A Quick Education in Seminars

Some are no better than scams, but many workshops can be well worth the time and money, says management consultant Ken Keller

Most small-business owners get them almost every day: Invitations to attend the latest training seminar, management workshop, or keynote-speaker lunch. Whether they come from national seminar companies, professional organizations, trade groups, or local outfits hoping to pitch their products or services, the myriad opportunities can be overwhelming. Many entrepreneurs stay at home rather than wade through the blizzard of "learning experiences." That's a shame, says Ken Keller, president of Star Business Consulting in Valencia, Calif. He talked about the value of a day away from the office with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein.

Q: There's such a constantly overload of information about workshops that claim to increase your business, or enhance sales, or improve your employees' morale. Are these seminars and meetings worthwhile? And how is a small-business owner supposed to know which ones to attend?


Well, there are a lot of opportunities out there, and while most of them are at least somewhat valuable, it can be confusing and time-consuming to confront all the promotional materials and make a decision about which to take advantage of. There are also worthless time-wasters that are actually sales pitches or scams cleverly disguised as "seminars," and these should be avoided at all costs. Fortunately, most business owners are -- or should be -- savvy enough to sniff out the frauds.

Q: How does a small-business owner go about picking the most worthwhile training program or seminar?


Get some specifics on the content of the seminar or the objectives of the course that's being offered. Don't go by the title alone, which can be misleading. And before you send in any money, check out the provider with the Better Business Bureau to see if they have drawn complaints from past attendees who feel like they got cheated or scammed.

Consider the return on investment of the opportunity. Will you or your employees learn skills or information that will balance the time you're taking away from the office and the money you're paying for registration?

Get details on the seminar or workshop presenter and his/her credentials. Call to verify that the advertised speaker will actually be appearing.

If you need credits for a professional license or certification, make sure that the course sponsor is accredited by the appropriate agencies or organizations. Ask if there is an additional cost for the credits that you need.

Q: That's good advice, and there are good programs offered at reasonable prices. Yet a lot of small-business owners never take advantage of the enrichment opportunity or inspirational luncheon. Why?


Like anything else, it's an issue of time and money. And for the business owner who spends all his time putting out fires and handling every detail personally, there's the dread of taking time off and coming back to the office to find the work piled up and the operation in a mess. Those are the micromanagers who don't take personal time or vacations, either. Not surprisingly, they burn out pretty quickly.

Q: What do you say to persuade them to relax and attend something extra once in a while?


Well, I tell them that we live in a knowledge-based society and that the thinking is changing so fast their degrees are out of date within three years. There really is a need to go back to the knowledge base, get refreshed, and be retrained almost constantly. I also advise them to figure out what is the biggest pain facing their business at the moment and then find an opportunity that adresses it in a practical manner.

If, for instance, recruiting and retaining employees is a major headache, go to a seminar on personnel or hiring. If your sales are lagging, go to a selling workshop -- or send your sales manager. These programs are basically pain-relievers and they offer us a way to deal with problems proactively, rather than reactively.

Q: Once an entrepreneur decides to attend a seminar or workshop, how can she get the most out of it?


I think the most helpful opportunities are the ones that are practical and at least somewhat interactive. Going to hear a big-name business leader, celebrity, or sports star give a talk in a huge venue can be inspirational, but often there's not a lot of useful information to take away from it. Of course, if you make a point to network with other attendees and ask questions, that's helpful. Still, I feel that if you walk away with just one good idea that you implement, you've probably paid for your time and expenses.

Q: What about sending employees to training sessions or seminars? Is it a good idea, or a waste of money?


It can be a very good idea, especially if you build in some accountability along with the opportunity. Unfortunately, most companies today don't want to train and season their employees. They want to bring in veterans, burn them out, and turn them out the door. They don't invest in their people, and it's a shame because fantastic employees really are your competitive advantage.

I feel that sending employees on enrichment opportunities can improve their performance, enhance their loyalty and investment in their jobs, and bring the entire staff up to date on some new procedure or standard. The key is to explain the importance of the opportunity -- so they know up front it's not an excuse to take a day off -- and tell them that you look forward to them writing up some notes on what they've learned, passing them around the office, and debriefing the staff at the next meeting.

A good employee sees this kind of opportunity as a vote of confidence, a chance to learn something that will help him or her advance in the company, and a signal that they are valued by the boss.

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