Are you in the U.S.? Are you aware of SCORE? The name stands for Service Corps of Retired Executives, a volunteer organization funded by the SBA that offers free counseling and related help to entrepreneurs and small businesses in the United States.

I’ve been one of those SCORE volunteers for about three years now. I notice blog and Twitter SCORE coverage here and there, so I decided this morning that it’s about time I share my “SCORE insider” view of how to use SCORE:

1. Great for starting, fixing or growing your business

SCORE counseling, when done right, can be the exception to all those clichés about free advice: Supposedly you get what you pay for. But in this case, you get experienced people at the tail end of their careers offering to help you with your business for free. Consider the chance to talk to an accountant, banker, or sales or marketing manager, free, about your business. Do you want to validate an idea or ask somebody questions you can’t afford to ask a practicing accountant or consultant, or that you’re afraid to ask your banker? Contact your local SCORE chapter. You can get local contact information at this SCORE location finder page. SCORE includes more than 12,000 volunteer counselors in more than 300 locations.

You don’t necessarily have to get your advice in person. SCORE volunteers offer answers to e-mail questions on the web. Click this link and you’ll see.

And you don’t have to get your advice one-on-one either. A lot of SCORE chapters offer workshops to help. My chapter in Eugene, Ore., does a quarterly workshop that puts a collection of experts (I do the business plan section, and colleagues do sections on basic legal, basic administration, hiring and firing, and marketing). We charge $49 for that, which is barely more than the SCORE costs. We get great reviews. I understand that a lot of the chapters have similar programs. And a lot of chapters have more information on their chapter websites. You can find out by using the SCORE location finder.

SCORE’s main offering is an older person with valuable business experience who can talk to you about your business, or free. These folks can really help you start a business, fix your business or grow your business– especially if you’re new, alone or struggling (you know who you are).

2. Look for advice, not actions, not results

SCORE counselors give advice. They listen and make suggestions. If they can recommend next steps to take, or additional resources, they do. They aren’t free labor, and while they often perform some of the same initial review and assessment services that professional business services (accountants, consultants, etc.) do, they’re going to give you what they can, for free. They’re not going to stick with you through think and thin. They’re best for opinions and suggestions, not actions or results.

By the way, please notice I said “they” and not “we” in this context. While I’ve been a SCORE member for three years, I’ve never done the one-on-one counseling. In my case, unlike the normal SCORE member, I’m not retired, so I don’t have time. I do the business planning section of the workshop every time, and I try to attend e-mails, and occasionally (no promises), I answer e-mails.

3. Shop around. Look for a good match.

One of the best things you want from anybody giving advice is knowing what you don’t know. With SCORE counselors, as with any other collection of successful businesspeople, backgrounds and experience vary. Don’t assume that every SCORE counselor knows everything related to your question, or that the counselor necessarily know what he or she doesn’t know. That “knowing everything” quality isn’t SCORE specific, by the way; it happens with lots of people. You just need to keep it in mind.

Right up front, as you get involved with SCORE counseling, help them help you by defining your needs well and looking for somebody whose experience matches. Ask direct questions: What experience do you have in this area, how does your expertise relate, and is there somebody else in the chapter whose experience and background are a better match?

Here’s an example: For years, long before and after my direct involvement with SCORE, in my business-plan-expert mode I’ve dealt with some people who’ve received really bad business plan advice from random SCORE counselors. Without having the luxury of knowing for sure, I assume what’s happened is that somebody who’s not had much experience related to business planning or entrepreneurship has been answering questions instead of saying he or she doesn’t know. One of these days I’ll post a rant about bankers and accountants and business plans, but that’s not part of this post. And the problem goes way beyond SCORE counselors.

For another example, consider SCORE counselors in light of websites, online marketing and SEO and social media. True, a lot of older people are very involved in social media and the latest and greatest technology. And a lot aren’t. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

4. When in doubt, get a second opinion. And then a third.

The danger here is people taking one SCORE counselor’s word as business gospel. If I’ve learned anything as an alleged business expert for several decades, it’s that expert opinion varies. There are people as qualified as I am in my area of expertise who advise exactly the opposite of what I do. They might be right, and I might be wrong. Think of this as a disclaimer: Results may vary at home. Contents may have shifted during flight.

Conclusion: Don’t settle for a single opinion about anything important, from SCORE or any other source. And that includes this post and my insider view of SCORE.

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Tim BerryTim Berry
Tim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.