03/03/2014 05:24 pm ET Updated May 03, 2014

15 Valuable Tips From 15 Years in Business

When I started my own business fifteen years ago, I've picked up more than a few tips along the way. While some lessons were costly, if I had to, I'd do it the same way all over again. Yes, collecting a paycheck made it easier to follow a budget, however, I am so grateful to be a small business owner because it's significantly more rewarding than the everyday nine to five grind. To commemorate my fifteenth anniversary in business, here are 15 Valuable Tips From 15 Years in Business.

When There's A Problem; Pick Up the Phone: There will be times in your business when your customers get mad at you. They might fire off a nasty email to you, but that is never how you should respond. Don't use email to solve a customer problem, pick up the phone to sort out the issue. If your client is local, ask to come in a meet with them to resolve a problem. Communicating with an angry person in email is a recipe for a disaster.

No Such Thing as a Handshake Deal: There's no such thing as a handshake deal. I don't care who you are hiring or doing business with, you need a legal agreement between you. You want clarification on the services that are being provided and the payment terms. Have a lawyer draft the initial contract you'll use and then modify it as needed. You need employment contracts, vendor contracts and service contracts for your clients.

Admit it Quickly When Something Goes Wrong: Sometimes all a client wants is an apology. You need to show empathy that you understand why they are upset. Don't argue with paying clients. Quickly take responsibility, find out how to make it right and do it even if it hurts you in the wallet. Sometimes the best relationships are made after there's been a mistake if you handle it correctly. Show the customer you care.

Never Hire Someone You Can't Fire: Every time I have ever hired a spouse, a family member or a close friend, it has not turned out well. So I say don't do it. If the relationship is important to you, don't test it in this way.

Grow Your Employees: You want to invest in your employees and help them reach their potential. Take the time to develop a plan to grow your employees. They are the most valuable asset in your business.

Your Fortune Is In Your Follow-up: Your ability to follow-up is everything in business. Don't be one of those people who meet great people at networking events and then doesn't follow-up. You should not allow 48 hours to go by before they hear from you. All those business cards at the bottom of your purse are potential cash you are leaving on the table. Use social media sites such as LinkedIn to quickly connect with new people.

Delegate, But Check on Things: You need to delegate tasks to others in order for your business to grow, but you should never completely turn the keys over to someone else. To avoid fraud or theft, sign your own contracts and checks. Stay in contact with key clients to make sure that your customers are being taken care of. You just want to make sure things are running as they should be.

Pay For Coaching: If you want to get up and rolling on something new, it's best to hire someone who already is an expert so they can teach you what you need to know and all the shortcuts. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Think about how much time it will take you to learn something on your own, versus hiring a consultant or coach who can cut down your learning curve to three to six months. Time is money, so use your time in the most effective way possible.

Trust Your Gut: There have been several times over the years when I had opportunities that looked great, but something in my gut kept warning me not to proceed. Listen to your gut; I believe this is God's way of protecting you. Trust is the #1 thing you are looking for in any business relationship. If something feels wrong, it is wrong so you should keep it moving.

Get Three Quotes and References: There are lots of great sales people out there. They will sell you the world, but you still need to check it out. Talk to at least three people who have worked with their company to make sure it's not all hype and ask to see samples of work product. The same is true for potential employees. There are people out here who are great at interviewing, but be sure to check their references before making an offer of employment.

Systematize Your Processes: No one will ever be able to come work for you successfully if you don't have systems written down. Figure out how you do things in your small business. Routine tasks and standard operations should be written down so they can be taught and consistently completed. Sustainable businesses do not wing it.

Hand Written Notes Are Effective: I still write hand written notes to new contacts I meet and I often get a great response. I also write personal thank you notes to customers. In the era of email and social media a hand written note is a great way to stand out in the crowd.

Don't Waste Time Looking at Your Competition: I do not worry about the competition. I always get what I need in my business. There have been many times when I thought my firm was going to get a contract, we worked on the deal for months and then things fell apart at the last minute. Of course, it always happens when we really needed a new contract, but some then something else comes along that is bigger and better. I've learned that there's enough for everyone, and what God had for me is for me.

Be Relentlessly Consistent: The #1 reason why I am still in business today is because I am relentlessly consistent. I do want I say I'm going to do, and if there's an issue I make sure that I communicate it up front. I don't have clients looking for me if there's an issue. Too many small businesses out here do not keep their word. They let people down by not showing up or by doing shoddy work. Stand behind your work or your product even if it costs you money to fix a problem.

You Never Lose in Business: The best lesson I've learned about running a small business is that you never lose in business, either you win or you learn. Don't think about failures as mistakes, think of them as learning opportunities. There are plenty of lessons still to learn.

Hopefully this hard learned wisdom will give you the advice you need to get to 15+ years in business.

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Melinda F. Emerson, SmallBizLady  is America's #1 small business expert. She is an author, speaker and small business coach whose areas of expertise include small business start-up, business development and social media marketing. She writes a weekly column for the New York Times, publishes a resource blog, which is syndicated through the Huffington Post. She also hosts a weekly talk show on Twitter called #SmallBizChat for small business owners. As a brand, she reaches 1.5 million entrepreneurs a week on the internet. As CEO of Quintessence Multimedia, Melinda develops audio, video and written content to fulfill her mission to end small business failure. Forbes Magazine named Melinda Emerson one of the #1 Woman for Entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter. Melinda has been featured on MSNBC, Fox News, NBC Nightly News, and in Fortune, The Washington Post, USA TodayWall Street Journal and Black Enterprise. She is the bestselling author of "Become Your Own Boss in 12 months; A Month-by-Month Guide to a Business That Works," and the ebook How to Become a Social Media Ninja; 101 Ways to Dominate Your Competition Online.