Archive for July, 2008

Thar’s Gold in That There Client Feedback

I often sense that those in our industry are afraid of hearing not-so-complimentary feedback.

Which is too bad because that kind of information is good as gold to your business.

You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge or that you may not even know is wrong.

So when clients who are otherwise rational, thoughtful people take the time to give their honest input on things that are offputting to them, we should listen.

I’m not saying we have to throw ourselves off a cliff, much less drop everything and completely change our businesses or approach, at the first hint of any discontent, nor that every client’s personal beef is legitimate.

You do have to know how to discern between valid, reasonable gripes and those that are just ridiculous.

For example, a client who complains that an Administrative Consultant won’t design their website and provide shoppingcart support (because that’s like asking a plumber to fix their car), much less lump it in with their administrative support, is nothing but a cheapskate who wants something for nothing.

That’s not a gripe you need to pay any mind to because it’s like expecting a plumber to fix their car. That’s not the business we’re in. They’re barking up the wrong tree.

However, when a client has repeated unsatisfactory experiences and complaints that aren’t outrageous, that tells us there is a disconnect going on.

If you belong to my association and/or are a regular reader of this blog, you’ve frequently heard me call this the “misalignment of expectations and understandings.”

It would behoove us not to listen and examine this feedback to see where we can bridge the gaps.

That disconnect might be related to the client (and our marketplace as a whole) not knowing how to choose the right administrative partner.

They might have only shopped by price instead of skills, qualification, fit and value.

They might be trying to make an employee out of you (which is the wrong expectation entirely, but which signals that you haven’t done your job of educating them properly).

They might have too much on-demand needs or expectations. Their business and workload might be at a level where we are simply not the right solution and they really need an employee.

All of these kinds of things point out that our industry still has much work to do in the way of properly educating and setting expectations in our marketplace.

The other side of that coin is that we ourselves need to understand the business we’re in so we can recognize the ramifications of setting wrong or unsustainable expectations and the subsequent consequences that leads to.

For example, too many people in our industry are telling our marketplace that they have the same level of responsibilities as an in-house employee.

That’s insanity and a ridiculous, impossible expectation to set in clients, not to mention a surefire recipe for failure of the service provider-client relationship.

Clients need to either hire an employee, or seek an alternative.

But as with any alternative (which means “not the same things as”), there are going to be trade-offs and differences in how you work together.

I recently heard from a business owner who has tried unsuccessfully working with several people in our industry for the past five years whose feedback I found to be very valid.

We actually ended up having a really nice conversation on the phone. He is a perfectly nice man who has very reasonable concerns and has had difficulty getting his business needs taken care of.

One of the things I educated him about was that trying to make an employee out of someone in the administrative support business (business being the operative word here) doesn’t work and in fact is illegal.

For that reason, he simply has to take his idea of on-demand stuff out of his expectations. Because that’s just not how things work in a business-to-business relationship.

Even if an administrative service provider (and it’s usually a newbie) were to take that work on like that, eventually as her practice grew, it would become more and more difficult, and eventually impossible, for her to sustain the ability to work together in that capacity.

Ours is about leveraged, strategic administrative support, not beck-and-call instant support like an employee.

We also talked about working with the right professional for the job.

I referred back to my plumber/car mechanic analogy: If someone needs their car fixed, why are they calling a plumber?

I’ll often hear from clients who weren’t happy with the website they had a virtual assistant design for them, and I’m have to be frank with them: Well, what did you expect? They aren’t web designers. Just because someone owns Photoshop or Dreamweaver doesn’t make them a designer. Why didn’t you go to the proper professional in the first place?

Or they’ll complain that they didn’t get quality writing out of their virtual assistant, and I have to ask them: Well then, why didn’t you hire a real copywriter? These people aren’t writers. That’s not the business they’re in. REAL writers/copywriters know what business their in and advertise themselves as such. They don’t market themselves as some kind of cut-rate gopher or jack of all trades.

That’s why it’s important to understand it’s important to know what business you’re in and what you’re not. Trying to make a mechanic out of a plumber is not going to help anyone.

I addressed his complaint that virtual assistants often don’t have the skills they advertise. I agree with him. I’ve experienced some of the same things.

I’ve worked with many over the years who should not be in business taking anyone’s money.

We’re an unregulated industry and there are too many people looking to make a fast buck who don’t have the background or skills to be doing this work who can hang out a shingle overnight.

But this is also why it is the client’s responsibility to choose properly.

If they want to take the cheap way out and expect five star skill, qualification and service at a McDonald’s price, they are living on Fantasy Island.

These are things he was also realizing himself.

I gave him some ideas on what to look for (for one thing, someone who has well thought out business policies and procedures for working with clients; even someone who has the skills, but not the business foundation and systems, is going to have equally unhappy clients), how to leverage the support in a better way, and how to discern when someone is not the right provider for the work and to seek other solutions instead.

After talking with me, he changed his mind about being entirely through with our industry.

Once we bring expectations and understandings into alignment, our industry and clients and the marketplace at large will be more on the same page and much happier with each other.

Okay, here’s this client’s feedback…

“Danielle, I am hoping you can read my email without trying to strangle me!  I’ve been a subscriber for several months to your newsletter. But I think I am done working with Virtual Assistants. And I have worked with various Virtual Assistants for five years. Spent a lot of money, didn’t really get too far.

“I’ll admit, the first two years, I was a major part of the problem.  I was not very clear on what I wanted the Virtual Assistant to do. But for nearly the past three-plus years, I’ve had enough experience where I can say that many Virtual Assistants:

  • Do NOT have the skills they advertise.
  • Do not have the expertise with products and resources they say they do.
  • Rarely complete work on time.
  • Have a difficult time estimating how much will be involved in a project, which slows everything else down.
  • Suffer from the loneliness factor. When they get someone on the phone, it becomes a gabfest…and I’m paying!
  • In constant “education mode.” They need to spend all weekend getting up to speed on a tool you need them to use (which they professed they had working knowledge of).
  • You become their guinea pig

“I have also found that if you are somewhat flexible in deadlines, a “nice guy” or easygoing, the other clients of the Virtual Assistant will soon take (re-allocate) much of your Virtual Assistant’s prime working time.

“It’s also (to me) become a major red flag when a Virtual Assistant volunteers “Oh, I can do that, too!” (like answer your phones).

“Because of all the reasons above, I can no longer find Virtual Assistants to be a viable option at $45/hour. Many Virtual Assistants are far too over-priced. And I have paid Virtual Assistants amounts like $30, $35 and $40/hour. You do NOT get what you pay for.”

Let’s discuss… what do you think about all this?

Grateful Mondays: Vacations

Since I’m on vacation through August 8, what better thing to be grateful for today than being able to take vacations!

This first week we are road-tripping… travelling over to the coast and just winding our way down wherever our curiosity leads us. We left first thing Friday morning and it’s been so nice to get away.

We have a huge Suburban which is just perfect for traveling. It’s like a little home away from home, and we’ve been sleeping in the truck at nights alongside the ocean. It’s been delicious.

I did happen upon a realization that you might find useful. I’m not much of a planner when it comes to vacations and stuff. I prefer the spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment kind of getaways. And with my guy’s old job, planning ahead for a vacation was not a luxury we had. They frequently had him on call and he could get called away at a moment’s notice. I can’t count the number of times we had plans dashed that way. We’d have to sneak away like thieves in the night sometimes just to prevent them from putting him on-call. I tell ya, I don’t miss that one bit!!!

That said, a small bit of planning ahead is necessary when you have clients you take care of. A couple days off here and there, I don’t worry about at all because I don’t do any on-demand work for my clients that requires me to be in daily contact with them. But when I plan to be gone for a length of time, I let my clients know one to two weeks in advance.

The thing I just realized is that the last and first weeks of a month are great times to take off for vacations.  My payments are automatic so I don’t have to worry about billing and so forth during the first week of the month. And taking the last week off leaves more than enough time in the previous three weeks of a month for clients to take advantage of their retainer plans.

I hope you all are having a lovely summertime and have taken vacations of your own or have plans for them!

Some Abject Lessons in How NOT to Run a Business

About a month ago, I had the saddest, most bewildering customer service experience I’ve ever come across. It stands as a singular example of how new business owners can be their own worst obstacles.

Right from the beginning, I knew this experience was going to be the topic of a blog post because there were so many lessons to share that others could learn from (and maybe see themselves in).

My intention was never to embarrass this person so I’m withholding their name and profession.

I came across this service provider and everything I read on their website led me to believe they would be perfect for this special project I wanted to accomplish.

Unfortunately, I encountered several snafus along the way that made it extremely difficult and impossible to work with this provider.

Mind you, most people would never go as far as I did with this provider, but I was completely fascinated with what has to be the worst case of self-sabotage I had ever encountered and wanted to use it as a business lesson for those I mentor here.

Snafu #1: Website and Actual Customer Experience Did Not Match

The provider’s website had a phone number so I called and left a voicemail.

Over a week went by without hearing anything back from them.

It wasn’t until I’d sent an email and left another voicemail that I finally got a call back one evening.

I learned that the provider had a day job and was informed that they had a very difficult time following up and building their business because of it.

Business Lesson #1: Whether you have a day job or not, you are still running a business. If you want to get anywhere close to creating something that allows you to establish a reputation of professionalism and credibility, and ultimately quit your day job, you can not make excuses. You simply must follow-up on inquiries in a more timely, responsive manner. Responding to inquiries within 24 to 48 hours is perfectly acceptable. A whole week or more later — along with bemoaning your business problems — is an offputting deal killer. Figure out a system for returning inquiries, set a policy and a standard for follow-through, and then work it without fail. Clients do not need to hear, nor are they interested in, your tales of difficulty and woe.

The service provider was definitely interested in my project and we scheduled a time to talk later that evening (as they were still at work).

When we got on the call, I explained what I was looking for and that I was happy to have come across the provider as their talent seemed like the perfect fit.

I had read the provider’s entire website. They had done a very nice, attractive job of it and provided lots of useful and interesting information.

Their website, in fact, was so well-done, I thought I had found a leader in their industry, someone who was so well-established and professional, I envisioned that our initial contact and subsequent work together would be flawless and supremely polished.

Unfortunately, the experience I had was the polar opposite of what I was expecting. I’m still scratching my head about what a complete disconnect there was between their website and actually dealing with this person.

Snafu #2: Devaluing What You Have to Offer

Now, let me back up to say that this provider is one very talented, accomplished professional. This, unfortunately, does not necessarily translate to someone who also knows how to run a business well, as you shall see.

They had a show on public television that ran for several years. Their talent is one that is very obvious, and their website and samples demonstrated their talent, experience and expert knowledge of all the ins and outs of their trade.

So it was bewildering to me when this provider then inexplicably offered to do the work for free!

They had heard of my organization and wanted to volunteer the work in exchange for referrals and future work.

Now, if I was one of those slimy, unethical sorts, I could have totally taken advantage.

And I’m sure — in fact, I know — this person has given away thousands of dollars of time and talent in exactly this manner to people who had absolutely no intention of ever paying for another thing again.

But I could no more do that than I could kick a poor, defenseless animal.

So we got to talking and the provider shared more about their situation.

They were desperately trying to build their business (hence, the day job) because with two kids preparing to go to college, they had to find a way to pay for it, and the money and business just were not coming in (no wonder!).

They explained that they felt giving away work would get them a foot in the door and once clients saw how good they were, there would be more (paying) work to follow.

In a nod to Dr. Phil, I asked if that was working out for them. Not yet, they said.

Go figure. 😉

Yet, this person kept trying to get different results doing the same thing over and over, grasping for that dangling carrot only to have it yanked away time and again.

Their rationale was that it was “such little things,” it wasn’t worth charging for. (WHAT??!!)

Of course they weren’t getting anywhere — they were giving away all their time and talent for free!

I asked if they wouldn’t mind if I offered some feedback. I explained that their time and talent had value and was definitely worth paying for.

I asked them to imagine how much money they would have now if they had instead charged for all those “little things” they thought were so inconsequential.

It had never occurred to them to do that and I could practically see the lightbulb going on over their head in that moment. That’s real money they turned away that could have gone into their business and the kids’ college funds!

Business Lesson #2: As you can see, there are all kinds of business lessons to be gleaned from that conversation. Stop devaluing yourself. You are of value! Your skill and expertise has value! If they didn’t, no one would be contacting you in the first place. Don’t fall prey to the dangling-carrot syndrome. All that does is deprive you and your business of rightful earnings. You aren’t running a charity. When business is in front of you, the time is NOW to be paid for your time and talents, not later and definitely not on the basis of “hope” for future work. It’s a strategy all right — a strategy for failure! This kind of thinking also does something even more insidious. It puts a whammy on your professional self-esteem and worth. All it will result in is gaining you a reputation of someone who can easily be devalued and taken advantage of. If you don’t hold what you do in high regard, others most definitely won’t either. What might seem small and insignificant to you (because you are presumably good at what you do) has all kinds of meaning and value to the client who needs what you can do for them — so charge for that!

I practically had to twist this person’s arm to charge me. As I explained to them:

Look, I’m a hot prospect! I already LOVE your talent, your website cemented my wanting to work with you and I’m practically begging to give you my business. Why on earth do you not want to charge me? We have no relationship or special connection. You aren’t a member of my organization. If you do the kind of job I think you will do for me with your talent, I’m gonna spread the word, you can bank on that! Why would me paying you for the work have any bearing on whether or not I refer others and give you more work in the future?

Which leads us to…

Snafu #3: Not Knowing What to Charge

This provider had no clue what to charge me! I mean, WHAT?! I literally had to pull it out of them. They kept wanting me to tell them what I wanted to pay. I don’t want that problem dumped in my lap!

Business Lesson #3: You need set your price, not the client. One way or the other, you have to figure it out. If you charge by the hour, give an estimate. If you charge by the project, set some standard starting fees. Don’t make your clients do what is your job. If you don’t have the answers right then, tell them you’ll email a quote or estimate later. Just don’t make your clients do all the work or work too hard to give you their business because I got news for ya — you won’t get it.

Once I finally got this person to charge me something, I was supposed to hear back from them later as to how we would proceed.

After a few sporadic emails, I abruptly stopped hearing from them.

I already had some idea that the day job was going to inhibit any normal, professional kind of business interaction, and since I honestly couldn’t wait to see what happened next in this train-wreck of business mismanagement, I waited.

After two weeks, I still hadn’t heard anything back so I emailed and asked them what the status was.

They informed me that a large, very extensive project had come in since our last communication and it had them scrambling with every spare moment they had.

Snafu #4: Putting New Business Before Current Clients; Not Honoring Your Commitments

Are you kidding me with this?!

Why does my project — one that I’m paying for and which you committed to first — get relegated to second-rate status?

That’s not the professional way to run a business. It’s not fair to existing clients and will definitely not put your business in any favorable light.

Clients who honorably give you their business deserve to be treated well.

Not that I was surprised by this turn of events because this person had not shown any business competence whatsoever. So it was completely understandable because:

  1.  this provider is trying to run a business while their attention and time is diverted by a day job; their commitment level is, therefore, going to be seriously compromised,
  2. they don’t have good business sense or knowledge about how to properly and professional run a business; and
  3. they don’t have any solid business foundations, systems, standards and policies in place (which, by the way, is one of the biggest complaints I hear from clients who have disappointing and unsatisfactory experiences working with those of us in the administrative support business). So when something comes up that upsets whatever fragile, precarious balance they have managed to tape together, everything falls apart.

Business Lesson #4: It doesn’t serve you or your clients and prospects for you to start taking business before you put the proper business foundations in place. Figure out how things will work in your business. Nail down your policies and procedures, as well as your standards. Figure out what you need to charge (don’t burden your clients with that; they don’t have time for that crap), and fricking charge it! Map out a diagram of the entire new client process so you can make the experience a good one for them and so that you know exactly what to do (and do for them) at every step along the way. Keep your business problems to yourself; your clients have their own and they aren’t coming to you to be your business therapist. And for goodness sakes, don’t be a scatterbrained flake. HONOR your commitments. Do what you say you will. If you’re  flake at handling the business, you will never instill the trust, credibility and confidence it takes to get and keep clients. That’s because your competence and expertise isn’t only about the work. Those things are demonstrated by how you manage your business and processes and client experience. You could be the best in the world, but if you can’t take care of clients properly, no one is going to hire you or keep working with you.

I tell ya, folks, this was a first!

One of the most perplexing, bewildering encounters with a new business owner I have ever had. I could tell this person had done absolutely no business planning whatsoever. I wanted to save them from themselves because they really are so talented and could do well. But there’s no hope of that if they can’t get out of their own way and do the work that is necessary before putting out a shingle and taking on any clients.

This is also a great reason why becoming a student of business and investing in getting some business mentoring and training is soooo valuable. It’s as much for your clients’ benefit as it is yours.

Aligning the Misaligned

It seems more and more, clients (especially on the Internet) are getting the (wrong) idea that hiring a virtual assistant is a license to blatantly disregard the law.

What am I talking about?

Well, there is a whole segment of clients in our marketplace who seem to want virtual assistants to work with them as if they were cheap, under-the-table employees they don’t pay taxes on.

And it’s not all their fault that they are getting this idea. The virtual assistance industry has trained them to think of virtual assistants in this light with all the beyond-tired comparisons to employees, how they won’t have to pay a virtual assistant as much as they would with an employee, yada yada yada.

So the idea that clients are getting is that “Hey, I can have an employee and I won’t have to pay a dime in employment taxes to Uncle Sam.”

But that’s not how it works, folks.

When you are running a business, you simply can’t work with clients as if you were their employee.

When you train clients to expect on-demand support, at their beck and call on a daily basis, answering their phones, etc., eventually, once you have more than one client, that will be a pace and an expectation that will become impossible for you to sustain.

The other problem is that this creates a job for yourself, rather than a business.

Before you know it, you’ll be wondering where all this time and freedom is that you thought you’d be gaining as a business owner and you won’t be making any money while you’re at it.

Think of the consultations you’ve had where you get into the conversation and realize, geez, this person doesn’t want a service provider, they want an employee… or worse, a slave they don’t want to pay more than a pittance to in exchange.

So there becomes this whole host of misaligned expectations and understandings.

How do we right this?

There are those who say the client should get what they want. And I agree with this, to an extent. But when what they want isn’t what we provide, much less realistic or in accordance with the law, how do we reconcile that?

I didn’t go into business for myself to become someone’s slave. And even if I were willing to do that, it becomes impossible once you start working with more than one client, unless you want to drastically limit your income potential, and what’s the point of that?

Of course, I could hire a bunch of people to do what clients want. But then that requires me to build a bigger and completely different kind of business than I am interested in creating or managing.

Similarly, think of those instances when the client’s understanding of what virtual assistants specialize in (ahem… that’s ONGOING ADMINISTRATIVE SUPPORT, for those who missed it in class) is so far out of the realm of what we do, it’s kind of like, “Um, if you need your car repaired, why are you calling a plumber?”

If I’m a “plumber” and a client wants me to “fix his car,” a) I’m either gonna let him know he’s barking up the wrong tree, or b) I’m going to put on my auto mechanic’s hat and CHARGE him for that work separately (maybe even at a higher rate) because it’s NOT the same thing. Get it?!

The answer is in better education.

It lies in getting back to the clear, specialized, branded definition of virtual assistance and helping virtual assistants understand that by making employee comparisons and focusing clients on cost-saving (which is never what virtual assistance was about anyway), they are basically saying, “What I do is not of value in and of itself, and I have to bribe you with dangling carrots in order to convince you to work with me.”

They are training the marketplace to think in the very ways that are causing problems for them in getting clients, having their work respected and appreciated, and being able to command professional fees like any other provider of professional services.

Virtual assistants need to stop the bribery and gimmicks and devaluation.

They need to recognize that administrative support is an extraordinarily valuable service–it is necessary and integral to every single business out there. Nothing gets done without administrative execution, and skill and efficiency are premiums that instill tremendous value and profitability in our clients’ businesses. Trust me–business would come to a screeching, grinding halt if the administrative professionals of the world went on strike for a day.

So stop with the employee and cost-saving comparisons. That’s NOT where your value is. Your value is in the benefits that clients reap as result of your excellent work, benefits like:

  • a smoother-running, more profitable business
  • a more professional, competent business image
  • improved customer relationships and service delivery
  • less stress and more freedom
  • space to create and grow more revenue
  • more time to spend on work they love, take vacations, enjoy family and friends and just live life.

What do you think is contributing to this more and more common misalignment of understandings and expectations?

Is it virtual assistant organizations that don’t get it themselves and aren’t doing you any favors in how they educate your marketplace? Is it new virtual assistants who don’t understand their own value and worth and in the process end up creating wrong expectations in clients? Is it due to people–both virtual assistants and clients alike–wrongly thinking that a virtual assistant is anyone doing anything virtually?

Is it from having those who aren’t virtual assistants coopt our title and terminology? And speaking of our title, is it the “assistant” in “virtual assistant” that is dooming us to forever be viewed as subservient in our business relationships? But what’s the alternative when there is so much equity built into the name of our profession?

Is it industry outsiders who have usurped our role as leaders of our own profession and are now miseducating our marketplace? Is it a holdover from the days of employee mindset and corporate brainwashing that prevents us from being the masters of our own destiny (and industry), allowing others to lead us around by the nose? And with all the right and accurate information out there about what we are and do, why does the media STILL seem to completely get it wrong 99.9% of the time? Who are they getting their information from?

What do you think are the solutions?