Every home-based business owner I know is looking for some kind of professional service provider. Some need long-term help from accountants or attorneys; others want short-term project work from graphic artists and printers.

Regardless of what kind of service they need, most business owners either don't have a current provider or want to replace their current vendor with a better one.

In part, finding good vendors is difficult because reliable information sources are few and far between. Phone directories are a natural resource, but listings are often outdated; research my firm recently completed shows that up to 50 percent of listings can have errors.

Another challenge is finding businesses that want to serve small companies. Printers, designers and many other professionals often want to work with larger companies that have bigger budgets.

Most home-based business owners need reliable vendors to grow but don't have a lot of spare time to research these companies. To help with this perennial challenge, I have assembled a list of efficient ways to find and to evaluate vendors serving small-business owners.

While finding the right provider still takes work, using these resources as a starting point provides a shortcut in the process.

-Referrals. I've long touted the benefit of networking for business needs, and finding qualified providers is no exception. The key is to contact vendors or peers whose standards match yours.

You can call someone you know or contact a stranger who is using the type of vendor you need. For example, if you need a service such as printing and if you receive a mailer that you like, call the company it's from to find out who created it.

-WhoseArmy. Over the past six months I've worked to develop an online directory of service providers called WhoseArmy.com. This site is directed at small-business owners exclusively, which means all the vendors within it welcome small-business customers.

It is designed to make the hunt for quality providers more efficient by allowing users to search its listings according to a number of criteria, including special services, payment options and certifications. In addition, the site carries customer ratings so you can read testimonials from vendors' existing clients. Check it out at www.whosearmy.com.

-Trade associations. Some industry groups maintain lists of service providers that the majority of their members need. These may include accountants, attorneys and recruiters. Trade association lists are usually more valuable than lists from other sources because they include vendors with direct experience in a specific field. This means these providers are more likely to be familiar with your company's needs and have probably helped other businesses deal with challenges similar to your own.

-Former co-workers and business contacts. When you're faced with a hard-to-fill need, take a moment to think of specialists you've worked with in the past who might be able to handle the job.

For example, if you need a graphic artist, a former co-worker or contractor who filled this role at your last company could be a resource. Even if the individual is still employed full-time, he or she might be interested in taking on freelance work on the side. If not, he or she might be able to recommend another reliable resource.

-Other business groups. Go directly to the trade associations that specialize in the vendor type you want. For example, a graphic artists' or accountants' association can provide you with vendor names in your city. Some of these groups.

Alice Bredin is author of the "Virtual Office Survival Handbook" (John Wiley & Sons) and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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