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?

11 Responses

  1. Denise says:

    Dear Gritty VA

    As a matter of professional courtesy, I would send her a thoughtful reply thanking her for her interest and, yes, explaining why it is not a fit. That any affiliations you accept or endorse must reflect the mission, values, and so forth of your organization. You might go so far as adding that you cannot support what you feel is misinformation about, misinterpretation of, or even harmful to the virtual assistant industry as a whole.

    We have to educate the marketplace. I wrote a post recently at my business site, called “Tough Love & Accountability, or Four Golden Rules for working with your Virtual Assistant” (http://adayva.blogspot.com/2008/05/tough-love-accountability-or-four.html).

    Will taking this type of stand deter some prospects? Yes, absolutely. But as a business owner I’m willing to accept and even encourage that. I prefer to leave the door open for clients who are truly ready for the B2B partnership of working with a highly skilled virtual assistant.

    Denise Aday
    Aday VA Solutions

  2. Great comments, Denise. 🙂

  3. I really enjoyed finding your blog and todays post. It is right on the money. I entered the VA world as a professional IT person and do all I can to maintain that professionalism. Thank you for speaking in like-mind for the industry

  4. Thanks for your support, Kendall 🙂

  5. Sue Rogers says:

    Hi Danielle

    I absolutely agree with you! I wrote an article back in December on this very subject called “Why Would You Ask A Small Business Owner For Their Resume?” I am tired of having to explain to potential clients that I do not provide “references” because I am not applying for a position at their company. I have my clients sign a confidential agreement and can not then turn around and “provide” their contact information. It’s very frustrating trying to explain to them that you are uncomfortable being told, “This will be your first interview of many since I’m interviewing other VAs as well.” I’m not against checking out other VAs, I just don’t like the fact that their “interviewing” me. If they would just ask for samples of my work, what my hours are, how I handle contact with my clients, etc., then that would be more acceptable.

    I have also fired a few clients who I felt did not have the same values as myself. I will only work with clients who “want to work hard” and not just want to rip off the public to make “quick” money. I want to be able to go to sleep at night knowing that what I have helped someone do today will help out a lot of other people in a good way. I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I was part of a product that is just taking money from someone who probably couldn’t afford it to begin with.

    I sit on the planning committee for the 2009 Summit for IVAA and we are brainstorming for ideas for the education programs to provide to our membership of virtual assistants. I hope we will be able to cover this subject because it really needs to be “nipped” in the butt before it gets out of hand. The public really needs to be educated on the difference between secretaries vs virtual assistants.

  6. Thanks for your input, Sue. 🙂

    A huge part of the problem is the “virtual assistant” term itself. It is largely responsible for creating and then perpetuating the misconception that people in this business are employees.

    That’s because “assistant” is a term of employment. As such, it has no place in our business vocabulary or conversations.

    People only understand the word “assistant” one way: employee. That is why they continue to not understand that we are business owners, not employees.

    This is one of the reasons I created the Administrative Consultant term and industry specifically for those who are in the administrative support business. It better informs the marketplace about what we are in business to do (administration) and what the relationship is to them (consultant/business-to-business, NOT employee).

  7. Danielle,

    Awesome article. You have long been an inspiration to me in how I approach my business policies. Kudos and applause to you!!!


  8. Thanks, Taryn 🙂

  9. Ari says:

    While I can understand that you want VA’s to function as an independent business that is not at the beck and call of your customers, this just isn’t reality. Many people, myself included, are looking for a virtual personal assistant who is at our beck and call. As long as there are people willing to provide this service at a reasonable price, you won’t be able to compete by offering a less responsive service. If I can choose between a computer company that offers 24 hour tech support and one that only offers 8 hour a day tech support, why would I choose the latter?

  10. Thanks for your input, Ari. However, you could not be more wrong, on many levels.

    1. My rate converts to close around $85–$100/hour and I have no problem getting and keeping clients. So my experience (along with that of many others in this business) disproves your assumption.

    2. Here is the actual reality: There are laws that dictate how businesses must operate in order to be considered a business. And when you are working with a business, there are some things — by law — you simply do not have a right to expect. If you want to hire someone who is at your beck-and-call dictates, there is a term for that. It’s called employee. And when you are working with someone who is operating in what constitutes an employee-relationship, there are laws and reporting you are under legal duty to observe. To not follow those laws and dictates make you a dishonest, unethical lawbreaker.

    3. Your example is irrelevant to this conversation. We are people who run administrative support businesses and work with clients in one-on-one, collaborative relationship, same as a solo attorney or accountant or marketing consultant. We are not 24-hour assembly-line tech support. You are making an apples to hotdogs comparison; they simply do not correlate to each other in any way, shape or form.

    4. We also are not in business to serve the masses in the way that a 24-hour tech support business is. Completely different business models and audience. In a solo independent expert business like ours, we only work with a select handful of clients, and we choose clients based on mutual fit and chemistry. We are not looking to work with anyone and everyone indiscriminately. This model works for us and fits for the clients we work with.

    5. Some people (like you) will never get it. And that’s okay. We don’t work with people who don’t get it. Feel free to get on with your life and out of our conversations with the people we do actually work with who get it. 😉

  11. I think this is a wonderful post and makes so much great sense. I now feel better that I feel this way knowing that there are others out there feeling the same way!!! Props to you!!!

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