September's very tragic events in New Orleans and on the U.S. Gulf Coast got me wondering what I would do if my business were wiped out. You need to ask this question about your business, too.

September's very tragic events in New Orleans and on the U.S. Gulf Coast got me wondering what I would do if my business were wiped out.

You need to ask this question about your business, too. Your customer list should be stored in a secure place off site - in light of recent events, maybe even out of state. Customer lists are a gold mine. If you have your customer list, you can start your business over because you know the names, telephone numbers, e-mails and addresses of your customers and potential customers.

These people write your paychecks. They can help you, and most likely will help you get started again. Why? Because they trust you. You've done work for them and they know you will take care of their systems. They'll trust you before a company they've never heard of - especially in a crisis.

Many contractors I work with have thousands of names on their active and inactive customer lists. There is no way that you can remember all of the names, addresses and telephone numbers. You've got to keep that information in a computer somewhere.

For those few of you who still keep all information in file cabinets, the experience in the Gulf Coast should propel you to computerize it and store that data off site. Likewise, your accounts-receivable list is critical. These companies and people owe you money for new construction, installations, service agreements and contracts, and potentially service work, too.

Cash flow is always critical. However, it is even more important to know who owes you and in what amount. Again, there is no way that you will remember everyone and all details.

Inventory? If you are in a devastated area, it's probably gone. Make sure that you have insurance to cover the replacement cost of your entire inventory. That's right: replacement cost. If you have inventory sitting on your shelves, it can depreciate. You want the replacement cost because that's what you'll have to pay now to replace it.

Fixed assets? Keep a list of all of your trucks, their identification numbers and other assets of the company. Again, have insurance to cover the replacement cost. And you need an accurate list of all the company liabilities. Contact your creditors and communicate what is going on. Work out long-term payment plans if you don't have insurance to cover these debts.

Storing your company's asset information off site is critical when disaster hits. Hopefully it never will. However, it is much better to be prepared than out of business.

Pictures and perceptions

On another subject, I wanted to tell you about one of our employees who just had a picture mounted in a frame.

She was complaining that the price for "just putting it in some wood" was too high. I told her that was her perception and the price was what the market would bear.

I raised the issue of HVAC contractors getting complaints when their prices were $70 an hour yet many copier repair technicians charge over $150 per hour and don't bring anything other than a briefcase. HVAC technicians carry a parts warehouse with them and get price complaints.

Are copier technicians' knowledge any better than those in HVAC service? Probably not. What copier service technicians have is the "perception of quality" before they even walk in the door. Does your company have the same perception?

So, even if your company has qualified, excellent technicians, how do you get around the trust and perceptions issues? Through many years of providing top-quality service, customers will begin to trust your company. However, if one of your technicians screws up, just once, that trust can easily be broken.

The only way I know to make sure that you have quality employees is to continuously train them. Give them the benefits and hourly wage they need to survive, a career path and communicate constantly.

How do you pay for all this? Use flat-rate prices. It's the only way for your company to have the ability to charge what is necessary to survive and properly take care of customers, technicians and reasonable overhead expenses.

Think about it if you're not using it. And, if you are, make sure your prices are high enough and your employees project a quality image when they are with customers. Building trust is essential for success.