Archive for June, 2009

Put It on Autopilot

So much to do, so little time to do it. That’s business, right?

We could work 24 hours a day if we let ourselves. There’s always something else to do.

What if you’re looking to see more of life beyond your desk and computer screen, though?

It’s time, then, to automate and streamline a few things…

  1. Use your calendar. Schedule all that can be scheduled. Don’t take meetings on the fly. Follow a basic routine and honor the boundaries you’ve set for your time such as stepping away from the business and into family time at a certain point in the day. It’s much easier to prioritize your work (and your life) when you’ve got control over what’s on your plate.
  2. Organize incoming emails. Utilize whatever tools are provided by your email client to the fullest. If you use Outlook, make use of flags and rules. You can set things up so that emails go straight into particular folders. It’s much easier (and less overwhelming) to sort through and prioritize messages when they’re already organized for you.
  3. Automate your bills. If you have recurring bills each month, set them up on autopay. Whenever possible, pay annually—you may even save a chunk of change that way as well. For other bills, take advantage of the ease and convenience of online Bill Pay, which comes with most checking accounts these days. It will save you the steps and cost of writing checks, addressing envelopes and paying for stamps.
  4. Use an RSS reader. Blog-reading is a great way to expand your business knowledge and keep up with your target market and industry info (not to mention a nice distraction when you need a mental break now and then). But it can also easily turn into a full-time job trying to keep up with all of them. Instead, use an RSS reader to organize all of your blog reading (my favorite is NewsBlur). You can create categories or sort blogs by importance. Tip: Schedule your blog reading into your routine so that you don’t miss a thing, but aren’t being wasteful with your time and energy reserves.
  5. Set your listserv subscriptions to digest mode. Instead of a constant incoming stream of (often irrelevant) messages that you have to spend time deleting, elect digest mode instead. You’ll save time and the threads will come to you already organized. You can then click on just those conversations you’re interested and ignore the rest.
  6. Use a tickler file. This is a system where you have 31 folders representing all the possible days in a month. This is a great way to organize to-do’s and clear paper clutter from your desk. This will free your mind from worrying about anything that isn’t in that particular day’s folder. Weren’t able to take care of something that day? No problem; simply move it forward to the next appropriate day’s folder. TIP: You can do this in your email client as well. Simply set up folders for each day of the week and move messages and to-dos around accordingly.

© Copyright 2009 by Danielle Keister for the Administrative Consultants Association. You are granted permission to republish this article only if used without alteration in its entirety with this copyright notice, title, article content, resource, and links intact.

Dear Danielle: Should I Hire an Employee, Work with a Colleague or Bring in a Partner?

Dear Danielle:

I wanted to know your advice on growing. I am just on the verge of maybe needing help. Do I hire a colleague with her own company, hire an employee, or bring in a partner? I just don’t know. I feel like hiring is taking me out of the industry that I hold so near and dear to my heart. Also, do you have advice on how to select a person to bring into your business. I have had some offers from people, but they’re not familiar with the industry. Not sure if this is a good or bad thing. Could be good to teach someone from ground zero, but also time-consuming. –LE

Here’s what I find myself reminding colleagues of frequently:

Just because you’re solo doesn’t mean you need or should be working alone.

Being a solopreneur doesn’t mean you need to do everything yourself.

It simply means that the stock you’re trading is in your own intellectual capital and your unique personal skill, talent, know-how and experience.

Those aren’t things you can delegate, but you can certainly surround yourself with the right professional support so that you can focus doing what you do with your clients and let those who support you do the rest.

Those supporting you might include:

  • A bookkeeper so that you aren’t expending your time on that work (and also ensuring that it’s done correctly);
  • An accountant to make sure you stay in compliance with any financial or taxing agencies and to give you the best financial management advice; and/or
  • A business attorney to draft and/or review your contracts (both those in your own business as well as those others may want you to sign), run your legal questions by, and get advice on situations that hold potential liability for you and any other business matters that arise.

I also recommend that colleagues get their own Administrative Consultant, staff or a combination of both.

When you work with someone who you develop a relationship with over time, the possibilities are endless with regard to the support they can provide.

As they get to know you and how things work in your business, they’re able to support you in a way and to a degree that you just can’t get by outsourcing individual tasks here and there to people you don’t work with consistently.

On top of that, there’s greater ease and efficiency when you have someone you work closely and continuously like that.

You may even identify non-critical parts of the work you do with clients that don’t require your particular brand of expertise that you can have them do for you.

Of course, the relationship is always between you and your client and I never recommend outsourcing that.

When clients hire you, it’s for your brain, your critical thinking, your creativity and your expertise. Never abdicate that. It’s part of your value and part of the thing that makes your business distinctive.

But that doesn’t mean that parts of the work can’t be delegated within your own house to an employee or your own Administrative Consultant whom you have hired because they have impeccable skills and in whom you have absolute confidence. In fact, I will tell you that you will always be stuck within a certain income level if you don’t ever get your own help.

As already mentioned, another way to get support is to hire an employee or two.

You really don’t need much help in order for that support to make a hugely significant difference in your business. And there are all kinds of ways to get that kind of help.

You can hired paid interns from local colleges. You can participant in state work-study programs (where the state will repay you a percentage of whatever wages are paid to the student employee).

Of course with employees, there is more administration and taxes and reporting requirements involved, but if you have a professional bookkeeper, you should have them take care of processing paychecks and so forth.

I personally like a combination of both. I like to have someone in-house who can take care of filing and other things that just require a physical presence. Once a week or two for a few hours, just light clerical stuff. Someone like that you might not even end up paying more than $600 in a year in which case you wouldn’t be required to formally process that person as an employee.

But for the bigger, more important meat-and-potatoes work, if you will, I definitely recommend hiring the best, most highly skilled person you can afford.

Training just takes too much time and energy. And it doesn’t happen overnight.

Think about your own background. It took years to establish the kind of skill and expertise you now possess. How much time and energy will you have to invest before that unskilled, untrained person becomes a real, viable asset to your business rather than a drain? Just something to think about.

Which is why hiring a colleague (who is themselves a business owner) is the better option in my book.

As far as bringing on a partner, I can only offer my opinion which is emphatically: NOOOOOOO! Don’t do it!

Seriously, I have never seen a business partnership end well.

There are far too many agreements and understandings and potentialities to take into consideration.

And it seems it’s always the one thing you didn’t think about ahead of time that ends up causing a rift.

There can really only ever be one captain of a ship. Two will inevitably bump heads, want to steer in different directions or be the boss.

And regardless of legalities, the person who started the business always feels (at least emotionally) that they “own” more of the business and that feeling of “more ownership” often causes resentment with the other partner.

Decision-making, conflicting workstyles, having to compromise, differing visions or opinions… all of these things become more tedious and cumbersome. They complicate and slow down the business.

On top of that, the business now has to earn for two owners instead of just the one: you.

I don’t think you need a partner. I think you just need the right professional advisors, and business support and strategies.

Being Solo Doesn’t Mean Doing It Alone

I read an article today in one of the newsletters I keep up with that talked about the myth of being a successful solopreneur by bootstrapping.

This is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about myself so it came at the right time and got me in gear.

Administrative Consulting is inherently a solo-based business model due to the close, collaborative relationship the concept is based on.

But running a solo business does NOT mean doing everything yourself. By no means at all!

Just as we advise our clients and remind the marketplace that they simply can’t (and shouldn’t) do it all themselves and trying to do so will keep them from becoming successful, the same is true for Administrative Consultants.

I’m always advising colleagues: Get support, sooner rather than later.

Now, I’m not talking about farming out colleagues to clients. That’s not administrative support whatsoever. That’s virtual staffing (and lots of times, the ways in which many people are doing it is flat-out illegal).

What I’m talking about is hiring the employees and/or providers to help you run your business behind the scenes.

Don’t do your own bookkeeping–hire a bookkeeper.

Have an accountant take care of your taxes.

Maintain a relationship with a business attorney to answer legal questions when they arise.

Hire employees and/or your own Administrative Consultant to take care of the administrative work necessary to run your business and take on portions of your own client work that don’t require your personal expertise.

Leave certain jobs to the right professionals (for example, having a professional web designer create a business site that will attract clients, place well in the search engines and act as an actual marketing tool for your business).

Having all the key players to help you run your business will leave you to focus on clients, help you grow to the next level, and give you more free time and mental space to brainstorm and just enjoy life.

Hey, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t go into business with the intention that all I’d ever have time for was work and being chained to my computer.

Trust me, you’ll never make it to a six figure business without others helping you and supporting your business.

Regularity is Necessary to the Relationship

One of the great things about working with an Administrative Consultant is that her interest is in supporting your business as a whole, the idea being that in understanding how your business runs, what your goals and objectives are, she can work with your business’s bigger picture in mind.

Why is that more helpful to you?

Because ongoing work and projects can be completed so they fit better and make more sense in the larger context of your business. In turn, it make your workflows more seamless, your systems more streamlined and efficient, and allows you to improve your service and communication with your own clients and customers.

When big picture support is what you’re looking for in an Administrative Consultant, regularity becomes a very necessary ingredient in building upon the relationship and creating continuity.

It’s the difference between “intermittent/transactional” support and “ongoing/systemic” support.

Here are some of the conditions needed to set the stage:

1. Work with an Administrative Consultant on retainer rather than task by task. When you make a commitment to work together in a continuous — not sporadic — basis, it allows your Administrative Consultant to gain perspective and understanding needed to focus on your overall goals and objectives instead of the merely the task at hand.

2. Think “big picture” rather than “transaction.” When you just hand off a task here and there transactionally, your Administrative Consultant can only get done what’s immediately before her. When you work together in an ongoing way, she begins to understand why certain tasks are done, where they fit into the overall scheme of things, how they affect other systems and processes, and how they might be done better or differently to fit in with what you’re ultimately trying to accomplish.

3. Meet regularly. An Administrative Consultant is going to have her own systems and process for working with clients that facilitate relationship-building. One of the way they do this is by meeting with clients over the phone on a regular basis. Be open to scheduling this into your weekly routine as it’s a critical component in getting to know each other and working together smoothly.

RESOURCE: Learn more about how Administrative Consultants support your business as a whole: Clients Guide to Administrative Consultants

© Copyright by Danielle Keister for the Administrative Consultants Association. You are granted permission to republish this article only if used without alteration in its entirety with this copyright notice, title, article content, resource, and links left intact.

Dear Danielle: Should I Get Involved Beyond What I Am Hired to Do?

Dear Danielle:

My question is about how much I should get involved with my clients’ businesses outside of what I am hired to do. One client wanted to know if I saw her speaking video on YouTube and I hadn’t. I didn’t even know about  it. I think she was disappointed to hear that I hadn’t seen the video. Disappointed in a way that I may not know enough about her and her business. I have many clients and I am just wondering if I should be keeping up with their daily business in this manner, when I am hired to do the administrative side. If this is something I need to be doing, I will certainly make the time, but I am just not sure. –LE

I’ll be honest with you… I don’t have an exact answer for you on this one because it comes down to personal choice.

Ultimately, the client relationship is one that you’ll have to suss out yourself as you go along, and decide on whatever degree of involvement or intimacy, if you will, you’re comfortable with and what’s right for you.

I can only share with you my thoughts and opinions, but maybe that’s enough to help you figure out what you want to do.

I will say that there is no “should” or “need.” The kind or level of relationship you want to have with clients in your business is completely up to you.

I think the nice aspect about this client is that she wants a relationship with you.

It validates that this is something that clients really value and want to have with their Administrative Consultant. It’s something to be grateful for.

The flip side of this is that perhaps this is a client who may turn out to be too needy, which I hate to say, but I gotta be honest, can be a real pain in the butt.

If she needs a whole lotta extra hand-holding and validation, it can turn into a real energy drain.

This is business after all. You have your own life, your own interests and events, not to mention other clients.

Of course, we often become close with our clients. But being hired to be their best friend I’m sure wasn’t part of the bargain.

Our level of closeness with clients, or particular clients, is something that happens organically in its natural course.

Either way, you can’t possibly be expected to know every detail of your clients’ lives and businesses. And to some extent, I personally feel there is benefit to keeping somewhat of a professional distance.

Too often, when you get to be too touchy-feely friends with each other, your time and emotional energy can become drained. That can make it a little bit harder to stand firm in your policies and boundaries and standards.

Do you know what I mean?

Have you ever had a friend ask for a favor and you find it harder to say “no” because of the fact they are a friend?

We’re all human. We all have a tougher time saying “no” to family and friends to some degree or another.

Assertiveness with those who are extra close to us is an ongoing effort. That’s what I mean about there being some benefit to keeping a bit of a professional distance.

Of course you want to like your clients and be interested in them (and if you choose them right, you will).

You want to be friendly and personable with each other, but you don’t have to become best friends. That’s not something that can be forced or purchased anyway. This is a business relationship after all.

So all that is to say, no, you can’t be expected to know all the goings-on of your clients and their businesses.

You’re not a mind reader and you can’t be in all places at once.

If you didn’t work on the video, weren’t involved in the event in any way, and she didn’t tell you, how can she expect you to know?

Is she going to be as equally interested in the goings-on in your business? Is there a two-way relationship?

What else is she going to expect you to be all-knowing about (which is just plain impossible and unrealistic)?

Whichever way you want to go is the right way.

YOU get to decide what your boundaries and standards are in your business.

If you decide that there’s a degree to which the intimacy, so to speak, is a bit beyond a business level than you are comfortable with, that’s perfectly okay.

If you decide you really want to be more involved in your clients’ businesses and be their personal rah-rah section, that’s okay, too. We all cheer our clients on.

I get the sense that you’re feeling it’s a bit more than is warranted of the business relationship, perhaps because it’s not at a particular natural stage yet, and especially when you aren’t a mind reader.

Heck, you might decide this is creating much too much existential agonizing about this and decide there’s not a fit and let the client the go. That’s perfectly okay, too.

But if you want to continue to try to work with this client, the very best thing you can do is have an open, honest dialogue.

On top of anything else, it’s a great opportunity to further understand each other and clarify expectations and understandings.

Let her know you appreciate that she cares whether you know about her successes and that by all means you want to cheer her on. Then invite her to email you whenever there is something she’d like you to know about or share her success in with you just in case it’s not something you would necessarily know about.

Veddy Interestink

You can draw your own conclusions, if there are any to be made, but I find this pattern very interesting (and it’s definitely a pattern)…

Our professional association is geared strictly and specifically for those in the administrative support business.

We are administrative experts. We specialize in providing ongoing administrative support to clients they work with in one-on-one, continuous relationships.

We spell out very clearly on our home page, registration page and a number of other places that we do not represent virtual staffing agencies, secretarial services or multi/team VA businesses (so please don’t try to join if you are running one of those businesses).

I don’t know how much more clear we can make it.

Nothing against those kinds of businesses, but they are completely different business models and not the same thing whatsoever.

They operate differently. They provide a very different solution from what we in the administrative support business provide. And they get to profitability and financial success in completely different ways.

Our work and our conversations are geared specifically and exclusively toward the folks who want to learn how to best run a solo practice working directly with clients one-on-one and becoming financially profitable and successful (don’t ever listen to those folks who say a six figure solo practice is impossible because it’s not!).

Yet, almost to a one, on the occasion when someone running a virtual staffing agency or multi/team VA business registers for our community, they are the ones who inevitably fail to follow directions and who it’s clear haven’t read a darn thing. Literally.

I could get rich taking bets that anytime a VSA registers, they aren’t going to follow directions. It happens nearly every. single. time.

And then they get indignant when they’re not approved.

For God’s sake, you can’t read, you don’t pay attention, you didn’t follow directions, you register anyway when the criteria clearly excludes you because you aren’t a solo administrative support provider who works directly with clients, and you want to get pissed off at us? How crazy it that? You’re the one wasting both our time.

On the other hand, those who are actually in the solo administrative support business consistently as a group demonstrate an ability to pay attention.

When they apply, it’s clear they have read the things that are indicated to be read because they subsequently follow directions correctly.

As a group, they show a superior command of spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.

They exercise better judgment and discernment and they provide very articulate, intelligent, thoughtful responses to questions that are posed.

What a joy it is to deal with those folks! And what a joy it is to represent them as an organization!

If I was a client, I’d be very concerned about the competence and qualification of anyone who couldn’t demonstrate those things.

Look, if the criteria excludes you, it excludes you. Why waste your time and ours?

And if you can’t at least demonstrate competence with us by reading carefully and following directions, how can you expect us to represent you to the clients who comes to us seeking competent, qualified Administrative Consultants?

We can’t in good conscience tell the marketplace that we stand for a high standard of excellence if the people we accept are unable to operate to that standard.

How to Build Trust and Credibility on Your Website

When your business is virtual, your website becomes your “office” and the public face of your business.

However, because it’s virtual, your clients and prospects can’t step into your office to get any sense about the personality of your business and its professionalism and legitimacy… Or can they?

Just because you run an online business doesn’t mean can’t give visitors a helpful and welcoming reception and positive impression as a brick-and-mortar office does.

There are small  details you can provide on your website that have a powerful impact in establishing rapport and instilling trust and confidence in your prospective clients .

  1. Your Name. People want to know who it is they are doing business with. Your name gives them someone to identify with and humanizes the connection. Clearly display your name, if not on all the pages of your site, at least on your Contact and About pages. Lead your business loud and proud and see what a difference it makes.
  2. Address. It doesn’t matter if you use a physical address or a post office box — just have an address of some kind on your website (but don’t use your home address for security reasons). This isn’t a logical thing; it satisfies a psychological need. People are simply more trusting of a business that clearly displays an address. And trust — particularly for online businesses — is the name of the game in getting clients.
  3. Contact Info. Don’t make it difficult for your site visitors to figure out how to contact you. The more clearly you display contact info, the better visitors feel about your site. The best sites not only display at least their basic contact info on all pages of their site, but also consolidate their full information (including hours of operation and other helpful data) on a Contact page of some sort.
  4. Photo. Nothing does more to create rapport than providing a photo of yourself on your website. Make sure you display your photo on at least your Home and/or About and Contact pages. Most of us don’t like our own photos, but you have to tell yourself to get over it. Because it’s not about being the best looking, it’s about humanizing the business and giving your site visitors someone to connect with. Forget the cheesy glamour shots and unnecessary Photoshopping. Don’t use any photo that is more than five years old; better yet, take a fresh, current photo of the real you. Wearing something simple and professionally modest is perfectly fine. The most important, stylish thing you should be wearing in your photo is your smile.
  5. Your Office. If you have a separate office area that is presentable (such as a dedicated room or space in your home that you have turned into your office), take a photo and put that on your site. Prospective clients like to see these glimpses into your operations. It makes it more real to them and they get a sense of who you are as a person at the same time.
  6. Don’t be a robot. Long gone are the days of impersonal corporate-speak and the royal “we.” Speak directly to your site visitor in an everyday conversational way as if they were sitting right there in the room with you.
  7. It’s not about you. Never forget that your site is for your visitors, not an indulgence for your ego. I don’t know how to put this more delicately, but when folks are shopping for solutions, they don’t care about you. They are looking with a “what’s in it for me” mentality. They want to know what you do and how you do it as it applies to their interests, their needs. They want that information provided from their perspective, not yours. That means using lots of “you” in your writing rather than “I” and “we.” If you have lots of “I” and “we” in your copy now, go through and do a more personalized rewrite with a “you” perspective. It will really transform the whole personality of your content–you’ll see.

 

© Copyright by Danielle Keister for the Administrative Consultants Association. You are granted permission to republish this article only if used without alteration in its entirety with this copyright notice, title, article content, resource, and links left intact.

Dear Danielle: What List Management System Do You Recommend

Dear Danielle:

I have enjoyed learning about becoming a better administrative support business owner through your newsletter and forms. My question now is I have a client that wants me to manage his membership database and newsletter formatting and sending. Is there a system that you have used or recommend for this? His database contains over 800 email addresses and names and is done as an excel spreadsheet. His newsletter content is coming from another source and it is expected that I manage that. Any Hints? Recommendations? Thanks –BD

I’d need a bit more information about the context of his membership database to share any thoughts there (e.g., who is added and how and when, and what are his objectives for collecting and using the information?), but as far as ezines, I always encourage clients to go with a list management, autoresponder and distribution tool such as Aweber.

Managing ezine subscribers via an excel spreadsheet is so inefficient and archaic.

Tools like Aweber not only automate the function of opting in subscribers, it provides the tools to create ezine templates, schedule them ahead of time for publication, utilize autoresponder capabilities, allow subscribers to manage their own subscriptions and the client to leverage and maximize their networking and marketing to a greater, more consistent degree.

With Aweber you can use one of the many basic ezine templates they provide for free, modify one of their templates or upload your own ezine format in HTML. It’s super flexible and easy to use.

You can also upload as many issues ahead of time as you wish and set each of them to publish automatically according to whatever dates you have indicated.

The broadcast messaging allows you schedule ezines or any other kind of one-off communications you wish to go out to your lists. And you can have as many lists as you wish: one for your ezine subscribers, one for your members, one for teleseminar registrations, etc.

The autoresponders are another great tool you get with Aweber. With autoresponders, you can set up a series of follow-up communications to go out automatically in sequential time intervals rather than specific dates.

For example, some people use autoresponders to offer e-courses. Subscribers who are interested will opt-in to the list and the autoresponders will issue the first lesson, then the second lesson 7 days after that (or however many days interval you indicate), and so on.

Aweber’s tracking, reporting and analysis tools are incredible, and it’s got the highest whitelist ratings and best delivery rates of all the other services.

So you see, simply storing names and contact info in a spreadsheet really doesn’t do much for you. With an autoresponder/list management service such as Aweber, not only are you streamlining all the work and processes that go into list building, but also automating and making dynamic use of the information and actually putting it into action. I would definitely encourage your client in that direction.

Aweber will allow him to import an existing list, but it must be washed clean first of any obsolete email addresses and the subscribers will have to confirm their desire to opt-in again.

Moving to any new system like that he can expect to lose some of the people on his current list (some experts say the rule of thumb is about 50%) so it’s not entirely painless.

However, you want to help him understand that communicating or trying to maintain a relationship with folks who aren’t interested in the first place isn’t effort that is well-placed.

Aweber will help him build his list back up and what’s better is that he’ll be gaining people who really do have an interest and want to hear from him (as opposed to continuing to send out messages to people he’s merely collected business cards from who may not have any interest in his business or hearing from him).

A Few Words About Testimonials and Public Client Lists

There are all kinds of good reasons to use testimonials on your business website and marketing, but be sure to pay attention to these caveats first:

  1. Make sure the clients whose testimonials you use are aware that they may get contacted by your prospects. It’s never a good idea to put clients in a position of being caught off guard.
  2. Make sure those clients are happy to talk with your prospects. Only display the contact info of clients who absolutely don’t mind being contacted. If contact from your potential clients is going to irritate or inconvenience them in any way, don’t provide their contact info to the general public.
  3. Assign and use testimonials according to these three levels:

a) Public testimonial with full client names, photo, links and contact info;

b) Public testimonial with just client’s name and/or company (no direct contact info); or

c) Private testimonial and contact info provided only to prospective clients who are in the advanced stages of the consultation/retainer process.

I also thought I’d address client lists in this post and why displaying your full client roster may not always be a good thing.

First, understand that the reason you’ll see colleagues displaying a client list is that it gives the appearance that they have “all” these clients and are super successful.

That’s not a bad thing per se. It also might not be the truth.

It can be misleading because these lists sometimes include people they’ve worked for that are merely one-time/occasional project customers and not actual, long-term retained clients.

You’ll have to decide whether you want to take the chance of being viewed by some clients and prospects as being deceptive if they eventually learn the actual truth.

And here’s another reason. It’s not very pretty, but it’s something to be aware of nonetheless: If you provide a public listing of your clients, there are others in our industry who will try to steal them.

Some will even call your clients posing as prospects and try to glean some competitive intelligence about your company and your work with that client.

It’s icky and goes against industry ethics, but it happens.

My recommendation is not to provide your full client roster to the public. Instead, use a sprinkling of testimonials from those clients (just a small handful, or even just one or two is plenty) who you know to be absolutely loyal to you.

Happy clients are going to stay with you, but that doesn’t mean you have to lay a direct path for any would-be interlopers to bother them.

On the other side of the coin, I’ve also heard from clients who’ve commented that they’ve found their names on client lists even though they weren’t happy with that Administrative Consultant’s skills or service.

You’d think it would go without saying, but since it’s not, I’ll spell it out: It’s not to your benefit to list people who haven’t had a satisfactory experience working with you. If that’s the case, they aren’t going to appreciate being contacted off-guard by your potential clients, and they aren’t likely to give you a glowing recommendation.

When all is said and done, hype and smoke and mirrors really isn’t a good policy. There has to be substance to back up the image you project.

Grow your business authentically and truthfully, and it will reward you in dividends a hundredfold.