Information, Please

An SBA phone bank can help you find what you need to know about starting or running a business

Rose Stancil never ran her own business. She has no experience making a payroll, finding funding, or hiring workers. Yet each week hundreds of small-business owners turn to this 60-year-old grandmother of four for advice.

Why Stancil? She's one of 10 operators at the Small Business Administration's Answer Desk, a one-stop information shop for confused entrepreneurs looking for help in getting their dreams off the ground. Last year, the Charlotte (N.C.) call center received about 250,000 such inquiries. Stancil figures she takes as many as 150 calls in an eight-hour day.

Her phone chirps to life and Stancil, crowded into a cubicle and speaking into a headset, picks it up on the first ring. It's a caller from Jacksonville, Fla. He has a great idea for a high school military academy, but doesn't know where to begin. What, he asks, does he need to include in a business plan? Flipping through her desk guide, Stancil directs him to an upcoming seminar in the Jacksonville area and takes his mailing address to send him an information packet. "Most calls are as easy as that," says Stancil, who joined the SBA in 1996 after a lengthy stint as a management assistant for a Defense Dept. logistics office.

Harvard Business School it's not. Answer-desk operators have little experience beyond what they've learned in SBA training sessions. Most of the callers are similarly lacking in business savvy. Among the most frequently asked questions: "How do I get started in business?" and "What kind of collateral do I need for a small-business loan?" Operators do not attempt to answer questions themselves, instead directing callers to appropriate SBA resources. And that's as it should be, says SBA District Director Lee Cornelison. The answer desk, he says, is "a resource for someone looking to explore that big world of entrepreneurship."

People seem to be in an exploring mood. When the answer desk opened in 1982, it averaged about 3,000 queries a month. Now it gets seven times that. When they're not on the phone, operators are busy responding to thousands more snail-mail and e-mail questions.

The SBA doesn't keep statistics, but officials insist that some of those who have dialed 1-800-U-ASK-SBA have gone on to start businesses. Others end up getting valuable advice. Last fall, Laurie Bair, marketing manager for The Arlington Group, a 26-person software developer in McLean, Va., e-mailed the SBA asking if the company met the criteria to be listed as a government contractor. An hour later, she had her answer. The company is now on a list of contractors. "We get potential leads all the time," Bair says.

Such service is the rule rather than the exception, says answer desk supervisor CaSandra Smith-Gatlin, who claims the call center has received just two complaints in the past 18 months. Operators answer within two rings, and information can be received in four different languages. As for the average hold time: less than eight seconds. If nothing else, the would-be entrepreneurs get a lesson in customer service.

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