Archive for June, 2010

Dear Danielle: Is It Possible to Start a Virtual Assistant Biz in Japan

Dear Danielle:

I have 30 years of diverse administrative experience.  My husband is transferring to Japan and civilian employment is very difficult to come by where we’re being stationed.  Is it possible/feasible to start up an administrative support business from overseas?  I have a modern, complete home office set-up.  Any advice or assistance you can provide is greatly appreciated. –KF

Absolutely, it’s possible!

You’ve got the experience. You’ve got your home office set-up. Perfect.

As with any new business, there is always a learning curve when it comes to running and managing a business successfully and profitably. And you’ll need to get your foundations in place.

But everyone goes through those stages, so that’s nothing out of the ordinary.

And most importantly, you aren’t restricted to your local area as far as finding clients. That’s the beauty of the kind of work we do — it’s done remotely and all you need to work with clients is the internet and email.

You don’t mention whether you are intending to seek local clients in Japan. I’m not sure what the market is like there or how receptive they are to this kind of working so naturally, as you would with any market, you’ll need to do your research.

I would advise you to  steer clear of the term “Virtual Assistant.”

Anymore, it’s associated with cheap gopher labor rather than skilled, professional expertise. Plus, people have never understood what it meant in the first place.

Instead. as long as you are specifically in the ongoing administrative support business, use our term of Administrative Consultant and “administrative support.” This makes it much clearer to people what we are and what kind of work we do.

And consider this, accountants don’t go to their clients’ office to do their work. People don’t expect their attorneys to come to their offices to conduct their work.

With few exceptions, no professional service provider does their work on any clients’ premises.

They might make courtesy visits for client relations purposes. They might conduct consultations face-to-face. But their actual work is done in their own offices or places of business.

What we do is no different.

If you learn to put things in the right light, avoid the word “assistant” at all costs, and compare yourself to any other service provider they might hire, clients won’t expect that you are going to be coming to their offices to work.

They will see you as any other professional with a particular area of expertise (in our case, that’s administrative support) they hire to provide a service.

Which is why geography isn’t a barrier for doing what we do. We can pretty much work with anyone, anywhere.

So if you find that the market in Japan is difficult or less receptive, you have the entire rest of the world, including your own native country, in which to find clients.

At the same time, while geography isn’t a barrier and we often never meet our clients face-to-face (especially if they are in completely different states or countries from us), this makes establishing trust, rapport, credibility and confidence even more important.

Your business website, your social media accounts, your blog, your marketing materials… all of those become the visible, tangible representations and demonstrations of your competence and legitimacy as a business.

So, you’ll want to put top priority and care into how they look as they will become your “face” to prospective clients. They’ll either feel safe or suspicious based on what they see.

It’s an emotional comfort thing. An attorney might not work at the client’s office, but the client at least knows where the office is. Just knowing the attorney is in town or nearby gives the client comfort.

It’s the same thing for us. Logical or not, we have to make up in trust and credibility what we lack in face-to-face availability. Your location becomes less relevant the better you are able to do that.

On Making Mistakes

An updated version of this article appears here: How to Talk About Mistakes with Clients Before They Happen

Buyer Beware

Just saw this announcement from a new virtual assistant who has no clients and only charges $15 an hour:

“Coming Soon! Workshops and classes on how to be a successful VA.”

I’m sure this is a perfectly lovely person with the best of intentions, but it’s painfully clear that as far as virtual assistance goes, she doesn’t have any business teaching this subject to anyone (or more importantly, taking their money) when she doesn’t know what it takes to work with clients and run a profitable, successful business herself.

If she were to just focus on her own business (what a crazy idea!) and put half the time and effort into it as trying to sell knowledge and expertise she doesn’t have to unsuspecting hopefuls, she might eventually achieve some actual success.

Buyer beware.

What Do You Love About Your Favorite Client?

What is it about your favorite client that makes him or her your favorite?

My favorite client is easy to work and get along with.

He’s been my willing guinea pig whenever I want to try something new (because he knows his business will end up benefiting in the long run).

He’s funny and easy-going.

He responds quickly to all my emails and never keeps me waiting or guessing.

We have great brainstorming sessions and he readily asks for and takes my advice.

I feel respected as a professional and the administrative expert in our relationship.

We’ve had some ouches along the way, like when he had to pay more money to keep working with me.

In the end, though he might grumble a little at first, he always realizes he makes more money, and his life and business are a lot easier, because of my support and expertise.

We make a great team.

How about you? What makes working with your favorite client a joy?

Dear Danielle: Can I Collect Unemployment While Starting My Administrative Support Business?

Dear Danielle: Can I Collect Unemployment While Starting My Administrative Support Business?

Dear Danielle:

I am new to the industry. I have been laid off so many times in the past 11 years that I have just lost faith in employers. I was given this idea back in 2003 to start an administrative support business, but was too scared. I was laid off again in September 2009 and my idea came back, but this time stronger, so I decided to pursue it and start my business. I am currently on unemployment and would like some advice on how to run a business while on assistance. My state’s Department of Licensing is no help to me and I am hearing that I have to be very careful having a business while getting benefits. As you probably know, while on unemployment insurance, you must do job searches and this takes all day. Looking for a job IS a job in itself and is very time consuming. I am single and I have no other income so I need my benefits. –GA

Great question! I bet there are lots of folks in the same boat so hopefully this conversation helps them as well.

Unless they are from your state or local unemployment agency, it would be irresponsible for anyone to give you any advice regarding your unemployment benefits.

Your state’s Department of Licensing is also not any help when it comes to advising your about unemployment benefits because it’s not their place.

It’s important to direct your questions about unemployment benefits directly to your state/local unemployment agency. Only they can tell you what the rules and guidelines are when it comes to collecting unemployment benefits.

Ask them whether you are allowed to work on starting a business while collecting benefits. How does it work if you do happen to get a client and they pay you money? What are your reporting requirements? How will it affect your benefit amounts? What if you put all that money back into the business?

Many years ago, I had a friend who started a hair salon after getting laid off. She was able to collect unemployment benefits while still running the business and receiving payments from customers. This was because she was not personally collecting a paycheck and put everything back into the business. This was allowable under our state’s employment insurance rules at that time.

Your state agency might have similar allowances. But again, I want to emphasize that you MUST talk with your own unemployment office to get the facts pertinent to your particular situation. Different states have different rules, and rules and programs change all the time.

This could actually be a very opportune time for you to begin setting up your business foundations, while you are collecting unemployment and don’t have any clients. This would include going through the business planning process, determining what target market (i.e., industry/field/profession) to focus your administrative support on, thinking of a name and securing a domain, working on your website content and marketing message, getting your contracts and other client/business documents ready, etc.

You’ll always be honing, tweaking and improving things as you go along, but getting these basics in place now will give your business a greater chance of succeeding once you’re ready to start accepting clients. And once you find out how client monies paid to you are to be handled and reported while collecting unemployment, that will help you determine how to best proceed from there.

Plus, keep in mind, with today’s technology, you can also hunt for work electronically instead of wasting gas and literally spending hours beating the pavement. Find out what qualifies as job-seeking. How many contacts are you required to have each week? Does it all have to be brick-and-mortar or do phone calls to employers and emailing resumes count?

And who knows, even thought it’s not employment per se, working in your own business is still self-employment and they may, therefore, allow your business start-up work to meet some of your job-seeking obligations. They may even have some further resources and programs to help you in that effort. You never know unless you ask, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Knowing the answers to these questions will allow you to streamline your job-search activities so you have more time to simultaneously work on your setting up the business.

One last thought… I like to always remind folks that while employer paid, unemployment insurance is a benefit you earned by working. It’s not welfare so you should never feel ashamed about collecting it.

I mention this only because I know there are lots of folks who think unemployment is a handout. Those who didn’t work for a living are not eligible for UI, which means those who collect it only get it because they were contributing members of society in the workforce.

Plus, the goal of the unemployment agency is to get people back to work. I’m sure there are some backwards agencies out there, but I know there are just as many that offer a great deal of assistance and programs to help you in your business-starting efforts, not hold you back.

You might have your work cut out for you, but keep fighting to get the info and help you need. Good luck!

The Difference Between Project Work and Providing Support

Here’s one way to understand the difference between project work and providing support:

A one-time project is like a one-night stand. You are strangers and don’t know each other at all. You do it once and never see that person again.

Occasional project work with a repeat customer is like a booty call or friends-with-benefits. You might get in bed together once awhile, but you’re there for one thing with no other strings attached. There’s only a very superficial level of familiarity.

Providing administrative support is about being in a relationship with a client. You’re both there for the big picture and know that initimate knowledge and understanding of each other can only be shared, grown and deepened in an ongoing, committed relationship.

Does This Hurt Our Relationship?

As you may know, I frequently have to deal with new people in our industry (as well as some who are not so new who damn well know better) who have stolen or plagiarized content from me.

It’s my policy to give folks one chance to make things right.

Beyond that, I hand it over to my intellectual property attorney.

If I am particularly offended by the thief’s attitude and lack of accountability, I let folks know about it here on my blog.

Recently, yet another newcomer had content on her site that belonged to me. Now, as I’ve said before, I don’t go out of my way to hunt for this stuff. But when it comes right under my nose, when they have the balls to steal from me and then register to belong to my community, that’s a personal affront.

She eventually made things right, explaining that her web designer is the one who wrote up her content and she had no idea he was taking verbiage from other colleagues’ sites. She “thought it was funny” when he emailed her to take a look once it was done. As she read the home page, she thought to herself, “Wow, this guy sure knows a lot about the industry.”

She hoped that this hadn’t hurt our professional relationship in any way.

I could shine her on and be all fake and phony and tell her, “Oh, of course not!” But that would be a lie.

Once you steal from someone or do them harm in some way, they are naturally going to be distrustful of you.

I mean, I don’t know you from Adam and this is my first experience with you?

If you didn’t demonstrate integrity and common sense in the first place, what reason do I have to think you will in the future?

And since we’re being honest here, “my web designer did it” is what they ALL say.

That excuse is only ever really the truth maybe 1% or 2% of the time. It’s not my problem to figure out which is the case.

Life is too short to waste your time on people who have broken trust, particularly when you have no prior relationship with them in the first place.

Why would I want to have a relationship with someone I felt guarded around and like I’d need to keep looking over my shoulder with them?

I wouldn’t. Not when there are millions of other people in the world to be friends with who don’t start our relationship out by stealing from me. You are the one responsible for creating my view of you as someone who is untrustworthy.

I do appreciate her efforts to mend the relationship. But she’s going to have to keep in mind that having made me wary of her, it might take awhile.

Who knows, it might not happen at all. I don’t feel any obligation to extend any extraordinary benefit of the doubt to people who start our relationship out like this. It’s just too much energy.

So the real answer to her question (and I write about this here because there are lots of people out there who need to hear this) is that yes, it very much affects your professional relationships when you steal from people or engage in any other unethical conduct.

Sure, people can and do make mistakes. But when you make a mistake, you still have to accept the consequences of your actions. And that might include the fact that you have cost yourself some opportunities and relationships.

To the 1-2% of folks where “my web designer did it” is actually the case, what you need to understand is that web designers are not copywriters (generally speaking). Whether they took the content or you did, you are still responsible for what’s on your website.

No one knows our industry like our own people so if you marvel at how much someone who isn’t in the admin support business knows about our industry, chances are they really don’t. They just took stuff from other people.

Write your own content. Or hire a real copywriter. Either way, anytime someone writes something for you, ask them very directly if they took content from any other sites. And if you find out that a web designer or anyone else writing on your behalf simply took or plagiarized someone else’s stuff, make sure you inform them loud and clear that that is copyright infringement, that it is unethical and illegal, and they have opened you (as well as themselves) up to legal liability.

And by the way, there isn’t one good reason you can’t come up with your own, unique content. In fact, I’ve written a very simple, comprehensive guide that walks you step-by-step through the process of crafting your very own unique and compelling marketing message. It’s called “Understanding Your Value.” Get that guide you’ll never have to “borrow” from anyone or use tired old industry rhetoric ever again.

Dear Danielle: How Do I Work with Clients Virtually?

Dear Danielle:

In talking with my business coach we have decided I should use my 18 years office administration and customer service skills to start an administrative support business. I’m losing my current work position in June of this year so I’m hoping to have my business established by then. One area I’m struggling with is how I perform my current skills for business owners strictly from my home office? Is there specific software I should have, etc?  How are others accomplishing these tasks from their home offices? Plus, there are some tasks I don’t know how to do at this point. —SC

New software, services and technologies emerge every day so there isn’t a way to give you one single, static list of everything you might possibly use.

One reason is because I don’t know who your target market is (a target market is simply an industry/field/profession you cater your admin support to).

That makes a big difference because while there will be some general overlap (e.g., Microsoft Word, Excel, etc.) the software and tech tools you would need to work with one industry/profession may not necessarily be the same for another.

For example, are they professionals providing a service or are they a sales business? Different industries/professions have different business models, work with clients differently, market differently, etc, and that will entail different support and require different appproaches in supporting them.

So it really depends on what industry/profession you’re going to support and the work involved in supporting them. Once you know that, you can then better determine what tools you’ll need.

That said, here is what I can tell you generally:

1. One trait I notice a lot in our industry is people tend to make things far more complicated than need be, which only increases their workload and makes their business harder to manage. In large part, you and your client don’t need anything more complicated and involved to communicate other than simply emailing each other. With email, you don’t have to take time out for random, interrupting phone-calls. You have a tangible item that you can move around in prioritizing files in your email client (e.g., Outlook) and you’ve got a hardcopy paper trail and record, so to speak, of what is asked of you.

2. In the past I’ve recommended project management/online collaborative office services. However, even that just complicates things unnecessarily. And when you have a full, busy practice (or building a business to have one), you will find you just don’t need anything that weighs you down like that.  I’ve also found that clients don’t like to have to learn a whole new software or tool to work together and it just doubles your administration and workload re-adding projects and work into another system when you’ve already got it in an email. Now, I don’t use any project management software at all. I simply use DropBox to share documents with clients, collaborate and edit them in real time, and keep things organized online in a central repository we both share.

3. Then, there are going to be services your clients uses and all that’s really required there is for them to give you the login access information. For example, if you client publishes an ezine (online electronic newsletter), he or she will use a service like Aweber to distribute it and manage the attendant subscriber lists. Because it’s an online service, you don’t need to download anything or purchase your own software. You simply log into the client’s account and do what you need to do.

4. Let’s see, what else? Oh, here’s a good example… Some people offer bookkeeping in addition to their administrative support. My first caution here is to first make sure you are qualified to be providing this kind of service. When you start messing with people’s money and financial recordkeeping, you open yourself up to a whole other level of liability. People who don’t have the knowledge and training to be providing this service shouldn’t. Otherwise, you risk causing real harm to the clients and yourself getting into potential legal hot water.

But let’s say you are a qualified bookkeeper and want to offer this service. There are all kinds of ways you can provide this and all kinds of platforms to use. In the actual bookkeeping field, what many folks do is have clients fax or mail bank statements at the start of every month and then they simply enter and keep the data at their end in their own software (like Quickbooks Pro). At the end of the month, they give clients summarized reports and balance sheets. When it’s tax time, they simply make a CD copy to give to the accountants (unless they provide that services themselves as well).

Other business owners are more hands-on. They want their data entered a little more regularly instead of once a month. They like to keep their own finger on the pulse of things and for them, keeping their records on their own systems is preferred. In those cases, services like Quickbooks offer an online version. It’s pretty robust, but there are components lacking that the actual software has (e.g., last I heard, the online version doesn’t allow you to enter COGS line-items; if you working with contractors, for example, that could be a problem). If the client’s business is simple and more service-based, the online version will probably serve all your needs. And if you get the online version, again, all you need is for the client to provide you with access to the account.

Another way is to have the client fax or email things to be entered and then you mail then back a CD or somehow get an electronic version back to them. Things like invoices can be emailed back to the client or simply mailed out. This is a really complicated way of doing things because it adds more work and will require that you and the client always be in exact sync and never fail to upload the latest CD of their files. For example, if you do a client’s bookkeeping for the week, then make a copy of the CD and do a file transfer of it to them, the client then has to download that latest CD. If he fails to do this, the next time you do file swapping, you could lose all your previous work. I really, really don’t recommend doing things this way whatsoever. Too much room for human error. And trust me, there WILL be human error sooner or later. I guarantee it.

The only other way is to work on the client’s own software to do their bookkeeping using remote access (such as with a program like LogMeIn or TeamViewer). This can work really great. The only thing is that the client can’t be on the computer you are trying to work on remotely. In the past, what I’ve had clients do is simply set up a second computer (typically, one that isn’t going to be used at all or very often by anyone else), keep their bookkeeping software on that computer and then I simply log in whenever I was ready to do their bookkeeping.

I used the example of bookkeeping, but as you can see, when it comes to software there are going to be all kinds of options available to you. There are going to be online services. Sometimes remote access is the way to go. Other times, having the actual software is what is required. You simply are going to have to research them (and your research could and should include asking those specific questions of your colleagues when they come up) and find out what works best–for your clients AND you. And a lot you will figure out as you go and as you talk with clients and prospects.

What you need and the option you end up using for any given support area is going to also depend a lot on your target market and what makes sense for your business as well. Meaning, your business can’t afford for you to be spending your time using antiquated or inefficient systems or softwares just because a particular client is using them and doesn’t know any better. As an independent professional and administrative expert, you have to work with clients who can get with the program or are amenable to the advice you give them on what will work better for them and for you. Because every inefficiency you allow into your business, just to make an exception and cater to an individual client’s whims, makes your business that much less profitable and efficient. And that’s not good for you or your other clients.

Stealing Is Not Love

What does love mean to you?

How about in the global sense, toward people who aren’t your family or friends? Strangers even.

I mean, we probably don’t “love” people we don’t know in the same way we do our family,  friends and those closest to us.

But isn’t it safe to say that most of us wish our fellow human beings well? I think so.

If you spend any time on the internet, you really gain an overall sense of what I think is a predominant sentiment — that we are all here on this earth to help each other and do good.

Get to the core of anyone’s passionate purpose and my bet is you’ll see that as the root (well, most of the time maybe, lol).

Fame and fortune aren’t what make people truly happy.

They are often byproducts of finding one’s passion and purpose, but it’s doing something good and helping others where people find their true purpose and sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.

Would you agree?

This is how I see the world. That we are all here to help one another. It’s a form of love, if you like. It’s what makes the world go ‘round.

Those of us who have been in business awhile, who have actual expertise and success, often create products and training that we charge for. And rightly so.

There is nothing wrong with making money from the expertise and intellectual capital you have fairly and squarely earned and want to share. In fact, it sets a good business example for those who would like to become successful in their own businesses as well. Catering to the poverty mindset is not helpful to anyone whatsoever.

Unfortunately, there are many folks out there who aren’t experts, who have no background, who haven’t accomplished any level of success in their own business, who haven’t in any way, shape or form put in the time and sweat to earn and develop their own intellectual capital, and will stoop to stealing from those who have and offering their work as their own.

Stealing is not love, folks.

It’s not a form of flattery. It’s not a compliment.

It’s theft of the recognition and remuneration of the rightful owners.

Stealing breeds distrust and dishonesty. And we can’t tolerate that kind of thing in the world, much less our profession, if we expect to make it a better place.