Learning, doing and trying new things could improve your business situation in the next year.

In last month's column, I gave four ways to earn more money in the next 12 months. Here are a few others.

Become irreplaceable

Theoretically, in a well-managed company, nobody is irreplaceable.

In the real world, however, most companies have one or two individuals whose departure would cause huge problems. You want to encourage people to become so good at what they do that it would be painful for you to see them go.

Motivating people in this way requires a keen balancing act. You want to appeal to their pride and encourage them to develop their abilities, but at the same time not create a prima donna, or someone who feels they have the company in their hands.

Acquire more expertise

Some contractors keep a "skills inventory" for their workers. The more jobs people are capable of performing, the higher their pay. When pay scales are tied to the level of skill acquired, this creates an incentive for employees to constantly learn and grow. A skills inventory can be applied to office personnel as well as field staff. For instance, a bookkeeper might become more valuable by taking classes to learn accounting.

Suggest a change in the way your company compensates workers

In some cases, a commission-based compensation plan, or one based on specific tasks, could work to the advantage of employer and employees. Most workers will resist any kind of change to incentive compensation. The best way to make the transition is to continue paying hourly wages, but keep track of pay both ways for several months. In many cases, your employees will come to realize they could have made more money with the incentive program.

Upgrade people skills

As I said on my "Service Sense" tape, "To the customer, you are the company that employs you. No matter how good you are with the tools in your hand, a sour personality undermines the work you are able to accomplish. It will also influence whether or not the customer calls your company back," or whether your company gets recommended for another job.

Over time, superior people skills will pay off. Workers who know how to "schmooze" get more praise from customers. Some will ask for them by name to perform their work. If a likable person makes a mistake, customers will be more willing to forgive that person than they would someone they don't like.

People skills also come into play around the office. Performance often is harder to measure for office staff than for those working in the field. Owners would rather give pay raises to employees they like than to those who are difficult to deal with. Consider interpersonal skills in gauging performance. Productivity is bound to go up more when co-workers get along.

Help the company enter a new business or acquire a new customer base

Pay your employees a finder's fee for any work they bring in from friends and relatives. Maybe one has a connection with a uniform company or an insurance agent that can offer special deals to your company. Offer to share any savings from such an arrangement.

If you keep probing, you'll find that most employees have business connections with someone who can benefit your company in some way.

Pay recruiting bonuses

Recruiting talented people to your company is the biggest problem faced by virtually every contractor. Think of how much you spend on newspaper and other recruitment ads, then all the time spent orienting and training new hires. People who have the numbers say employee turnover typically costs $5,000 to $10,000 a head.

You can shortcut the process, and get off cheaper, by turning your entire staff of employees into in-house headhunters. I suggest offering a substantial bonus - up to $1,000 - for every referral that results in a permanent employee. Some companies use a phase-in program, paying $300 or so after the employee completes three months on the job, another $300 after six months, with the rest collectable after a year. There are any number of ways to structure the payment - and don't necessarily think of $1,000 as the upper limit.

Employees recruited via other employees tend to be more reliable than those attracted off the street. Always give your employees first crack at helping you fill a job opening.

(Jim Olsztynski - pronounced Ol-stin-skee - is editor of Supply House Times, a sister publication of Snips. He can be reached at (630) 694-4006, or e-mail wrdwzrd@aol.com.)