Dear Danielle: Do I Have to Know This and This and That, Too?

Dear Danielle:

My biggest strengths are written and verbal communication, research and word processing. Can I still be successful, or do I need to know things like 1shoppingcart, website design, and desktop publishing to even have a prayer of getting any clients? —KT

I’m going to be annoying and not really answer your question directly. And the reason is because there are several aspects to consider. In pondering those things, you will end up answering the question for yourself.

My first question to you is: Do you know what business you are in (or considering being in)?

Being in business first has to be something you want to be in, want to be doing, enjoy doing and have the qualifications to do.

I mean, it wouldn’t serve you to wake up one day and decide to be a plumber if you have zero interest in pipes and sewage. And it certainly wouldn’t serve any customers you got if you didn’t have the training, experience or qualifications to be a plumber, right?

For this reason, you have to get really clear and cognizant of exactly and specifically what you want to be in business to do.

In this case, you may want to ask yourself: Am I in business to provide administrative support or am I in business to sell individual services?

Because there is a big difference between delivering ongoing administrative support (which is a business category and service offering in and of itself) and selling individual, piecemeal services (which is not support; that is what is called secretarial services).

When you are selling line-item services, the focus is on the individual project and the transaction. But if you are in business to provide administrative support, the product you are really offering is an ongoing, right-hand relationship. The relationship is the focus, not the transactions or individual tasks.

The reason this clarity is important is because it makes all the difference in how you market, articulate your value and attract exactly the right clients who have a need for what you are in business to offer.

Which brings us back to your original question, and the answer to that is:  it depends.

It depends on what you are in business to do, who has a need for what you offer and who you want to work with.

You can be an administrative expert and not have to also be a website designer and a graphic designer and a bookkeeper, etc., etc., if that’s not what you want to do.

Your value isn’t in trying to be every single kind of professional under the sun or to know how to do everything in the world. In fact, it’s really silly to and ineffective to try to do that because you can quickly distract yourself from your focus, spread yourself too thin and dilute your strengths and expertise.

You’re in the driver’s seat. You get to set the expectations and craft your marketing message in a way that attracts exactly who you want it to attract. If you don’t want to do any of those other things you mention, focus clients on the thing you do do and how that helps them in their business.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t do any of those other things. If you want to work with online business owners, knowing HTML and being able to draft up web pages, etc., is something that will add value to what you offer.

Additional divisions and complementary layers of support in your business (such as technical support for 1shoppingcart, for example) are also ways you can add more revenue streams by offering them as stand-alone services or at higher priced support packages.

At the same time, there are plenty of clients doing real-world work and running non-virtual businesses who aren’t going to care a whit whether you know 1shoppingcart and don’t need you to know graphic design because they already have a talented graphic design house they use, thank you very much. They just need you to be focused on administrative support, and, really, that’s plenty as it is!

They certainly wouldn’t turn to you for legal advice if you weren’t an attorney, and they wouldn’t ask you for financial guidance if you weren’t an accountant, right? Of course not. So focus clients on exactly what you are in business to do and explain things so they know, as clear as day, exactly what kind of expert you are and what you are in business.

The trick is to get clear about what you want to be in business to do and then target a market that has a need for exactly that. The more clear you are, the more you’ll attract exactly the right clients.

PS: I think you’d find my business plan template and my Value-Based Pricing & Packaging Toolkit specifically for administrative support businesses very helpful in sorting all this out. It’s not only a template that shows you how a professional business plan should be structured and formatted, it’s also designed to get your thought juices going with regard to these kinds of questions, figure out exactly what kind of business you want to be in and how you can create a multi-layered administrative support business with multiple revenue streams.

4 Responses

  1. Kathleen says:

    Hi Danielle,

    I just wanted to really thank you for taking the time to answer my question. It was a pretty vague question and you gave me some really valuable information and I appreciate it. I guess already knew the answer before I submitted to you but I needed some feedback from someone who has “been there”. I will be buying a copy of the business plan template. I think it will be a tremendous help, thanks for recommending it. Take care! KT

  2. Yelena says:

    Hi Danielle,

    I agree with your advice – to focus on a market that requires the exact skills a VA wants to offer.

    There’s one thing in your post though, the part where you say “The relationship is the focus, not the transactions or tasks”.

    To borrow your own words, “it depends”. It depends on the stage of the client’s business, their previous experience working with a VA, their objectives for hiring a VA, even whether a client is local or not.

    Based on my own experience and after talking to other VAs, I believe the kind of relationship you refer to is only one of the selling points. It comes more into play later on as a retention and referral tool.

    I see more and more VAs offering project-based packages (I guess that would be the line-item services?) in addition to more typical ongoing support retainers. And more and more clients ask for one-time support (which might or might not lead to ongoing work). So tasks and transactions become increasingly more important.

  3. Here’s the thing, Yelena…. it only depends on the client’s situation if the administrative expert allows it to be that way. Likewise, tasks and transactions only become important when the administrative expert doesn’t own her own standards.

    The fact is, most people in our industry are not making any money. And when I say not making any money, I mean most of them are earning less than $10,000 a year. That’s just the cold hard fact of the matter.

    And the reason most of them aren’t is because a) they don’t get clear themselves about what business they are in, b) they don’t expect a commitment (and thus they don’t ever get one), and c) they don’t know how to have a conversation with clients that frames things in a way that allows them to understand why working on an ongoing basis is to their benefit.

    Now, if the administrative expert doesn’t depend on the money they earn in this business to live on—to make house and car payments, pay rent, keep the lights on and food on the table, buy clothes for their kids and so on—because they have another form of income or a spouse, that’s fine for them. They aren’t going to be as concerned about being conscious, intentional and letting external forces rule the standards and decisions they make in their business.

    But my advice is always geared toward people who actually want a real business that earns a real income (who perhaps even have six figure aspirations) that they can actually live on without any other means of support and who also don’t want to have to work themselves to the bone in order to have that kind of business.

    The people who do well are the ones who set their own standards in their business. They determine the commitment they need from clients in order to work together (not the other way around) and they don’t work with clients who don’t fit with that expectation. The reason the commitment is so important is because a) they work themselves to death chasing down project after project which still ultimately doesn’t earn them any great income, and b) support can’t be provided on a sporadic, piecemeal basis.

    I’m not saying don’t ever take on project work. Project work can be a great supplemental revenue stream. But I am saying be choosy about that work. Understand that it is different than providing administrative support. Charge profitably and don’t let nickel and dime project work and clients who can’t commit rule your business and distract your attention and waste your energies.

    And, of course, the administrative expert who earns well with retainer clients alone is in a position to never take on project work or any other kind of distraction if she chooses not to because she already in a place of abundance and choice. Those are the peoples who *really* get to leave their offices every once in awhile and have a life beyond their business. 😉

  4. Danielle,
    Your answer to the original question by Kathleen and your response to Yelena are excellent. I too have wrestled with these issues and it is easy to fall prey to the one-time projects or tasks when starting out. But those are the things that will bore me with time. It’s the long-term administrative support to clients that will keep my days interesting and, hopefully, make my business successful.

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