Archive for March, 2009

Dear Danielle: Should I Specialize?

Dear Danielle:

I am in the process of starting my administrative support business. I have over 10 years of experience in various high-level administrative support roles. I feel like I know many things about many things, everything from marketing, bookkeeping, customer service, general administration, etc. Do you recommend that a new Administrative Consultant choose specific areas or services to specialize in? Or should I just offer the whole shabang at this time and then specialize as I get established? If you think specialization is a good idea, can you advise as to a few niche areas that might be most productive and lucrative to pursue? –MR

Here’s the thing that a lot of newcomers in our industry don’t understand: Admin support is already a specialty in and of itself. It’s the specialty of providing ongoing, right-hand administrative support to clients you work with in ongoing (continuous), collaborative partnership.

This is Business & Marketing 101.

If someone specializes in bookkeeping, they are a bookkeeper.

If someone specializes in copywriting, they are a copywriter.

If someone specializes in web design, they are a web designer/developer.

If someone specializes in writing, they are a writer.

And so on and so forth.

Administrative Consultant is the term we use to denote someone who specializes in ongoing, right-hand administrative support. We are administrative experts. This is what we focus on and is the core, primary offering, the very thing we are in business to do.

That’s because what we “sell” isn’t line-item, piece-meal project work. We’re in business to offer is a solution that is focused on the ongoing relationship, not on occasional/sporadic transactional projects.

Why is this important to understand?

Because it’s going to make all the difference in how you market, how you are able to articulate your solution and attract the right clients.

So the question becomes: Do you want piecemeal projects where you always have to chase down new work, in which case the business model and the title (secretarial services) is completely different?

Or do you want clients who pay you a fee every month in order to work together continuously and where you are able to then deliver an entirely different solution to clients, one where you are involved in their business at a more intimate and impactful level?

What’s going to be really important to you as an Administrative Consultant not specializing (ongoing, collaborative, right-hand administrative support is already a specialty ;)), but rather finding a target market to focus your administrative support on.

This is what is going to give you the direction you need to hone your message and know where to find those people more quickly, more easily and with less expenditure of time, money and energy.

The folks who don’t have a target market have a much harder time in business and it takes longer for them to find clients. That is because they are trying to be everything to all people and talk to everyone in the world. That doesn’t create a compelling message and those folks are the ones you’ll typically see with websites saying the exact same thing as everyone else.

You don’t want that in your business. You need to be able to differentiate yourself.

Determining a target market and then studying and really, really getting to know that market is going to make all the difference in the world for you.

Does Location Matter?

I was corresponding recently with a new colleague who had some great questions. On of the things we discussed was location.

She felt that since we run online businesses that have nothing to do with proximity to clients, we as an industry should be conveying that in every way possible. As an example, she stated that she would prefer to see our directory categorized by country only and not list the state at all.

 

She correct that we aren’t confined to our own geographic location when it comes to delivering our services.

I definitely share her sentiment that we can definitely benefit from continuing to educate clients about how easy it is to work together virtually, how much more efficient it is, and how much their business can benefit from that greater flexibility.

Providing a location doesn’t take away anything from that effort. Providing a location has more to do with instilling trust and confidence in clients.

Being completely transparent about where you operate from isn’t a matter of whether you can work with a client or not.

It has to do with providing all the information possible to put clients at ease and trust that they are dealing with a serious, legitimate, committed business and not some fly-by-night who may take their money and run. The more straightforward and transparent you are about those kind of details, the less suspicion they will view you with.

In many respects, it falls into the realm of marketing.

Marketing very often isn’t based on anything rational or what should matter. It’s commonly about the irrational, about what does matter to clients for more emotional reasons, regardless of whether it’s logical or makes sense or not.

Some colleagues argue that they don’t need to provide a business address, that it’s a new virtual business world and totally irrelevant to their ability to deliver their services to clients.

They get so caught up in petulantly insisting that they are business owners who don’t answer to anyone, they end up forgetting that business is a two-way relationship.

I hate to burst your bubble if you’re one of those people, but it does matter.

A virtual business is still a business and all the marketing and trust-building rules still apply.

In fact, because we are virtual, it’s even more important for us to be as transparent and forthcoming as possible.

Because that’s what matters to people – and clients are people.

They want to know who they’re dealing with. In healthy, two-way relationships, you make sure you provide the information and do all that you can to let the other party know that you are credible, you are legitimate, and you can be trusted because you have nothing to hide.

And that means you provide a business address of some kind, even if it’s just a post office box.

It might not be something that should matter. It might not matter in reality one way or another (because a business can still be good or bad either way).

Nonetheless, it is something that does matter to your site visitors and prospective clients.

So if you want to make it as easy as possible to instill trust and credibility, and put potential clients at ease and comfort, make sure your business address and contact information is visible or easily found on your website.

On This Get-a-Free-Hour Virtual Assistant Nonsense

There is an effort going on this week where a small group of virtual assistants is trying to educate clients about virtual assistance by giving away a free hour of time.

This effort doesn’t do anything to better educate people about virtual assistance.

In fact, it doesn’t help our industry at all, and it’s a really poor business example.

Anyone who asks you to work for free is exploiting you, be that a client or a fellow virtual assistant.

And if you’ve been in business for years and are supposedly established, why then are you still thinking you need to give it away for free? Hmmm, doesn’t sound so successful to me.

Giving away free work doesn’t educate clients in any way.

And the people it attracts, they’re are only there for the free buffet.

“Yeah, thanks, when I’m ready to hire a virtual assistant, I’m totally gonna call you!”

Right.

I call this dangling carrot syndrome. Don’t fall for that.

It’s a misguided effort and all you’ll be doing is frittering away your time, energy, hopefulness and resources focusing on entirely the wrong-minded people.

You don’t need to give away your value to educate clients. Giving away your value does nothing to attract clients who are serious about their business and your services.

Further, giving away one simple hour of tasks doesn’t in any way show clients the value of working in ongoing partnership with an administrative expert.

That’s because the value isn’t in the tasks, it’s in the equity of knowledge, quality, understanding and forward-moving synergy that is only grown within the dynamic of an ongoing, collaborative relationship.

In fact, the conversation doesn’t even need to be about money.

Virtual assistants make it about money because they don’t know how to have any better communication about their value. And that of course is when they then feel they have to resort to bribery and enticement.

Now a smart virtual assistant, one who has done her homework, studied her target market and clearly knows exactly what her value is to that group of clients, she never has to give it away or bribe people with freebies and discounts to try it out.

That VA gains the knowledge, direction and focus in order to have a different, more effective conversation with clients, one that attracts instead of bribes. She knows the difference between a commodity and a professional service.

Don’t train clients to devalue you from the get-go. They’re going to expect you to bargain with yourself forever more from that point forward.

Why Trade Name Infringement Is Not a Good Way to Introduce Yourself in the Industry

A new member registered for our forum the other day. Unfortunately, we had a dilemma because this person was operating under the same business name as one of our members.

So, I’m taking this opportunity to remind folks about trade name infringement and our principles and standards around that as a professional association.

Because of the online nature of our businesses, we have no geographical boundaries from each other, which makes having a unique business name more important than ever.

I don’t know how other professional associations handle it, but at the ACA, we believe it’s important to uphold the principles of operating ethically and honestly and treating each other well, which includes not infringing upon your colleagues. We do that by not condoning or enabling the practice of trade name infringement.

Besides just being the wrong thing to do, here’s why it’s not in your own best interests to tread on a colleagues toes in this manner and why it’s important for you to come up with your own unique business name:

  1. You don’t want to get sued. Someone with legal rights and established use of an existing trade name can sue you for infringement. It costs a lot of money and energy to defend yourself. If you lose (which you can by either default or because the Court finds in the plaintiff’s favor), it will cost even more. It’s a can of worms you don’t want to open. You should always expect that anyone who takes their business seriously is going to also protect their business interests just as seriously.
  2. It’s not a great way to be welcomed into the community. Relatively speaking, ours is a very small, tight-knit community. People will know you are infringing on one of their comrades. Think about it. If it were you, how would you feel if someone new came into the industry and started using your business name, the one you’ve been using for X years, the one you spent blood, sweat and tears (not to mention money!) building, and around which all your identity and marketing has been based? You are going to create ill will and negative energy for yourself by stepping on an established colleague’s toes.
  3. You don’t want to be confused with another business in the same industry. It’s going to be really important to differentiate yourself from others and that includes having a unique business name and identity. It doesn’t do you any good to be using someone else’s established business name if traffic and name recognition is going to be diverted to the person who was using it first. It creates confusion in the marketplace and there are laws in place to protect right holders from this.
  4. You don’t want to have to redo everything (e.g., web site, marketing materials, etc.). If you are caught infringing, your website can be shut down, you can be forced to relinquish domains you’ve unlawfully squatted on, and it’s going to be a lot of work and more money to start all over again.

So, what do you do? A bit of homework is in order.

To make sure you come up with a unique name and do not infringe on the established trade name rights of any of your colleagues, there are steps you can and should take:

  1. Search industry directories. Make sure no one else is using the name already or anything close to it.
  2. Conduct a search for the name (or the predominant unique identifying part of it) in several different search engines. I suggest Google, MSN, Yahoo and any others you might think of. Better to be thorough now than sorry later.
  3. Search the uspto.gov database. Check to see if anyone else in the industry is already using the trade name you’re considering or any form of it. Changing a letter or word is not going to help you if the name can be considered to be substantially the same and would still create confusion. What does all this that mean? It means it doesn’t matter if you are using “(Same Name) Business Solutions” and they are using “(Same Name) Administrative Support.” You are in the same industry and it’s the novel, identifying part of the name that matters.

One thing that people don’t commonly understand about trademark/trade name law is that owners are required to protect their rights or they could end up losing them. That means, the way the laws are written, they don’t have the luxury of ignoring an infringement and letting you off the hook. They HAVE to go after you if they want to protect their rights in the name. So you are just asking for costly legal trouble if you infringe, and especially if you do it willfully knowing full well that someone else was already using the name.

Also, your domain or domain name availability has no relevance. If you infringe on someone’s name rights (and I’m not talking about generic search engine terms), you can be compelled to relinquish the domain.

Once you find a name that is unique and that in no way can be confused with anyone else’s existing, established identity in the industry, you’re home free.

If you think you were the first to use the name, contact the other Virtual Assistant and see if you can work things out. The good will and positive energy you create by engaging in honorable, ethical business practices will serve you well.

Dear Danielle: Whose Contract Should I Be Using (Mine or the Client’s)?

Dear Danielle:

I have obtained a new client and was about to send them my contract when they sent me their their independent contractor agreement! Do we use own agreement or the client’s? Help! –TS

Great question and I’m glad you’ve asked because there are a lot of different aspects here I’d like to discuss.

First to answer your main question… No, you do not sign a client’s contract. You aren’t hiring them; they are hiring you. Your business, your contract.

A contract is not only a legally binding document. It also serves to make sure everyone knows what the expectations and obligations both parties have to each other, as well as what happens when those agreements are not kept. For example, late or non-payment on the part of the client may result in immediate work stoppage.

Your written contract also helps everyone remember what they’ve agreed to. People tend to “forget” things when it’s convenient or self-serving. A written contract helps keep everyone honest and their “memory” intact.

Your question also brings up the red flag that this client may not understand the nature of your relationship. The term “independent contractor” is responsible for this continuing misunderstanding.

(By the way, I’ve put that term on my X list and no longer use it in any way, shape or form when I’m educating people about the administrative support industry.)

There are only two classifications in this world (at least in the U.S. and those countries with similar laws). You’re either a business or you’re an employee. There is no third classification. Independent contractor is just another word for business owner.

And a business is a business, regardless of whether you’re a big corporation or a self-employed solopreneur.

So it’s going to be really important for you to have a conversation with this client and make sure they understand that they aren’t hiring an employee or telecommuter.

As a business, it’s your place to provide the contacts. It’s you who has more at stake in the relationship if things don’t go well.

You have much more liability involved and interests that need to be protected. So your business, your contract.

This is how business is conducted. It’s standard operating procedure. Stand firm and don’t be afraid to educate them about this if they don’t (they need it). Make sure they understand they understand that this is a business-to-business relationship. They aren’t hiring an employee so it’s not their place to provide the contract.

If they don’t like it, they can go elsewhere. No loss. You will have dodged a bullet, trust me. You’ll regret working with any client who doesn’t get these things.

Team DoubleClick Has It Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

What is with these virtual staffing agencies calling what they do virtual assistance?

What they do is farm out workers to companies and individuals who are their clients, not the worker’s.

That isn’t virtual assistance in any way, shape or form.

And they’ve got these people completely snowed. Hello, people! They aren’t your clients if they belong to someone else, if you’re punching someone else’s time clock, and you are reporting to and being supervised by someone else.

Sorry, but a virtual assistant is NOT a virtual employee.

Virtual employees are telecommuters, and they are subject to the same laws of the land as any other kind of employee (and which are pretty consistent throughout the U.S. and Canada to the U.K. and Australia).

You cannot employ workers without complying with employment laws and taxation. At least not legally. It’s called illegal misclassification of employees.

Not only that, but I think this company is totally full of shit. I think the numbers they purport to have are a big fat lie, and they change their story constantly. One minute its 10,000; in the very next breath its 50,000.

They are a staffing agency, just like any brick and mortar staffing agency. And those who work for staffing and temp agencies are employees of those agenices–not independent contractors or subcontractors. The IRS catches up with employers who misclassify workers sooner or later.

Many of their former workers have realized this as well. Some posts of interest:

http://www.measuredup.com/review/Contractor-vs.-Employee-2246

http://www.measuredup.com/review/Not-a-Team-Player-2256

http://www.measuredup.com/review/Team-Double-Click-Feedback-1962

http://team-double-click-reviews.measuredup.com/Complaint-do-not-waste-your-time-2224

(You’ll notice that as soon as the poor feedback started coming in, they’d send in their stooges to post ”glowing reviews” in an attempt to refute the complaints.)

On top of that, they say they have a stringent virtual assistant interview process. That’s really scary…

Just take a look at the comments on this post and you tell me if these people come across as competent, skilled and articulate. Most them can’t spell, punctuate properly or form a coherent sentence.

These are the people they are professing to be the best of the best in the virtual assistant industry?

Not even close! And that’s the thing that bothers me the most.

They do not represent virtual assistance; they don’t know what virtual assistance is.

Call yourself what you are (a virtual staffing agency) and stop confusing our marketplace. You are NOT a virtual assistant firm.

In the U.S., if you feel you’ve been misclassified as an independent contractor and have been required to submit to supervision and other employer governances, but been deprived of usual and rightful employment benefits, including social security, medicare and other legally required employer contributions, all you have to do is complete and mail an IRS Form SS-8.

Dear Danielle: Is Certification Necessary?

Dear Danielle:

Do many people in our industry feel that professional certifications such as PMP, MOS or others like it help in landing new clients? –SM

As someone who has been in this business for over 12 years and never once been asked by a client about certifications, I don’t feel they are necessary.

Some food for thought…

  1. Our industry designations don’t mean a whole lot to clients. They have no way of differentiating. The terms and acronyms we use are industry jargon to them, which means you may as well be speaking Greek. (Heck, I don’t even know what those designations are that you mentioned!). They don’t have any meaningful bearing or relevance in getting clients.
  2. Unfortunately, the impact of the good, reputable certification programs in our industry is diminished by the fact that there are untold numbers of opportunists and exploiters these days who create “certification” programs as personal sales vehicles to earn money and will “certify” anyone who can pay. Client’s don’t know how to tell the difference. Shoot, for all they amount to, you could create your own “certification” graphic and slap it on your site, and it would have about the same effect.
  3. No piece of paper or seal is going to ensure competence. The absolute best credential you can show clients is that competence that you demonstrate in everything you do, every presentation/image of your business, and every interaction you have with potential clients. That demonstration is the one thing that will engage both the rational and emotional senses in clients that make them feel safe and confident in a particular provider. That demonstration is the proof in the pudding, so to speak.

My advice… save your money.

You went into this business, presumably, because you have a body of administrative experience, know-how and masterful skills that you paid your dues to earn and didn’t come overnight. You don’t need to purchase some silly seal of approval to prove that.

Prove it by demonstrating your skill and qualification on your website, in your communications, in your marketing collateral, and in your participation and interactions with your market. That’s what will “seal the deal” and show prospective clients you really are and can do what you say.

You might be interested in a few of my other blog posts on this topic:

Are You Trying Too Hard?

Demonstrate Your Competence

What Can You Tell Me About Credentialing?

How to Turn Business Slow-Down into Opportunity

How to Turn Business Slow-down into Opportunity

Business ebbs and flows for all kinds of reasons: seasonal fluctuations, industry shifts, client departures, to name a few.

If you’re currently experiencing a business slow-down, don’t panic. It’s the normal cycle of things. A slow-down can actually be a great opportunity to improve your business and make it stronger and more purposeful moving forward.

Here are some of the actions you can take to leverage the gift of extra time:

Processes & Policies

  • Systemize your processes. For each process in your business, map out the details step-by-step. Besides being a great start on that SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) manual you’ve been meaning to get done forever, the act of diagramming your operations and workflow helps ferret out gaps and inefficiencies you can then fix.
  • Automate repetitive steps. What actions or steps are always the same in a process or workflow? What questions do you answer over and over? What software or online service can be used to manage and deliver certain functions? The idea is to formalize in writing and consolidate with tools so you aren’t starting from scratch or reinventing the wheel every time. Creating an FAQ (frequently asked questions) that you can email to clients in PDF format or direct them to on your website is an example of automation. Using an autoresponder service to grow your mailing list and deliver scheduled follow-up messages automatically is another example.
  • Switch to upfront payments. You don’t do yourself or your clients any favors allowing them to get into debit with you. By moving to advance fees, your cashflow is immediately improved, administration goes down (because you aren’t dealing with payment terms, collection hassles and chasing down monies due), and clients know what to expect and when and can budget accordingly. (Better yet, get them on auto-pay!)
  • Stop billing by the hour. You limit your earning potential when you base your fees on time. Focus on value and results instead (how you improve your clients’ circumstances and what they gain from working with you). Update your support around packages of bundled value, not hours. This way, you won’t be cheating yourself out of being paid for the results and expertise you deliver just because it doesn’t take you as long to get things done.

Clients

  • Clean house by showing bad clients the door. Constant complainers, nit-pickers, late-payers, non-payers, clients who just don’t get it, anyone you dread hearing from or working with… These kinds of clients are unprofitable and cost your business far more than you realize. You have to let go of poor-fitting clients in order to make room and have more time and energy for your ideal, right-fitting ones.
  • Get feedback from your clients. Make a point of soliciting feedback from all your clients on their opinions and experiences working with you. Use a tool to collect client feedback (they’re more likely to be candid). Besides being a great way to capture testimonials and case study details, you’ll also glean invaluable insight into what clients value most and where you can adjust and improve. Be sure to incorporate regular feedback into your client relations as an automatic part of your process.
  • Get to know your target market better. Invite someone to lunch (you pay) and pick their brain about their field/industry/profession and the business they’re in. Find some folks in your target market to interview over the phone. Put an online survey on your website. The point is to always be learning about your target market, what they want, and what their common interests, goals and challenges are so you can craft your solutions to better fit their needs and speak their language.
  • Explore a new target market. If your current target market isn’t floating your boat or is otherwise not turning out to be a profitable path, it’s time to find one more suitable. Just remember that a viable target market must have a need for what you’re in business to do, able to afford you, and be easily found (online and off) so there’s enough of them to find easily (online and off) and work with.

Offerings & Marketing

  • Innovate for your best/current clients. It’s been said that catering to existing clients costs 11 times less than it does to drum up new ones. So ask yourself… are your current clients aware of all the skills, support areas and services they could be taking advantage of that you offer? Do you see a consistent need within your current client-base and market that you can create new offerings around? How can you hone your current offerings to create even more value?
  • Write at least one awesome freebie white paper/report/guide/tool. Create something that addresses a specific problem or question your target market has and allow it to be disseminated freely around the internet. It’s called viral-marketing and it’s a fabulous way to get the word out and demonstrate your expertise, understanding and know-how.
  • Create new and/or passive income streams. You know your target market. What information can you bundle up for them? What simple, stand-alone services can you offer them separately? What DIY instructions or training can you create for those you can’t work with directly or who otherwise aren’t ready to commit to your premium one-on-one retained support?
  • Devise a simple marketing plan. Consistency is key. Focus on just two or three activities and then commit to taking action, following up and tracking results.

Invest in Yourself

  • Brush up or learn something new. Now is a great time to take that class you’ve been putting off. Increasing your knowledge, updating your skills and learning new ones is always smart business.
  • It’s a no brainer — hire your own Administrative Consultant! An Administrative Consultant can take on much of your back-end administrative work and help you implement all of the ideas on this list. You’ll then have more time to do more marketing and networking, strategizing, working with clients and enjoying life.

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Any of these ideas get you fired up? Have some to add? Do share!