Archive for February, 2007

Dear Danielle: Am I Charging Too Much?

Dear Gritty VA:

I have been scouting ads and looking for people who are looking for a Virtual Assistant, and I keep coming across ads where people are only willing to pay $12.00 an hour. Is this normal? No one charges $12.00 an hour do they? –MB

I’m curious about the ads you are looking at and where? In my area, Virtual Assistance is still basically an unknown commodity.

Are you really finding ads where business owners are specifically asking for Virtual Assistants? That would be awesome, but I have a feeling that the ads you are seeing are looking for traditional employees.

$12/hr is an employee’s wage, not the fee of someone who is in business as an independent professional.

And why are you scouting employment ads anyway instead of networking and building relationships with people who could be clients and referral partners?

When introducing people to the idea of Virtual Assistance, the biggest benefits we offer are the cost-effectiveness, the convenience and the high quality skill sets a Virtual Assistant is expected to have.

Employees cost an employer much, much more than their mere hourly rate. And they are making more than just that hourly rate when you figure in benefits such as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, vacations, sick leave and any other perks offered.

They are paid for being physically present, whether they are productive or not, and we all know that there is all kinds of downtime in a job such as being caught up and having nothing to do, coffee breaks, watercooler chit chat, sick days and vacations.

But all in all, comparing employee wages to an independant professional’s service fees is apples and oranges—two completely different animals. You’ve got to get out of the employee mindset and start thinking like a business owner seeking clients, not employers. Network with people in your target markets. Emphasize the value, benefits, quality and cost-effectiveness of our services.

Set your rates with an eye toward what will profitably sustain your business and provide the income level you desire. I would worry more about your rates being too low because not only does that send a negative message about the quality and level of your services, low rates won’t allow your business to be profitable.

Otherwise, you won’t be in business long, and you’ll be back to the employment ads looking for a J-O-B.

How Do You Start an Administrative Support Business?

I get asked this on an almost daily basis.

It’s not a simple question and far too general, but basically you start up an administrative support business the same way you start up any business:

You spend time reading, researching, doing your homework and getting your ducks in a row.

You go through the exercise of putting together a business plan to make sure you are fully aware and conscious of all that is involved in getting up and running.

And you need to be realistic, too. It can take months or even over a year before you land that first client.

The more preparation you do in establishing a firm foundation for your business, before you open your doors to accept clients, and the better you are at marketing and networking and talking to people, the quicker your chances of establishing your client base.

Of course, you first have to have a high level of administrative experience and qualification. Anyone who doesn’t have that, doesn’t have any business taking people’s money.

To being, talk with your state and local agencies to find out what they require from you and what your obligations are as a business owner. You may need to get registered, licensed and pay business taxes.

One of the biggest obstacles to success is the lack of business sense and understanding. So many are stuck in employee mindset, often not even realizing it.

Running a business, any business, is more than just providing the services. You have to know how to deal with clients. You have to know how to devise operations, procedures and processes that contribute to the smooth running of the business. You have to understand how profitability works.

My organization has tons of information on its pages to help you understand what administrative support as a business is all about and how to get started.

My organization also offers foundational forms, contract templates and business guides. These are the very best forms in our industry, and cover all the concepts involved in working with clients. In and of themselves, they offer some of the best education and information for starting a Virtual Assistant business.

We’ve even got a business plan template specific to our industry which is probably the single-most important document to get your Virtual Assistant business started.

If you have more specific business questions about starting up, shoot them over to me and I’ll post my answers here on the blog.

Don’t Lead with Industry Jargon

I know you’ve heard this one as many times as I have:

“I’m so tired of telling people I’m a Virtual Assistant and having their eyes glaze over.”

That’s because you are using industry jargon instead of telling people what you do, who you do it for and how it helps them.

If you are a Virtual Assistant, you should leading off with something like this:

“I’m an administrative expert who helps small business owners who are struggling to manage everything themselves, and who don’t have the time or space for in-house support. I work in ongoing collaborative parternship with clients to help them grow their business, be more productive and efficient and have more time for life. I’m one of the ‘Big Three’ experts that all business owners should be partnering with: their attorney, their accountant, and me, their Virtual Assistant.”

You tell them what you do, and then give them the term for it at the end.

This kind of explanation also helps distinguish Virtual Assistance from secretarial services, which provide project-oriented, task-based services.

What a Grateful Day!

It’s a grateful day today!

I literally LOVE my life, and constantly marvel at how lucky I am to be able to make my living being my own boss and doing work I love from my cute little office.

I’ve established a foundation in my business in a manner that allows me great freedom and flexibility. Not that there isn’t hard work involved (of course, there is!), and sometimes I need to be nose-to-the-grindstone.

But the beauty of it is that since I enjoy my work and the circumstances of my work so much, it’s not work at all. In fact, sometimes, it’s all anyone can do to tear me away from my desk, LOL.

When it’s important to me to do so, I can step away when I feel like it, take a nap according to my natural rhythms, go on my daily hike, or take off for a little road trip or paddle.

How many people can say they get to life their lives on their own terms like that? The ones who do are very fortunate. I am fortunate indeed, and wish everyone could experience this kind of happiness and joy for living!

The other day I was chatting with a client. He and his wife finally sold their brick and mortar business, and are now embarking on a months-long, extended tour of the country in their RV, all the while continuing their virtual business operations.

There are so many adventures in store, and I’m so excited for them. We were talking about how sad it is that so many people live and die working for “da man,” giving up on their dreams of savoring life in whatever way truly makes them feel alive… perhaps never even daring to have those dreams, all the while slaving away day in and day out in soul-less, mind-numbing jobs that won’t ever give them the opportunity or financial freedom to LIVE.

What a fantastic lifestyle us Administrative Consultants get to live, wouldn’t you say?!

What Do Clients Want?

Professionals!

I can’t tell you how many times I hear from business owners how frustrated they are with Virtual Assistants who don’t “own” their role as the administrative experts.

If you are just sitting around waiting for clients to tell you what to do, you are nothing more than an employee.

Clients who are seeking Virtual Assistants, TRUE Virtual Assistants, don’t want an employee—they want an expert who not only competently executes work and manages projects, but also commands their own business.

Clients want and expect us as the Virtual Assistant administrative experts to guide them, to have some answers and to lead the way by their side toward instilling strong administrative foundations in their business.

I’ll share some comments I received most recently from a business owner:

“I have worked with Virtual Assistants for the past year, but I am not finding the perfect fit for both of us. I am definitely looking for someone who sees me as a client and partner, rather than a paycheck. I need a professional who has the entrepreneurial, pro-active leadership, but I have been attracting Virtual Assistants who still have an employee-follower mentality.

“I don’t mind a short learning curve, but I can’t do the hand-holding past Virtual Assistants have required. I need someone who can basically hit the ground running and start moving some tasks off my plate. Rather than me giving them a checklist and constantly following up to make sure the tasks are done within the deadlines, I would love someone who gives me a list of the things they need from me to get going and checks in to tell me tasks are completed.”

As the founder of the Virtual Assistance Chamber of Commerce, and a practicing Virtual Assistant, I hear this lament from business owners over and over.

Helping Virtual Assistants free themselves from the shackles of employee-mindset and lead them into true business ownership—and true service to clients—is one of the foremost goals of my organization.

I recently shared some of my best kept secrets to Virtual Assistant business ownership and success in my new guide, “Getting and Keeping Clients–The Plan.” (This is GDE-34 in our forms store.)

Getting and keeping clients is really all about knowing how to work with clients and manage expectations. In this guide, I provide you with meaty information and ideas for creating your “Red Carpet Treatment” plan, implementing a system for ramping up with new clients, and establishing your operational strategy that leads to profitability and client satisfaction.

Virtual Assistance is leaving adolescence and entering adulthood as a profession. Will you be left behind?

You’re Not an Employee So Stop Complying with Resume Requests

Virtual Assistants, I’ve got a secret to share.

Guess what? You are business owners!

I know, I’m being a facetious, but it never ceases to amaze me that as business owners, many Virtual Assistants continue to market and conduct themselves as if they were potential employees.

Professionals don’t submit resumes to prospective clients. Your website and marketing collateral become your “resume” when you are a business owner. These are the things that demonstrate your knowledge, expertise, communication skills and business sensibility. It’s up to clients to decide to talk with you further in a consultation based on these professional representations of your service—not a resume.

Complying with requests for resumes only serves to reinforce the common misconception among clients that Virtual Assistants are some form of offsite employee. And then you wonder why you are constantly treated like an employee? Stop it!

And Virtual Assistants, stop asking your colleagues for their resumes! If you are looking for someone to outsource or subcontract to, or want to hire your own Virtual Assistant to assist you in your practice, please respect each other as professionals.

You should be going about this process like any other client would be expected to. Do you ask your contractor for a resume? Your attorney? Accountant?

Of course not!

As a consumer of professional services (and as a fellow Virtual Assistant, no less!), you should be doing your own homework like you would when looking to hire any professional. By asking around for referrals. By reading the professional’s website and marketing materials. By paying attention to testimonials and talking with past clients. By scheduling a consultation and asking relevant questions.

Of course, if you are looking to hire an employee, then by all means ask for a resume. (And don’t forget your responsibilities as an employer, like paying all the attendant payroll taxes, agency compliances and expense reimbursements).

Just please stop confusing independent professionals with employees.

Dear Danielle: Client Hasn’t Paid; Now What Do I Do?

Dear Danielle:

It’s time for me to invoice a client for a project I am working on, and I have not received payment for the previous project yet. How should I handle this? —MM

First, stop all work for this client immediately. Second, you need to have a business heart-to-heart with your client.

But beforehand, do a little self-examination.

Clients will only develop the expectations and habits that we allow them to. Consider how you began working with this client.

Did you have an expectation for a commitment? Or did you just accept project work because you feel you need to offer your services piecemeal in order to entice clients? Do you believe yourself 100% that your service and value stand on their own merits and you deserve to be paid?

Did you clearly communicate to the client your expectations and business policies both verbally and in writing?

Were you confident, direct and assertive in your billing and collection practices? Or did you “train” the client that it is not a priority to pay you on time by not addressing the first late payment immediately, or being vague, indirect or just plain wishy-washy?

Often, we ourselves have as much to do with an issue as the client we at first think is the evil culprit. And recognizing the hand we had in creating the problem has as much to do with the solution as anything else. This is the only way you can learn from it, fix where you went wrong and then institute those improvements in your policies, practices and communications so that you and your clients can work together more happily and cooperatively from that point forward.

Now, about that “coming to Jesus” talk with your client. Be friendly. Be professional. Be polite. There’s no need to be upset, out of control or rude (remember, more than likely, your own past practices may have contributed to the issue at hand). But do be clear and assertive.

Remind them that there is a past due amount. Explain that it is your policy to discontinue work until all past due amounts are paid (which should also be added to your contract if it’s not already). Let them know that you expect payment immediately, and get their commitment to pay you before the end of the day.

If that is not forthcoming, you can have a little relational conversation with them, but do make it clear that no further work will be done until the funds are received in full for the previously invoiced work as well as the current invoice. Reiterate that your end of the bargain was doing the work, and their end is to pay on time. Remind them of whatever late fees or penalties they will incur by not paying immediately (and then follow-through).

Document this conversation and their explanations, and follow it up with an email summarizing what they’ve stated they are going to do and what you have agreed to.

If the payment doesn’t show, be prepared to follow through with whatever you’ve informed them will occur (e.g., work stoppage, work product held in lien, turned over to attorney for collections, etc.).

On another note, this is yet another case study for not working with clients on a pay-as-you-go basis. If you never ask for the commitment, you won’t ever get it. To get it, all you have to do is simply decide that you will only work with retainer clients who are ready to commit to an ongoing relationship and who pay the monthly fee upfront.

You’d be amazed at how well “ask and ye shall receive” works.

If you settle for sporadic, occasional project work with clients who aren’t invested in any kind of business relationship, that’s what exactly what you’ll continue to get. ;)

How Do I Sign Up For a Virtual Assistant Position?

Dear Danielle:

I’m interested in becoming a Virtual Assistant. I have many years of experience as an executive assistant, and would like to try working from home. I’ve set up cross-country conferences/events, traveled to those events, prepared/monitored budgets and performed other routine administrative functions. Please provide me information about what is required to sign up for a position. —BT

I’m not sure why this misunderstanding continues to persist, but I welcome the opportunity to clarify whenever it arises.

Virtual Assistance is not a “position.” Telecommuting jobs are “positions.”

Virtual Assistance is a profession. It’s a business that one decides to enter into.

The Virtual Assistance Chamber of Commerce is not in any way associated with telecommuting (work-from-home) jobs. Virtual Assistants are independent business owners who work for themselves and market like any other business to attract their own clients. My organization is an association of these professionals to support them in those efforts and help them build smarter, more successful businesses.

If you are interested in Virtual Assistance as a profession, there is a wealth of information on our Virtual Assistant Association website. Spend some time reading all the information presented. That will give you a good initial primer on what Virtual Assistance is and whether it is a profession you’d be interested in pursuing.

Dear Danielle: Where Are My Reports?

Dear Danielle:

I hired a Virtual Assistant and in general, I am satisfied. However, I am dissappointed about the lack of follow-up and progress reports. Is this something that you train your Virtual Assistants how to do? I don’t want to micro-manage, but I do expect reports, and what is being or not being accomplished without having to ask what is happening. –PD

Thanks for contacting me, PD. I’m always happy to provide clearer understanding so that business owners (both clients and Virtual Assistants) can negotiate mutually happy business relationships.

The first thing that is important to understand is that Virtual Assistants are not employees. They don’t “report” to their clients. Virtual Assistants are independent business owners, and how they run their business and what services they provide to their clients is up to each of them individually.

Looking at it another way, would you have this same “issue” with your attorney or accountant or bookkeeper? It is entirely reasonable that you would expect some kind of regular updates from those professionals along with clear and timely communication and follow-up, but you understand that you aren’t their “boss” and they don’t “report” to you. That is the same understanding you should have with your Virtual Assistant.

What I mentor Virtual Assistants to provide clients with at the start of the business relationship is clear communication about what her (or his) business standards, policies and processes are, so that clients know what to expect and how things work. That communication should continue throughout the relationship with regard to staying in contact and keeping clients up-to-date.

It does sound as though the Virtual Assistant you are working with has not offered you a system of communication that is meeting your need for a bit of “progress pulse.” I encourage Virtual Assistants to provide monthly retainer clients (clients they are working together with in ongoing collaborative partnership each month) with a telephone meeting each or every other week. This helps keep communication lines open and allows you to stay in sync with each other with regard to projects, goals, upcoming work and events, etc.

I’m not sure what other kind of “reporting” you feel is necessary, and that will need to be discussed and negotiated between you and your Virtual Assistant. Trust and communication are critical to any relationship, and without those elements, there’s no basis for doing business together. I would encourage you to open up the dialogue and give your Virtual Assistant the opportunity to improve her business and services to you.

Dear Danielle: How Do I Stay Connected to Clients?

Dear Danielle:

How do you stay connected to clients? —DR

It’s important to maintain contact with your retainer clients. What I do is conduct a weekly telephone meeting where we check in, review goals or projects, talk shop or just chit chat.

I reserve one day out of the week for this, and have each client scheduled for the same time each week on this day. This is a effective policy because it helps eliminate and control disruption you can have with phone calls at different times of the week, and at the same time systemizes it.

I use this day for any other virtual meetings or consultations I might need to schedule as well (although when you’ve got a full practice, you’ll find the occasional consult will simply need to be scheduled on a different day).

I then have the whole rest of the week to work on projects and my mind can dive into my work and concentrate fully knowing I don’t have anything that will interrupt me.