Diahann Lassus

(WOMENSENEWS)–With revenue growth down significantly from last year, Diahann Lassus, co-owner of a financial planning firm in New Jersey, says she now is working harder than she has in years to maintain her client base in this recessionary economy.

The co-owner of Lassus Wherley and Associates in New Providence now follows up immediately with clients after meetings, instead of waiting two or three weeks. She makes numerous phone calls and does a lot of hand-holding to make clients feel as secure as possible about their investments.

And she has to redouble her efforts because since the terror attacks on Sept. 11, women-owned businesses have dropped an average of 10 percent in sales nationwide, according to a recent survey conducted by Women Impacting Public Policy, or WIPP. The Oklahoma City-based organization surveyed 2,000 women owners of small businesses nationwide. It is a national bipartisan public policy organization focused on women’s economic issues.

Nationally, 36 percent of small businesses with an average of five employees reported their sales to be down, according to a survey of 500 entrepreneurs conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business in Washington.

“You have to be more active in your outreach to clients and let them know that you are thinking of them now more than ever or you could lose them,” says Lassus, former president of the National Association of Women Business Owners. This year, she estimates her revenues will grow a maximum of about 5 percent, compared with 25 percent in 2000.

“Women business owners, fortunately, are particularly good at the interpersonal skills of reaching out and touching their clients. That is critical at this time in order for our businesses to survive.”

The downturn in the economy, coupled with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, has hit small companies across the country. And, since women-owned companies have been the fastest growth area in new small businesses over the past few years, it has been particularly difficult for these operations to keep up. Female entrepreneurs now need to be particularly creative in their networking, marketing and customer retention, according to business experts.

Small Businesses Nationwide Now Can Apply For Disaster Loans

In fact, the situation has become so dire that the U.S. Small Business Administration announced on Oct. 18 that small businesses anywhere could each apply for up to $1.5 million in Economic Injury Disaster Loans if they could prove that they have suffered substantial economic injury in the wake of last month’s tragedy.

Right after Sept. 11, the only small businesses eligible to apply were located in those parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia that were declared disaster areas. The Small Business Administration determines the amount of economic injury, terms of each loan and payment amount based on the financial circumstances of each borrower, according to the agency.

“The government is realizing that we need help now, but we also have to use our abilities as great communicators to help ourselves out of these tough times,” says Terry Neese, an advocate for small businesses on Capitol Hill and chief executive officer of Terry Neese Personnel Services in Oklahoma City. Neese also is the president of Women Impacting Public Policy, which she founded in June.

Neese’s suggestions to female entrepreneurs include “reaching across the aisle” to bid for large projects with competitors in one’s industry. Look toward potential clients who might be able to outsource some services to one’s own company.

“Create a partnership with other women entrepreneurs in your field; now is the time to join forces with each other,” she advises.

In addition to partnering with competitors, one should try to work in one’s field with large, national companies that can generate some local business, suggests Patricia Pitts, president of Alpha Mechanical Inc., a Dearborn, Mich., mechanical contractor.

In Hard Times, Women’s Personal Contacts Can Bring In Business

“Large, national companies like to spread into smaller markets, and who better to know the local dynamics of your market than you?” Pitts says. “Offer to be their local arm or local sales force.”

In addition, use personal contacts to bring in business, Pitts says. Teach a course at a local university, speak to neighbors about one’s company, and network with members of one’s house of worship. “There is no question that women business owners have wonderful interpersonal skills that can be essential at this time, when so many people feel out of touch with one another,” Pitts says.

Women should use these skills to reach out to existing clients as well, Pitts adds. “A lunch meeting at a restaurant with an important client is better than a discussion over the telephone,” Pitts says. “And, a Sunday brunch at your home with this client is even that much more effective.”

Phyllis Hill Slater, president of Hill Slater Inc., a Great Neck, N.Y., engineering and architectural firm with 14 employees, recommends networking vigorously at industry functions and at events that are likely to target potential customers. She also has been contacting former clients and trying to woo them back to her firm.

“You can’t do your job today from behind a desk. You have to get out there and market yourself, face to face,” says Slater, whose business is down 20 to 25 percent. One of her clients was the engineering department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which was hit so hard by the attack on the World Trade Center.

In addition, with companies having to cut bonuses or scale back profit-sharing plans because of tough times, it is important for women entrepreneurs to now take care of their employees in other ways, Neese notes.

“You have to be creative with your employees,” Neese advises. “With so many Americans feeling scared these days, try to offer your people a comfort zone when they come to the office.”

For instance, pay for employees to take some martial arts classes or have a security expert talk to your company about safety and precautions as a way to show you care, she says.

Laura Koss-Feder, a free-lance business writer based in Oceanside, N.Y., writes on a wide variety of topics, including small business, careers and workplace issues. She also has written for The New York Times, Money, Time, Business Week and Working Woman.

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