YOU NEVER get a second chance to make a good first impression.Most people take just 5-20 seconds to determine another person”s value, says management development and training consultant Judith Poulteney.

 “Women tend to underplay their abilities and apologise too much,” she says. “They worry about sounding arrogant when all people want is a professional and competent service.

 “First impressions are formed by your appearance, body language and tone of voice in the first 60 seconds of a meeting. You should maintain a consistent approach following on from that first meeting.”

positive approach

 Devices to achieve a positive approach include remembering to use “will” rather than “could” or “might”.

 “Say what you can do, not what you can”t. Often people explain what they can do, but not why it is a good idea,” says Judith.

“Never put yourself down by using phrases like I know we”re only a small business but…, I”m just a farm secretary…, I hope…, I”ll try… or I”ve only been doing this for…” Say what you can do, not what you can”t.”

 Whether for existing or new farmer customers, those offering services need to be able to provide good reasons as to how they will benefit the business.

For this to succeed, you need to know what motivates the owner or manager of the business, and make sure you are both heading in the same direction, says Judith. “People are drawn to others who hold similar values to their own.”

 CHARGES HAVE always been something of a taboo among farm secretaries, according to Shirley Hidderley, the chairman of this year”s IAgSA conference.

 They are what everyone wants to talk about but the subject is rarely broached, she reckons.

 Most are working for rates between 15 and 25 an hour. Anyone charging less than this isn”t thinking properly about the future of their business, says Shirley. But there is also a vast difference in the services provided within this price range.

Sheila Fallows, of accountant Mitten Clarke urges people to consider exactly what their target market is by looking at the levels of service they are expected to provide. “For example, are they providing a general bookkeeping service across many types of business, or is it a more specialist farming service including, for example, livestock movement records, cattle passports, RPA and grant forms?”

For some of the work which their secretaries carry out, farmers might expect to pay a consultant far more than the rate being charged by the secretary, points out Sheila.

 To make sure they are in the right area of charging, she suggests they compare their skills, experience and rates with those for others doing comparable work.

 For example, payroll personnel could be earning anywhere between 14,000 and 26,000, an accounting technician 11,000-17,000, an accountant”s clerk 13,000-19,000, a part qualified accountant 15,000-20,000.

 “Many farm secretaries would be performing a similar role to an unqualified accountant with experience, who would be earning anywhere from 15,000 to 23,000.

 “They can calculate, based on a working year of say 47 weeks, what their hourly rate should be for their labour using these guidelines. Many will be working part time, perhaps working up to 30 chargeable hours a week. On top of that hourly rate, they have to account for their costs – training, travelling (although some have a set rate for travelling time), investment in equipment, insurance and car costs. These also have to be covered to ensure they are not selling themselves short in the market.

 “They also need to ask the question: How can I make myself worth more? In some cases, this will mean improving existing skills, investing in better computer software, perhaps training to cover new areas of work for existing customers.

 “Alternatively, some may want to charge a basic rate for certain work and another for more demanding or sophisticated jobs,” says Sheila. “They could consider a separate rate for payroll work, based on the number of employees, or they could structure their services in bundles, operating at different rates depending on what is included in each level.”

 DENISE HAMPLETT manages to combine a career in NHS human resources with running her own business selling replica farm implement toys from the farm which her husband runs (he also has a builders” merchant business).

For some farm businesses, a formal contract with their farm secretary will be necessary, says Denise, but at the very least the initial meeting and agreement to employ should be followed up with a letter outlining the discussion and what was agreed.

 “Don”t be afraid to set out in your letter that you expect a clear and warm office space to work in – your comfort may not always be considered.”

Because of the pressures of farming today, farmers are not always the best communicators, but understanding the customer”s expectations of you is key, and you must spend some time on this fundamental aspect of the working relationship, she advises.

 “Show an interest in the farm beyond the office so you can understand about the business. It is a good idea not just to look at the office but look round the yard, at the stock, ask to be taken round the crops.”

  FARMERS ARE becoming increasingly isolated as farm labour reduces so farm secretaries are often expected to cope with anything at the drop of a hat, says Lynn Briggs.

 “The professional relationship can often verge into friendship,” says Lynn, a mobile farm secretary and chair of the Staffs branch of IAgSA. “It”s important to be professional, but sometimes you have to have your personal hat on too.”

Providing this sort of emotional support to farmers on a regular basis is by far the biggest challenge which farm secretaries face, points out consultant Henry Montgomery, based at All Stretton near Shrewsbury.