Archive for June 20th, 2008

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?