Archive for January 22nd, 2009

Is the Term Virtual Assistant Serving Us

I have never really been happy with the term “Virtual Assistant,” but what to do when so much equity has been invested in it?

It’s too bad there wasn’t any better foresight when the term was adopted to give a name to our industry. However, from what I see, many of the pioneers in the field were actually working with clients as if they were still employees sitting outside the boss’ door–only virtually.

Since then, it seems many of them never grew in their thinking or operating beyond that mindset. That was the end of their evolution of growth when it comes to being a business owner and not someone’s personal, but virtual, secretary.

They’re still stuck thinking of themselves as employees, no matter how much they insist that they are “business owners.”

And now they can’t see anything beyond their own indoctrination and limiting beliefs.

Hey, you can stand in the corner and call yourself a business owner all you want, but that isn’t going to make you one if you aren’t operating and working with clients like one.

The term “Virtual Assistant” itself is at the root of many of the wrong perceptions and misunderstandings we are constantly having to disabuse clients of.

Because the term is vague and ambiguous, it creates confusion and leaves it open to anyone’s interpretation.

And because it wasn’t well thought out and the branding not managed well or at all, it’s been coopted by anyone and everyone who thinks doing anything and everything virtually is Virtual Assistance.

It’s no wonder that so many clients these days assume we are employees they don’t pay taxes on who are supposed to be at their daily beck and call in the same manner as an employee, only virtual.

So let’s dissect this…

For me, the term has always been nothing more than a verbal/mental coat hook. It’s just a phrase whose definition is not the literal sum of the two words themselves, but rather a term I can tell people to use when they are seeking folks who are in the business of providing ongoing, right-hand administrative support.

The problem is that having no advance knowledge of the concept behind the term “Virtual Assistant,” clients and those who are new or outside the industry can only assume its most literal translation. By sheer virtue of the words, they automatically come to the table with wrong perceptions and preconceived notions already fixed in their heads–what I refer to as a misalignment of expectations and understandings.

Overwhelmingly (and more and more because of the miseducation the coopters are putting out there), they don’t understand the relationship, and a big part of the problem is the term itself. Our current title doesn’t help us distinguish and in a better way denote our status as business owners, not assistants who are going to work with them or be available to them in the same way as an employee.

We have to constantly work (too hard) anymore at educating clients that we aren’t lackeys, we aren’t telecommuters, we aren’t their personal servants, we aren’t their do-everything-and-anything-under-the-sun. We are administrative experts, business owners who provide ongoing administrative support and consult wth them on administrative strategies and issues.

The word “assistant” inherently connotates a secondary, subservient role and is cause for the whole host of issues we are constantly dealing with in properly educating clients and helping them understand what we do and the nature of our relationship to them.

For me personally, I’m not anyone’s assistant. I’m an expert in my own right–an administrative expert. Clients don’t boss me around and I don’t work with them in any on-demand capacity.

I’m also not anyone’s personal valet. I don’t deal with their yacht brokers or buy their wives gifts. They consult with me on things that are strictly related to their business that are specifically administrative support in nature.

The word “virtual” is superfluous and puts an inane, unnecessary focus on something that is really only incidental to our work and what we are.

The Internet, which is what allows us to be virtual, is merely another tool that gives us an additional means of conducting business and working with clients. It doesn’t change the fact that a bookkeeper is a bookkeeper or a web designer is a web designer—or an administrative expert is an administrative expert.

Looking at it from that perspective, it’s completely ridiculous to be putting “virtual” in front of anything. Idiotic, really.

(By the way, this discussion is an example of why words and semantics are so very important to branding and conveying precise ideas. If not done right, they convey the wrong ideas and perceptions which means expectations have not been set correctly in the first place. That equals very poor branding and ineffectual marketing.)

So what’s the solution? Do we adopt another name, one that more accurately represents what we *really* are and does a better job of pre-educating clients and sets more accurate expectations and perceptions? But what name?

I have struggled with the term “Virtual Assistant” over and over many times over the years. It wasn’t a ball of wax I wanted to deal with at the time.

But as time goes on, more and more, I see that the term Virtual Assistant just does not serve us well any longer, if it ever did.

I think it’s a worthwhile effort to at least attempt to see if we can come up with a distinguishing term all our own that can’t be so easily coopted from us. I definitely think in that respect that “administrative” needs to be in there as that is integral and at the root of what we are in business to do.

Other Terms I’ve Been Reluctant to Use

I been somewhat hesitant to use “consultant” because a consultant is generally an idea and advice person hired to solve broader business issues, whereas we administrative experts are doers. We “do” administrative support and functions.

I don’t want anyone foisting the responsibility for the success or failure of their business on me as that’s not what I am in business to do. We Virtual Assistants often brainstrom with clients and offer our own considered experience and knowledge, but responsibility for results and deciding on strategies in their business still lays with them.

I worry that the term “consultant” may give some clients the wrong idea about that. However, so far it is one of the only alternatives out there that I think better serves our interests.

For similar reasons, I personally don’t think “business consultant” would serve us. We aren’t business consultants, not in the correct/true sense of that word or the responsiblities that come with that definition. It’s also too general and doesn’t adequately or specifically convey what we are in the business of.

I don’t like the term “business manager” because that’s also not the business I am in. I don’t manage clients’ staff or other resources; nor do I want that responsibility. Using that term, there’s an implication of a much bigger role that I personally am not interested in, and I wouldn’t want clients to think I am there for them to abdicate ownership and responsibility of their own business.

I am there to provide one specific service and that is to perform certain administative functions and otherwise help them streamline that work and get whatever can be, systemized and automated. I think it’s a great term for someone who actually is in business to take on that role, but I think it’s definitely something different and separate from what Virtual Assistants are in business to do.

I do like “administrative expert” which I use all the time, but it still leaves me wanting something more. Not sure what word I’m looking for; something that might better convey the idea that we are independent business owners and not employees for hire.

I haven’t used ”administrative professional” or “virtual professional” or “virtual associate” for the same reasons. Those terms are vague, meaningless, unspecific and don’t distinguish our expertise in any way or convey that we are business owners.

In the end, I always come back full circle to “Administrative Consultant.” It may not be perfect, but it’s vastly better than the alternatives.

So what are your thoughts? Do you have ideas for a name that better serves us and more clearly describes what we do? Let’s brainstorm and discuss!