentive to take their business elsewhere.

Little things matter more than you think. Especially when you're trying to get a small business off the ground, it's easy to get caught up in pursuing the "big" goals: growing your company, expanding your client base, hiring more employees, and making a profit, for example. But don't become so fixated on the forest that you fail to see the trees. In other words, stop being so distracted by the "big grand ideas" and start getting the small details right. Promises kept, deadlines met, little extra flourishes, and small acts of kindness add up to happy clients.

Hard times don't justify stinginess. We've all heard the expression "The more you give, the more you get." And you may be willing to put it into practice when it comes to giving your clients things like honesty, competence, and care. But if you give away your expertise, time, energy, and (gasp!) money, won't you just go broke? Not necessarily, says Callaway. It may take time, but whatever you give will usually come back to you with interest.

Don't lie-even if it makes you look better, makes you rich, or keeps a client from walking. Sometimes, it's tempting to tell white lies, exaggerate, misdirect, omit, and cut corners to make life easier. Generally, it's also easy to justify these things to yourself (She'll never know, and it'll save me hours of work, for example). But when it comes to putting clients first, Callaway says, these "little" lies are just as bad as the whoppers. Yes, honesty can be tough in the moment, but in the long run you'll gain a reputation for trustworthiness that will change your life.

Be honest with yourself, too. As Callaway has already established, you should never lie to a client (or to anyone else). But honesty shouldn't stop there. Ask yourself, Am I lying to myself about where my priorities lie and how others perceive me? Try to see your business as your clients and customers see you. Are you putting them first-or putting yourself first?

Treat employees at least as well as you treat your clients. While (of course) you don't treat your employees like dirt, you may feel that you don't owe them any special favors, either. After all, you're paying them-isn't that enough? Well, no. Whether you realize it or not, the way your people treat customers reflects the way you treat them. Are you courteous? Kind? Polite? Enthusiastic? Do you listen when they talk to you and try to accommodate their needs? Or are you short, perfunctory, and even (sometimes) rude?

Make sure your highest praise comes from your competitors. Yes, you read that correctly. You can-and should-strive to win the approval, goodwill, and admiration of your competitors. If possible, get to know their leaders and employees, and help them when you can. You don't have to give away trade secrets, but you can offer advice, for example, or refer a customer whose needs are better matched to what another business has to offer. Don't do these things manipulatively, but in the spirit of giving-your efforts will come back to you with interest. Have faith that there is enough business to go around.

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