Archive for September, 2007

Authenticity

Authenticity.

Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

I really like this word because when all is said and done, business is about people.

And in this day and age of the mile-long, hyped-up, disingenuous, contrived and calculating sales page, authenticity always catches us by surprise — very pleasantly so.

So what is authenticity all about?

Well, I love how John More of Brand Autopsy describes it. When asked about his pick (authenticity) by Scott Ginsberg for the RainToday.com article The Most Important Word in Marketing, Part II, More answers:

“With the world becoming one gigantic ad, consumers today can sniff out anything that smells the least bit fake and inauthentic. Success will come truer and faster if companies can design products, programs, and services that are authentic in meaning, purpose, and delivery.”

Explaining a bit more deeply about what that meant, he states:

“Authenticity is usually a by-product of a purpose-driven business. And, unfortunately, there ain’t enough businesses out there with the purpose of making a positive difference in the world.”

Words to live by.

Authenticity never goes out of style; it comes from within, and there’s no purchase necessary.

You Get Back What You Put In

I always have to chuckle at folks who are so shocked when their inquiries are not met with fawning attention.

What am I talking about?

We get hundreds of requests for membership to my Virtual Assistant association each month. Not everyone is a fit because we have a very defined, specific scope of who we represent. Who is not a fit is often made painfully clear to us.

For example, we sometimes have people apply for membership who can not spell. And I’m not talking about a typo here or there—-we’re seeing stuff sometimes that literally borders on illiteracy. It’s very sad, but we can’t help those folks, and our organization can not and will not represent them.

We sometimes get folks who clearly are not Virtual Assistants, although they think they are. Sorry, but if you’re in the web design business, you’re a web designer, not a Virtual Assistant, and the same goes for bookkeeping, transcription and transaction-based secretarial services.

We also sometimes get folks who don’t bother to read the instructions, and then want to consume our time with questions that are already clearly answered on that page.

You get back what you put into this life. And in this same vein, if someone can’t be bothered to read what we’ve outlined so that they know what steps to take and what will happen next in membership process, we aren’t going to be bothered to assist them.

As professional Virtual Assistants, you are going to be called upon to utilize critical thinking. You need to pay attention. You need to be masterfully skilled. And to have courtesy extended to you, you have to extend that courtesy in the first place (such as reading the information that is clearly indicated to you to read).

We have standards around competence and quality, folks. You are absolutely not entitled to waste someone else’s time. And no client is going to waste a precious second of their time, energy and dollars on anyone who doesn’t have the competence to pay attention and demontrate professionalism and copetence.

Dear Danielle: What Are You Suggestions for Online Networking?

Dear Danielle:

I’m just starting my administrative support business, and I’d like to develop some solid sources for online networking. Any suggestions? —TO

This is a trick answer because it’s going to require more thought, research and work than you probably expected. 😉

In order to figure out where to best spend your business time networking online, you first need to know who you’re looking to work with.

Who is your target market (a target market is simply an industry/field/profession that you cater your admin support for). What professional associations do they belong to? What publications do they read? Do they have business groups and functions they attend in concentrated numbers? Where do they hang out online and off?

Research these things and you’ll begin to find all kinds of avenues in which to meet and interact with your target market.

Keep in mind that as a solopreneur, you want to invest your efforts in those that yield the highest, most effective returns.

If you try networking in generalized networking pools (e.g., LinkedIn, Ryze, etc.), it can be like throwing a pebble into a vast ocean. Hardly anyone pays attention to the ripple.

When you “target” your efforts in a smaller pool, but one that is filled with a larger number of your intended clientele, your potential opportunities are vastly increased. You begin to understand their business better and speak their language. By getting to know your target market, you can better identify their needs and create solutions for them.

So the more narrowed and specialized the focus of the networking platform is (i.e., geared toward your target market), the better it will be for you as a source of potential clients and business.

Once you find those targeted networking avenues, PARTICIPATE.

People do business with and send referrals to those they’ve come to know, like and trust. That won’t happen unless you get in the game and put yourself out there.

One other little tip: Go in with the intent of making friends, not business.

You will quickly find yourself ignored if you start trying to “sell” to people right off the bat (no one likes being sold to).

Instead, contribute to conversations. Let folks get to know you and your thoughts and ideas. Offer your own advise and suggestions when the opportunity presents itself.

Go in with the mindset of making new friends, not transacting business and looking and treating everyone as your next food source.

People will be much more interested in what you do, and find you more interesting, as a result.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

Thinking along the lines of the last Dear Danielle question, I was reflecting on how often I hear colleagues talk about all the project work they do, but never getting ahead.

When I say project work, I’m talking about the one-off transactions done for transient clients on a one-time, sporadic or occasional basis as opposed to ongoing administrative support provided within the framework of continuous monthly relationship with clients.

The complaints I hear so often involving project work generally fall into the category of profitability and lifestyle.

For example, a colleague will come to me explaining she’s been advised that project work “pays the bills” when you gotta keep the lights on, feed the kids, pay the rent, etc.

The problem with that strategy is that it’s not a strategy at all. It’s more like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

It’s simply reacting to the immediate circumstances—the need for cash—rather than proactively planning, setting foundations and working in a way that’s going to build long-term sustainability and profitability and create a business that meets both your long-term financial AND emotional/happiness needs.

What does that mean?

Well, when a colleague comes to me with this kind of question, the first thing I ask her to think about is what she wants for her life and what kind of business would support that vision?

The answer is generally something to the effect of “I want to be self-employed; my business is as much about making an excellent living doing work I enjoy as it is affording me the time and freedom to live the way I want.”

Most are not interested in “creating an empire.”

When that’s the case, the next thing I get them to think about is how to go about their business so that they can achieve those things.

The answer lies being smart about the kind of work you take on, the kind of clients you work with, and the platform from which you deliver your services. It’s going to involve charging profitably and setting the kind of standards, boundaries, policies and procedures that allow you to work effectively, earn well and live well.

Profitability and being intentional in your business model are the two things that are going to give you choices in your business.

So, if you are on a constant treadmill of project work, with constant turnaround of consultations, proposals, contracts and deadlines to manage, when are you going to have time to do the things you enjoy?

How much harder do you have to work and market to keep those projects coming in?

When will you find time to work ON your business?

If you are working at the beck and call of clients, how much freedom does that give you to call the shots in your business?

How much more freedom and flexibility would you have if you started working with clients as an administrative expert and focused exclusively on that work instead of thinking of yourself and working with them as an assistant?

If you aren’t charging profitably, how is that going to help you build long-term financial gain?

If you decided to work in ongoing collaboration with clients (which is the definition of administrative support) instead of sporadic project work, how would your own administrative chores and processes decrease in your business?

Would your cashflow be improved?

How much better would your service be to clients because you are growing a meaningful shared body of knowledge of their business that in turn allows you to serve them better and improve their business?

How more value would they find in that?

Would that higher value allow you to charge more for your expertise?

And if you were making more money, can you imagine how that would enable you to work with fewer clients and thereby have more freedom in your business and your life?

What could you do with that increased time and freedom? Create new products for your clients that held passive income opportunities for you? Work in a more relaxed, less stressful manner? Take on choice projects as you see fit instead of having no choice about the projects you take on because you “need the money?” Take a vacation when you felt like it?!

Food for thought. 😉

Dear Danielle: When Should I Make the Leap?

Dear Danielle:

I am looking into starting my own Virtual Assistant business. I’m wanting a change so bad, but am quite nervous about giving up my full-time job. How do I move forward? —AT

You don’t mention where you are at in the process of starting a business or how much you’ve researched the industry. This can be a wonderful business and life to be in, but there is much hard work involved, especially in the preliminary stages.

Have you put together a business plan?

Have you decided on a target market? (This may change, often several times, throughout the life of your business, but you need to know who you are talking specifically to in order to create a compelling, irresistible marketing message and have some focus and direction for your marketing and networking efforts.)

Have you outlined a profile of your ideal and UN-ideal client? (This will help you get clear and conscious about who you most want to work with and how to recognize each when they show up at your door.)

How about the foundations in your business? What’s important to you in your life? What kind of pace do you want in your business? How much money do you want or need to make? Have you established standards in your business that are in alignment with those things that are important to you? What about policies that make your business run efficiently and cost-effectively? What will be the systems and processes you use to keep everything running smoothly and profitably (these will be ever-evolving during the life of your business, but you need to establish at least some basic level of these things to begin).

Have you developed any of the paper forms you will need in your business such as contracts and agreements? How will you handle payments from clients? Do you have operating capital or savings to live on until your business becomes self-sustaining?

It takes time to become established. Many Virtual Assistants don’t land their first client for many months, sometimes longer.

Now, while you are still employed and have money coming in, is a great time to work out these ideas, solidify them into tangible documentation and systems, and set up your business foundation.

By taking these steps now, before you finally take the leap, you’ll be setting yourself up for ease and success instead of hardship and failure.

What Does Your Pricing Say About Your Business?

Do you value what you do?

Do you hold it in high esteem?

Is what you do less worthy of respect than any other professional service?

Is it flunky work? Or does administrative support require every bit of critical thinking, experience, knowledge, talent, intelligence, and problem-solving skills as any other professional expertise?

What is the worth of your 10, 20, 30 years developing your skill, competence and expertise? What value does that hold for clients?

Your pricing will subliminally, but directly, answer these questions in the minds of your prospects and clients.

It’s one of the critical ways you shape their perception about the value of your expertise and what you offer.

If you don’t value what you do, clients sure as heck aren’t going to.

If you price too low, you focus clients on price instead of the results you achieve for them.

If you price too low, you risk coming across as a cheap commodity instead of a valuable professional service.

If you price too low, you will get more price-shoppers than quality-shoppers.

When you price appropriately, you get a whole other caliber of client. It’s the same difference between Nordstroms and Walmart.

Low price is a seduction, but one that rarely leads to anything more meaningful (or profitable) than a one-night stand.

If you understand that long-term business relationships, higher profits, and business happiness are integral to success in the solo administrative support business, make sure your pricing is in alignment with those values.

Children love candy and would eat it all the time if we let them. Does that mean it’s good parenting to feed them candy and junkfood whenever they want?

Of course not.

We’d have cranky, spoiled, demanding children bouncing off the walls and driving us crazy, wouldn’t we?

And neither should you let clients pressure you into devaluing what you do for them and pricing too low.

If a prospect is serious about their business, and you do a good job of illustrating the results you can achieve for them, pricing your services professionally and profitably is NOT going to deter them.

Dear Danielle: Are Background Checks Necessary?

Dear Danielle:

A client I have been consulting with now wants me to submit to a background check before deciding whether to work with me or not. Is this customary? —DE

Uh, that would be a big NOPE, it’s not customary at all.

You aren’t going to be this client’s employee (“client” being the operative word here, not “employer”).

Even though your support to clients is very closely collaborative and personal, this still boils down to commerce between two businesses, plain and simple.

You both choose to do business together according to the usual standards of business — not employment — or you don’t work together.

Clients should be exercising their due diligence and choosing an Administrative Consultant based on qualifications, expertise, chemistry and business fit.

That is accomplished by reading the business information on your website, reviewing testimonials, going through your consultation process.

But a background check… no, I think not. And if they choose to work with you and realize it’s not a fit, they simply take their business elsewhere.

This kind of request is a strong signal that the client lacks the understanding that you are NOT their “worker” or employee, but in fact are a vendor.

Do they seriously ask all their vendors to submit to background checks? Unless they are some kind of defense contractor or something, it’s a ridiculous idea.

We’ve had this same conversation many times in our industry.

One member even reported a recent prospective client wanted her to submit to a drug test!

Another member joked that if a client asked her to submit to a background check, she’d tell them, “I’m happy to meet your requirements. However, in the spirit of reciprocity, I require prospective clients to submit to a drug screen, personal back ground check AND business credit check, as well as psychological testing.”

We all laughed, but you know, that just might get the point across indeed.

Joking aside, here’s my advice (use this an an opportunity to make improvements in your business):

  1. Decline the request. It’s not appropriate and far too invasive.
  2. Set this client straight about the relationship (i.e., a business-to-business one, NOT employment)
  3. Improve your client education process and information. This client clearly thinks you are some kind of employee, which means you haven’t done a proper job of educating them. The fact that this client even requested this and thought it was appropriate signals the fact that your website content, processes and interactions are lacking and needs to be clarified.

Hope that helps 🙂

Ixnay on the Spam Filters, eh!

Yes, spam is a problem. If you use email, you know what I’m talking about.

I don’t have any new solutions, but I do want to say that I think we shoot ourselves in the foot with some of the spam-fighting tools out there.

Take spam filters, for instance. You know, the ones that require those who email you to fill out a form for their email to be “approved.”

These are incredibly offputting.

I can’t imagine doing this to clients, and especially not prospects!

This puts your spam burden onto those who want to correspond with you (you know, like those pesky clients and prospects).

Why on earth would you want to make it more difficult for them to do business with you? How many will simply move on to contact someone else where communication isn’t such a chore?

On top of this, I have found that many folks using these spam filters lose incredible amounts of legitimate email even after you have confirmed and been approved by them to send email through.

I can’t tell you how much ill will it creates to get really spotty, unreliable responses, or to send message after message, get no response, and then find out later that they were never received in the first place.

I think we have to continue to fight spam and do everything we can sort legitimate email from the spam (such as making use of rules, reporting spoofs and phishers, and adding spam emails to our blocked senders lists).

But to my thinking, spam filters are not the answer, and putting your spam problems onto the shoulders of clients and prospects is definitely not the solution.

The Problem With Autoresponders

I’m not talking about autoresponder services like the Aweber. Autoresponders are a fantastic tool in your business; if you haven’t yet, I encourage you to explore the myriad possibilities they present for your business and marketing right away!

What I’m referring to are those simple autoresponders that most hosting packages provide for where you can set up a generic message that will automatically be sent to anyone who happens to email the address you set it up on.

Used appropriately, they can be a useful—albeit limited—tool to facilitate communication.

But having recently been on the receiving end of someone’s autoresponders when they went on vacation, I can tell you for sure that they can be annoying as all get-out when used without foresight.

I also spent the last week trying to communicate with someone whose autoresponder was doing a great job of telling me she’d get back to me within 24 hours. Not only did I get the same impersonal, generic message every time I emailed her, she also never got back to me, even after an entire week!

I surely don’t appreciate having my IN-box cluttered up with unnecessary messages that create more work for me and my assistants to delete. And if we find it annoying, just think what your clients and prospects trying to communicate with you will think!

Before adding an autoresponder to your business email, think it through carefully.

Will it be more annoying than helpful to those who email you? What do your clients and prospects really think about them? If you begin an email exchange beyond initial contact, are they getting your generic autoresponder every single time they email you? How annoying or offputting might they find that?!

If you are intent on using an autoresponder, here’s what you might do:  Create a special email address, one that’s connected and used ONLY in very specific situations, such as your online client contact form, for example. That way, anyone using that form would get the autoresponder only once. If you then begin an email dialogue, you could switch to your regular business email address, the one with no autoresponder attached.