Archive for June, 2008

New Category: Unethical Virtual Assistants

I’m starting a new category on my blog here:  Unethical Virtual Assistants.

I think most people are inherently honest. I think others sometimes do wrong things out of ignorance or denial, but if they were made to think about it, they would know in their hearts their actions were wrong, and given the chance will put things to rights.

And then there are those slimeballs who live under rocks and get away with their dishonest, unethical behaviors because no one exposes their actions to see the light of day.

I’m not having it anymore.

It’s a pretty damn sad commentary that the only way to get those kind of people’s attention is to expose them. You can’t appeal to their ethics—because they have none.

So from now on, here’s what happens when someone steals from me and infringes on my intellectual property.

They get one chance and one chance only to make things right as soon as they hear from me.

If they play games or make the choice to not make things right, I will be posting their names and website links and screenshots documenting the evidence of their theft for the the world to see. (To anyone reading, you had better check to see if they’ve stolen anything from YOU).

I will also, of course, then be handing everything over to my intellectual property attorney. And trust me, once you force me to go to that kind of trouble, I’m pretty invested in going for your jugular at that point.

If you have been a victim of thievery by colleagues, I encourage you to do the same.

Take screenshots documenting their theft. Have your attorney issue a cease and desist and file paperwork to have the offending sites taken down. Go after every penny of prosecution and damages that you may be entitled to.

Maybe then not only will be break this growing cycle of thievery, but we can get back to real honesty and integrity in our industry again.

What We Mean by Structure

In a recent post that discussed properly framing your business so the marketplace “gets it,” I reminded those of you in the administrative support business that structure is your friend.

It occurred to me, however, that some people might not understand what I mean by structure.

First, let me emphasize that creating structure is not about boxing you in. On the contrary!

Structure is about erecting a foundation in your business that will support solid weight and give you the space you need to move around.

It’s about establishing standards, policies and procedures.

It’s about systemizing, automating and streamlining those recurring and repetitive processes, workflows and tasks.

It’s about setting and managing proper expectations in clients and giving them parameters and boundaries.

It’s about communicating that information to them.

Structure brings order to chaos. It’s what organizes the disorganized and disjointed. It’s what preserves relationships.

Structure is what will allow you to roll with the punches and go with the flow caused by all the twists and unexpected turns that you WILL confront throughout the life of your business.

Structure is what will allow you to remain flexible and agile. It will prevent your “building” from crumbling to the ground when you encounter setbacks or are forced into detours or course corrections.

Structure is what will give you the time to develop your ideas and work on experiments, as well as the freedom to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Structure is what will allow you to take superior care of clients and do your best work for them.

It’s what will prevent burnout and overwhelm.

Just as importantly, structure is a comfort to clients.

It tells them that yours is an administrative support practice that is set up smartly to serve them and that you are in a committed, legitimate business.

It says that yours is not a fly-by-night operation and they won’t be putting their eggs in a basket that may disappear into thin air tomorrow.

It shows them that you take their interests seriously and have given careful consideration in setting up your business to serve them for the long-haul.

Saying Anything to Get the Business Is a Fast-Track to Downfall

You’ve seen websites like this: newer virtual assistants who are so eager for business they’ll make all kinds of unrealistic promises in order to get clients, any clients, to bite.

They practically promise they can stop the sun from setting and the rain from falling.

Some of the claims and promises they make fall only this short of practically telling clients they’ll peel their grapes and lick their boots.

They don’t understand that they are creating expectations in clients that will be extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, to live up to or manage, and thereby set themselves up for failure. (not to mention, let down the clients who depended on them).

It neither serves nor honors clients (or yourself) to say anything to get the business. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Denise Aday wrote a fantastic article that speaks to this kind of straight-talk: Tough Love Accountability: 4 Golden Rules

Now that’s honesty. Guess what’s great about honesty? It means it is trustworthy.

It’s important to be forthright and realistic about what you can and can’t (or won’t do) for clients and the limitations of your service You want to set healthy boundaries and expectations.

A trustworthy person can be counted on to be consistently truthful and reliable in their words and actions.

Clients of trustworthy people know that they will get straight-up advice and feedback that will truly help them move forward in their business and get things done.

Those who can’t be truthful and honest about reality are often people-pleasers.

People-pleasers think they are being nice. But what’s nice or honorable about dishonesty? Because that’s really what it boils down to: dishonesty.

They’ll say anything just to be nice or get the business, and in the end, there’s nothing nice or helpful about that.

When you lift the facade, people-pleasers are just selfish, self-absorbed and concerned only with their own interests. That’s certainly not client-centric.

Others who can’t be truthful about reality are suffering from a scarcity complex.

Scarcity thinking and poverty mentality are killers, folks.

If you are saying anything to get business, you are letting fear-based thinking get the best of you. It’s saying to yourself, I’m not worthy of ideal clients who respect me and value what I do for them. It’s saying to the universe that you don’t deserve clients who respect and value you and will treat you well.

This kind of thinking is powerfully debilitating.

It will prevent you from growing a business that serves and honors both you and your clients, one that is sustainable, manageable, and will attract the right kind of long-term clients who will truly honor and respect the valuable assistance you provide for them.

Don’t let fear-based thinking guide your words or actions.

Trust that when you instill realistic, reasonable and respectful expectations and are reliably, consistently truthful and upfront, you’ll attract more ideal clients.

You, your business and your clients will reap the benefits a hundredfold. You’ll have better clients and a happier life and business.

What Would You Do: Educating the Marketplace Properly Matters

Here’s the situation…

About a month ago I was approached by someone who is writing a book about successful Virtual Assistants.

She didn’t give me too many details and my usual position is that I have no interest whatsoever in being mentioned in a book unless that book, its context and those involved are in alignment with my standards, values and beliefs regarding our profession and the business we’re in.

This is because who we align ourselves with informs our marketplace and sets their expectations and understandings, rightly or wrongly.

So it matters very much that those you align yourself with are educating clients in a manner that is consistent with what you view as true and proper and responsible.

Otherwise, we just perpetuate the confusion that is rampant in our industry and continue to send mixed, contradictory signals that miseducate both new colleagues and clients alike.

For me, part of my integrity lies in the fact that I don’t sell my soul or change my principles for the sake of earning a buck or gaining the spotlight. If that means I have to say no to an opportunity, so be it.

So I asked her for a bit more information and it was revealed that a survey was done with over 100 virtual assistants who listed who they believe play a major role in our industry, with my name being in the top 10.

She provided the list of names to me, and it was a bit disappointing.

I emailed her back letting her know that it was flattering to be on the list and my interest was piqued, but before I could make a decision, I needed more information on the project, the intentions for the projects and what the goal and purpose was.

I let her know that my main concern was that if a book was being written about our industry, the people interviewed should be those actually in the administrative support business.

Her list included one person who became successful in a completely different field that doesn’t have anything to do with the administrative support business, and there were at least two others who weren’t running administrative support businesses at all: one was a secretarial service (not the same thing whatsoever) and the other was a virtual staffing agency, and neither of whom was an industry veteran or thought leader by any definition. They were newbies themselves who were actually recycling and, in many cases, plagiarizing the established writing and speaking of me and others.

I said I was sure she could understand that I would be leery about participating in anything that miseducated the industry and our marketplace and clients about the true nature of the administrative support business and those who have truly become successful in it.

She was very nice and replied that she was excited to hear from me, thanked me n said she would forward more information shortly.

That was the last I heard from her until yesterday when I received an inquiry about discussing the process of providing a seminar to our network and beginning a relationship with our organization to promote her marketing program to our members.

I went to the website and it only took reading the first page to know that it is definitely not a fit, regardless of how nice of a person she may be.

For example, on the very first page, it is instructing clients to expect:

1. That every Virtual Assistant should provide at least three references and one character reference.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with having one or more current or former clients who are willing to talk to your potential clients about their experience working with you, but the way she’s got this framed is absolutely WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

Business owners don’t provide “references” as if they were applying for a job!

MARKETING (which includes testimonials and case studies with full contact info of satisfied clients) is what businesses do to establish the credibility and confidence clients need to inform their decisions.

The way she frames this, she is educating the marketplace to view us as “workers” and employees looking for jobs instead of business owners who are in business to provide a specific expertise.

2. To look for a Virtual Assistant who understands and is comfortable with your communication needs.

This could be taken a few ways, but given the context of the rest of her site, I interpreted this to mean that she thinks we should go with whatever clients want.

One thing I think is very important for people in this business to understand is that they shouldn’t confuse customer service with servitude. You are the administrative expert in the relationship, not their lackey.

For example, if you are a solo practitioner and you haven’t had a phone policy up until now, once you begin working with more than one client, you begin to realize that you simply cannot be at the beck and call of clients on the phone and expect to concentrate and have uninterrupted time to get work done.

That kind of realization leads you to set up specific policies in your business regarding communications and how work requests are submitted and handled, which is not only for your benefit, it’s for the benefit of clients as well.

If you are fried from taking unscheduled calls while trying to get things done, mark my words, it WILL affect the quality of your work and your ability to keep track of things and stay focused.

None of that is helpful to your clients and your service will definitely suffer. Therefore, it is absolutely a service to clients that you set intentional policies and boundaries. Those things HELP you deliver superior customer service to them.

It’s not a client’s place to set your business policies. If you decide that you can only do scheduled brainstorming calls once a week and “here’s how my business is set up in order to deliver the  best service consistently and reliably to each and every one of my clients,” all you have to do is inform them how things work. You don’t let them dictate how things work in your business.

If you frame it right, it will look like a benefit, not an un-customer-friendly policy (which it’s not, anyway).

This is called STRUCTURE and it is absolutely your best friend in business.

3. To look for a Virtual Assistant who is available during the same hours you need assistance.

The problem here again is that this framing trains clients to look upon Virtual Assistants as on-demand employees or workers of their company.

I’ve said it before and it bear repeating: You are a business, not their employee, and this is a business-to-business relationship. As a business, you have your own policies and schedules that set and run independent of any client. Trust me, you will live to regret the day you trained clients to expect you to work on demand or certain hours of every day.

Yes, do set official business hours, not because that’s the time you are limiting yourself to working, but because it provides framework, parameters, boundaries and respect.

It says, “These are my business hours during which time you may contact my office.”

That doesn’t mean you are at their beck and call or that you are going to answer the phone instantly every time it rings, or that you are necessarily going to be around those days and those times, all the time.

You might set certain times of the day for checking voicemails. Or you might hire an employee or engage an answering service or virtual receptionist to handle your phone lines.

But you can’t allow yourself to be drawn into phone conversations or brainstorming sessions without a proper appointment. You have to inform clients what your communication policies are.

Since you aren’t working with clients in an employee-like capacity, it won’t matter a whit when you accomplish their tasks and projects.

And don’t take on clients who have on-demand needs or expect you to work like an employee.

You, of course, need to have some policies for some kind of timely turnaround. No one is going to work with anyone who can’t competently manage workloads in a timely, reasonable manner.

But I guarantee you, you will not be able to sustain any kind of instant, on-demand assistance once you begin working with more than one client. You just won’t.

Clients are fine with all these things as long as they are informed upfront.

That upfront information is what manages expectations.

So, for example, you could inform them:

“All work requests must be emailed to my office at this address. Work is processed within a 3-day turnaround (or whatever your system is). We’ll have a weekly telephone meeting on Mondays (or Tuesdays or whatever your system is)…”

And all of it will be just fine with the right-fitting clients because they’ll have been properly educated and informed in advance of working together about how things work, what you need from them in the relationship, and what they can expect within that framework.

Just because there are one or two clients you come across who have a problem with that (and there will be those) doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with having intentional business policies and set-ups.

You HAVE to have those or you simply won’t be able to manage your business very well or very long, regardless of whether it’s just you or whether you have your own support staff.

There are going to be some clients who aren’t a fit for what we do.

There are going to be business owners who don’t work very well with email. So what? You aren’t going to be able to work with them.

And there are some who simply need an employee, not us.

That doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong by having structure in your business and smart policies that help you run efficiently.

And again, the hours and days you work should have no bearing whatsoever. If it does, then that client is under some mistaken understandings and has been trained to expect instant, on-demand, employee-like support, which is wrong all the way around.

(This all yet another good example of why the virtual assistant term doesn’t serve us — because it miseducates people into thinking we are some kind of employee when in fact we are independent business owners.)

So here’s my brainstorming question…

A lot of times, I just have to ignore requests when they are not a fit.

It takes up so much time and energy to come up with an appropriate response.

There is some communication that my administrators simply can’t handle for me, that I have to answer myself.

But I often get lambasted no matter what I do.

If I don’t send a reply, then I’m a jerk.

If I do and I make an attempt to construct a friendly, but candid, honest response that there isn’t a fit and why, I get hate mail on that as well.

Ya can’t win for losing!

No, you can’t please all the people all the time. You can only be true to yourself and do what’s best for you.

However, I would like to know what you think.

This is a perfectly nice person I have no doubt, but she is clearly operating under some ideas about our business that are completely wrong and do a disservice to our industry. I couldn’t possibly align my organization with hers because of it.

So, do you think I should reply at all? And if so, do you have suggestions for how I could nicely word a “thanks, but it’s not a fit at this time” response?

Well, I guess that’s pretty good right there, isn’t it?

But usually that invites more communication because they often will write back and want to know why.

Should I provide the why? Do they really want to know my honest reasons? What recommended wording do you have?

Aw… Thanks!

Nothing does my heart better than to hear about how the products and information I’ve provided to the industry are helping folks.

I get lovely messages all the time and I thought maybe I would start sharing those occasionally.

The other day, I got some nice feedback from two new colleagues who purchased agreements from our Success Store.

Melody Hufford wrote…

“The Retainer Agreement saved me much time in creating my own. The client was pleased with the professionalism and clarity of the contract, and I appreciated the layout and presentation.”

Natasha Rubin wrote…

“It was all laid out for me and I did not have to create something from scratch. I also took the forms to my attorney for feedback and he thought they were the best he had ever seen!”

I am so pleased to hear that, ladies. I wish you all the success in the world!

Judgment

Guess what, folks?

Judgment is a fact of life.

We ALL do it, day in and day out.

Every second of our lives, we are making some kind of judgment or assessment about someone or something else, either consciously or subconsciously. It is how we make sense of the world; without it we simply could not function, process all that we are bombarded with, and make determinations in order to proceed.

Here’s how people are judging you:

When they look at your website, they are deciding whether you are a competent expert or a sub-par amateur.

When they find out your rates, they are recognizing that you are either a knowledgeable business person who offers something of quality and value, or a poorly skilled provider who is desperate for work, any work, “please-oh-please-oh-please, I’m begging you.”

These determinations, in turn, inform their subsequent expectations and define how they will treat you, either as a respected professional or as someone they can devalue and take advantage of.

(Hint: Desperation is NOT an attractive business characteristic. Successful people are not desperate, and success, or at least self-worth and dignity, IS a very attractive attribute that clients respect and happily pay top dollar for because they correlate that with skill and competence).

When people read your emails or other written word, they are influenced to view you as either an educated, intelligent, articulate, knowledgeable business owner, or someone who is at an ignorant level in business and able to only speak in grunts and mutters (I’m being facetious, but I think you get my drift).

Likewise, they are getting the picture as to whether you are an organized, timely, detail-oriented person who knows how to spell, punctuate and put together a proper sentence or whether you are a sloppy, disorganized person who might apply that same lack of discipline and competence to whatever work you do on their behalf.

Yup, people are judging you based on all these things and more, like it or not.

Conscious, intentional business content is meant to be divisive. It is intended to be attractive to the kind of clients you want to work with and repellent to those you simply want to go away, to put it quite bluntly.

Said more delicately, it helps those who are a fit for you recognize themselves in your copy, and those who aren’t, recognize that and move on to look somewhere else.

You only want to work with those you are going to enjoy working with and who have the need for what you offer (because it will have real value for them then), and vice versa. Otherwise, there is absolutely not going to be any longetivity or meaning or value to your relationship and it will be a grand waste of everyone’s time

What’s so hilarious, is that the folks whining and crying about being judged, turn right around and themselves make judgments on others, often based on nothing more than their own limited, ignorant, uninformed thinking.

But get this, judgment can actually be GOOD for you.

Why?

Because it creates standards and healthy competition. It is what pushes folks to step outside their comfort zones, to strive, to learn, to grow, to improve.

It forces us to expand our thinking, understanding and knowledge. It gives us something to aspire to and build upon. It gives us purpose and drive. It helps us determine goals and find focus and clarity.

It helps us determine what we love and what we don’t.

So where do people get this idea that business is supposed to be equal and fair and there is to be no judgment?

Of course there is judgment!

And fairness exists as long as it is merited to the extent that you show up to the table first being professionally qualified, competent and skilled and are willing to put in the effort.