Archive for October, 2010

Take These Words Out of Your Business Vocabulary

We are having a great conversation about yet another dumb article about Virtual Assistants over on our ACA Facebook page.

One thing I am always trying to get through to folks is to take certain words out of their vocabulary when it comes to their marketing and conversations with clients.

  1. “Assistant.” If you are a business owner, for both legal and practical reasons, you are NOT anyone’s assistant. You are a professional providing an expertise. In our case, that is administrative support. The only connotation people understand when it comes to “assistant” is the employee kind. If you want clients to approach you as a fellow business peer with a valuable expertise to offer, stop calling yourself an assistant.
  2. “Employee.” Stop making all those comparisons to employees:  how much they save over employees, those ridiculous cost comparison charts, etc. What we do isn’t about replacing employees. It’s about providing an expertise and a service for people who need it. When you compare yourself to an employee, all people hear and understand is the word “employee” and think that’s what you are.
  3. Words that belittle and demean the work. Stop using derogatory words about our work such as “menial,” “mundane” and the like. People don’t value grunt work, and if that’s how you are portraying your work, they certainly aren’t going to see it as an expertise, much less pay professional level fees for it. Words like that only portray you as a flunky and a gopher. If you don’t value and respect your work, no one else is going to either. You will never be able to help clients see and understand your work as valuable in the bigger context of their business if you keep using words like that.

Our work IS important. It is the backbone of every business and it absolutely does help business owners grow and move forward.

Don’t confuse the fact that there might be some mundane tasks and steps involved with the work overall (every expertise has those). Because it’s not about the tasks, it’s about the results—how your work helps clients grow and progress and keeps their businesses humming along smoothly, professionally, effectively and profitably.

For more words to be take out of your vocabulary, see a couple of my older posts here:

Delete These Words from Your Business Vocabulary

Affordable Should Be Taken Out Back and Shot

You Are Not a Newbie

I don’t like the word “newbie.” I think it’s disrespectful, and I consciously avoid using it whenever possible.

The only people who should be in this industry are those who have a professional level of skill and experience already. That’s what qualifies them to open an administrative support practice in the first place. And those people aren’t newbies. They are simply new in business. Big difference.

And another thing… the idea that you need to charge less just because you are new in business is complete and utter rubbish! Shame on those so-called “industry experts” and training organizations who have been telling you that!

They get upset about folks who aren’t charging enough for their business to be financially successful and in the very next breath tell them if they’re new, they don’t deserve to be charging as well as any other business. What hypocrisy and nonsense! You shouldn’t be taking business advice from people like that.

You might have a learning curve when it comes to successfully running and managing a business (who doesn’t), but that doesn’t make your administrative skills and years of experience any less valuable.

Of course, you might not have the confidence or knowledge to charge well or even appropriately, but lacking confidence does not mean you lack value. Again, big difference.

Which Category Do You Fall Into?

I was going through some old listserv messages the other day that I had saved for one reason or another and came across one where a Virtual Assistant was lamenting about possibly losing a client.

She had learned inadvertently that this client was seeking a new VA, and she was upset that she hadn’t been told about it directly.

She complained that she had bent over backward for this client, and the client hadn’t mentioned a word to her or given her any indication about being unhappy with her work.

While it is understandably upsetting when people aren’t upfront, I still couldn’t help but notice her poor writing skills.

She used the wrong spelling of certain words, didn’t punctuate her sentences properly, etc. It naturally made me wonder if this was any indication of her skill level and competence. Because if it was, it could explain the reason the client was seeking someone else.

Everything we do as administrative experts is a demonstration of our skill and competence (or lack of it, as the case may be).

Language and written communication skills are integral to everything we do. If you aren’t able to communicate clearly and coherently with clients in proper form, we can’t honestly be upset with them if that poor communication doesn’t inspire their confidence.

They want their work to be as professional as it can be. How can they trust that you can accomplish that if you don’t show them a command of the necessary language skills?

I don’t know if this was the case or not with this VA, but it did lead me to another thought… that there are basically two categories of people in our industry.

  1. There are those who take healthy pride in the administrative skills and talents they possess. They elevate their work to the level of craft, of art. They are able to apply abstract, critical thinking to not just do the work, but do it really, really well. Beautifully even.
  2. Then there are those who got into this industry because they heard it was a way to make some extra money. They sit passively waiting to be told what to do (sometimes even how to do it!), and are either unable or unwilling to exert any more effort or thought beyond the literal request.

Which category do you think provides more value for clients? Which creates more ease for them and inspires their trust and confidence?

Which do you fall into?

Responding to RFPs

Responding to RFPs is not the best way to get clients because it has you jumping through their hoops and “auditioning” rather than the other way around.

Responding to RFPs will have you expending exorbitant amounts of time and energy trying to land nickel and dime clients (who typically are really only looking for the cheapest bidder anyway) with no guarantee that you’ll even be chosen.

There are better ways, my friends!

Truly, the best way to get clients is to create your own pipelines  so that not only do you keep a steady flow of prospects coming to you (instead of you chasing after them), but also more ideal, better qualified prospects. This will also get them into your processes, instead of the other way around.

And you do that by focusing on a very specific target market.

Once you have that direction and know where you are setting your sights and energies on, it’s vastly easier to learn all you can about that market and understand it inside and out. You can then  figure out where those folks hang out online and off so that you can get in front them and interact together. When you know who you are talking to, you can identify their problems and obstacles more quickly and present your solutions to them in language they understand best.

Get involved in their associations. Join their online and in-person networking groups. Read their publications. Go to their functions. Write white papers for them. Gear your newsletter toward their interests. Offer to write a guest column in their industry publications. Look for opportunities to speak in front of their groups. The list goes on and on.

If you want off the hamster wheel, this is the very best, most fruitful path to getting ideal, retained clients and get them far more quickly and easily.

What Size Computer Monitor Do You Use?

I’m curious about what size monitors Virtual Assistants are using these days (desktop, not laptop). If you have a quick second, please indicate your monitor size in the poll below (choose the answer that is closest; if you use dual monitors, select the size of the smallest monitor). Will be interesting to see the results!


Dear Danielle: How Do You Keep Work Synced Between Computers?

Dear Danielle:

How do you keep your files and information synced between computers and how do you protect your clients’ work or database getting lost in case of some kind of disaster (lost or stolen laptop, fire, computer meltdown, etc.)? –AL

Great question! This actually falls into two topics: systems and backup.

Backup

It’s always a good idea to have a backup system in place. There are a couple of ways you can go, which all boil down to personal choice: external hard drive or an online backup service.

Personally, I use an external hard drive and do my own backups once a week or more. I just don’t like the idea of having all my personal business information on an outside party’s systems.

I think any time you trust an outside third-party with potentially sensitive, confidential client/business info, you increase your liability if their systems become exploited or fail for some reason.

But like I say, it’s a personal choice. If you want to go the online service route, I’ve heard good things about Mozy and it is a lot easier to do daily backups when someone else is doing them automatically.

My only caution would be to make sure you know and understand what is being backed up. Are they backing up your entire system (including system files and programs) or just certain kinds of regular documents and files? How easy it is to find and restore files should you need to do so? What are the storage limitations? Are you notified of fee increases for overages in advance? What is the customer service like? Can you quickly and easily get help when you need it or do they abdicate that to forums (where you could wait days for someone to respond)?

As far as backing up clients’ data for them (if that’s what you’re asking), that’s a bad idea. You’re not a storage facility. Don’t take on responsibilities and liabilities that aren’t yours to bear. Clients need to be responsible for their own businesses; that’s not your job or the business you’re in. You have your own to deal with. Their databases should be on their own computers and systems, not yours.

Systems

As far as keeping your files synced between computers, my best advice is to avoid duplication at all costs. Otherwise, you only invite confusion, mistakes, rework and inefficiency (which in itself creates more work). A business that does not run well also does not earn well. What I recommend is that you get an online collaborative office and a remote access service.

I work from several different computers and laptops, but I don’t keep work in all these various places. All my files, my entire business, sits on my main office desktop computer. When I need to access files, I simply login remotely to my home office computer using LogMeIn. I could not live without this service. I can be sitting in our condo in Germany and working at my home computer in the U.S. as if I was sitting right there. No more dinking around and keeping track of portable/thumb drives that are easily lost or broken. It’s simply brilliant.

My other best friend is my virtual office collaboration service, HyperOffice. This is a web-based service that allows you to organize clients, share calendars, project managements, documents, etc. and keep everything in a single online location that you both have access to. There is no moving files around or backing up between computers necessary whatsoever because everything is located on servers “in the cloud” meaning they can be accessed from anywhere once you log in. This will not only simplify your work life immensely, it’s a convenience and benefit for clients working with you.

A new best friend that I can’t say enough good things about is DropBox. For those occasions when you do need to quickly and simply move, transfer or sync files between computers or with clients, DropBox is your go-to tool. It’s crazy how versatile it is and I’m constantly finding new uses for it. Super, super easy to install and use.

With these three tools, things are kept organized and not spread out all over the place and I never have to waste time and energy syncing stuff up. It’s a non-issue!

To Barter or Not to Barter, That Is the Question

A group of colleagues and I were having a conversation about crappy clients who don’t want to pay professional fees.

My advice – get rid of those losers. You’ll never be able to do your best work or move forward and grow your business if you keep saddling yourself with them.

That seemed to strike a pretty unanimous chord so I asked everyone if they experienced these frustrations on a regular basis.

A member commented that she has clients who really like the word “barter,” but bartering doesn’t pay her bills.

Truer words have never been spoken!

Oh, the ol’ “barter” game. Ugh. I see those articles that recommend bartering and it’s such BS.

Bartering might work on a one-time, very quick, simple, straightforward basis here and there, but not for long-term, ongoing situations, and only if the terms are very explicitly spelled out and what you get in return is really and truly of value to you.

And I tell ya, people in our industry who barter usually get the short end of the stick in these situations. I’ve seen it time and time and time again.

They will bust their butts giving these people their all, but far too often, when it comes time to pay the piper, barter clients make it their last priority, can’t seem to spare the time once they’ve been helped or give back absent-minded, second-rate work in return like it’s a bother to them.

They have a way of conveniently forgetting the terms or coming up with all kinds of other excuses about how they didn’t get what they expected so they’re not going to honor the terms of the deal.

Oh, and don’t forget that most of these clients automatically assume that you’ll be doing work first before they have to give back in return, instead of the other way around.

I bet you did, too. 😉

Let me share a story…

Many years ago I had a client who was constantly getting involved in one new side business venture after another.

To clarify, when I have a client who has more than one business he/she wants support with, I charge a completely separate retainer for each additional business. I don’t allow them to mix and mingle work for different businesses. I’m not here to work for free and I’m not offering two for one bargains.

So anyway, this client was always trying to get me to accept stock and percentages in these new companies instead of having to pay actual money for my services.

It was always made to sound like I’d eventually make waaaayyyyy more money with these options and ownership than I would with my retainer.

I always politely declined, and finally, after being pestered to death about it for the millionth time, had to once and for all get super direct and tell him in no uncertain terms, “look, I’m just not interested – stop asking.”

Stocks and percentages that may or may not come to fruition some day don’t pay my bills today.

I also wasn’t interested in the convoluted accounting, reporting and admin involved in trying to keep track of what my shares were worth from one minute to the next.

I like to keep my life and my business SIMPLE. There’s nothing more straightforward than “I do this and you pay that.”

Well, guess what? Every single of one of these little side ventures went nowhere.

If I had accepted stocks and percentages and incentives as payment, all those months and months of work would have been done for free. And I would have had to get rid of that client because it would have soured the relationship.

No, I just am not the least bit interested in getting myself into situations like that.

If you want to accept an ongoing barter arrangement, use your business noggin and be discerning about it:

  1. Don’t give away the farm.
  2. Don’t let it take up more than 10-20% of your time/client roster. (The rest needs to be reserved for cash-paying clients.)
  3. Draw up a contract like you would with any other client and spell out the terms of the trade very explicitly (e.g., exactly what work you’ll do, how much you’ll do, what the limitations are, what the dollar value is, what you are to get specifically in return, when you’re to get it, etc.).
  4. Make it clear that if you do a certain amount of work in a month worth X dollars, you need to be paid back in kind the same month (not months down the road).
  5. Include a clause that provides for cash payment in full being immediately due if the client breaches their end of the bargain or arbitrarily decides to terminate the arrangement.
  6. Invoice for the work just like you would in a paying situation so that the client sees on a regular basis exactly what they would have been paying in dollars.
  7. Bill on the same schedule you would for any other client.
  8. Stop selling yourself short. Remember that you are giving them something of great value. You make sure they understand and remember that and maintain the right attitude about it, too, by doing all of the above.

Keep in mind, too, that “barter” does not mean “free.” You are both still required by law to report the value of each other’s services as income come tax time.

(Which, by the way, is a whole other reason I don’t like barter: having to pay cash money in taxes on income I didn’t receive in actual dollars.)

And consider this… if this were any other retainer client, they would be paying the fee upfront before you started working. Why should a barter arrangement be any different?

If they want you to work on trade, insist that they deliver their trade work first before you lift a finger.

If they are serious about the arrangement, it shouldn’t be a problem. Remember, you’re doing them the favor, not the other way around.

And for goshsakes, stop discounting your fees!

Why on earth would you think to do that? Is the client discounting their barter services from their normal cost? If anything, you should be RAISING the price of your barter services just for the fact that you are granting them an exceptional benefit that comes at a much higher cost to your business.

The bottom line is this — offers to barter and trade or give you stocks and percentages in companies are just BS ways people try to get out of paying you fairly and squarely.

It’s not your job to subsidize other people’s businesses – you have your own to take care of. And that ain’t gonna happen if you’re giving all your time and energy to clients who aren’t paying for the privilege.

Never be afraid to say no to cockamamie schemes and flat out tell folks that the only currency you deal with is of the cold hard cash variety.

What Is a New Client Welcome Kit and What Goes In One?

Working with clients is a relationship.

Sometimes it’s a very close, ongoing one. Sometimes it’s an impersonal or one-time encounter.

Either way, it’s a relationship and it’s important to set the tone that best serves your interests as a business while serving your clients successfully.

This is where a New Client Welcome Kit comes in handy.

What Is a Welcome Kit?

A welcome kit is a packet of information you give to new clients to help ensure you both get the relationship off to a great start. A really important function of the welcome kit is to help set proper expectations moving forward. When clients know what is what and how things work in your business upfront, they aren’t left to form their own (probably incorrect) ideas which inevitably causes problems in the relationship.

When Do You Give a Welcome Kit to a New Client?

Some might feel giving a welcome kit to every client with the smallest of projects is a bit overkill. However, I like to give all new clients my welcome kit because besides being good information for them, it’s also sort of a marketing piece. It’s a visual demonstration of my company’s professionalism and attention to detail. Sort of like dressing well for a first date. Sometimes I provide the kit to clients once the contract is signed; other times it makes sense to give them a PDF copy in advance.

How Do You Present a Welcome Kit to a New Client?

I do this a couple ways: both hardcopy and PDF. I only work with clients in an ongoing retained relationship. Those clients represent the largest earnings in my business. Therefore, I don’t spare expense on making sure my welcome kit is as beautiful and professional as it can be. It shows respect and appreciation for the client, and it demonstrates the excellence of my company. It’s details like that which set you apart from the crowd.

My retained clients get a hardcopy welcome kit which is mailed to them. This kit consists of a high-end folder with contents that have been professionally printed. My retainer clients also get a complimentary virtual office when they work with me. I set up a folder with my company name in our shared file directory and upload a PDF copy of my welcome kit as well. This is also where I will put copies of invoices, receipts, etc., for their records and convenience.

For smaller clients—that is, clients I might only do a small, one-time project for—they are provided with just the PDF version of my welcome kit.

What Goes In a Welcome Kit?

Once you are at the welcome kit stage, it’s time to stop selling. That is, I often see folks including all kinds of marketing collateral in their welcome kit and it’s really not the time or place for it at that point.

Your welcome kit provides information about you and your company, but you want to focus your mindset on the idea that the kit is for the client’s benefit. It’s about making sure clients have everything they need to navigate your services and processes easily and ensure that the working relationship gets off to a successful start.

At this stage, it’s about nurturing the relationship, not continuing to pound them over the head with your marketing.

Since your kit is a reference and guide for new clients, you want to very clearly spell out how things work in your business in a Client Guide. Don’t gloss over anything—that’s not helpful to you or the client. But do keep the tone light and upbeat. Inject some personality. There’s no need to be dry and monotone.

So here’s what I suggest you put in your welcome kit and client guide:

  • A bio about you (and no, not your life story, but some interesting facts, stories or life experiences as well as your values about the work you do and working with clients and what’s important to you about those things. The idea here is to help clients to get to know you a little more and give some insight into your belief systems and philosophies about the work and relationship).
  • Your office hours (the days and times your office is officially open).
  • Your communication policies (Do you require appointments for phone calls? What is your turn-around commitment for responding to calls and emails? How often do you check emails and voicemail?).
  • An overview of your operations and work processes (How do you manage your workload? How are requests prioritized? What turn-around time may clients expect?)
  • Instructions for submitting work requests. Once you have been in business for even a little time, you realize that you can’t accept work requests willy nilly. You realize that you simply must have a system and protocols in order for you to do your best work for clients. So be sure and explain specifically and clearly how you need them to submit their work requests to you.
  • An overview of your services and any other divisions in your company. Obviously, you’re in business to make money while doing good work. That means that different work will naturally fall under different categories and you presumably would charge separately for these different services. You can’t work or give everything away for free, right? So make it clear what work falls under what categories and how and when you charge separately. For example, if you provide administrative support and also web design, you would want to make sure clients understand what is included in administrative support (and what isn’t) and what would fall under another umbrella that you charge separately for.
  • Your expectations for working together. Clients have expectations of you and so should you have expectations of them. This is where you want to let them know how you expect to be treated, how quickly you expect them to respond to your questions, feedback and input, how you expect upset to be handled, etc. Of course, none of this should be put in an accusing or defensive way. You want to always frame it from the perspective that these things are necessary in order for you to give them the best support possible, which is absolutely what all this is ultimately about.
  • Your ideal client profile. This is something you would also include in your referral kit, but I recommend you keep your referral kit and your welcome kit separate and distinct from one another.
  • A list of frequently asked questions.
  • A copy of the contract.
  • A completed IRS Form W-9 (or your country’s equivalent).
  • A Credit Card Authorization form.

There are all kinds of things you could include. A good rule of thumb is if it’s something that will help clients and will underscore information you need them to understand, go ahead and include it. And for retained clients, I recommend scheduling a new client orientation to go over all this information with them before you dive into any work.

Surround Yourself with BUSINESS-Minded People

So often in business we hear platitudes about surrounding yourself with like-minded people.

You don’t grow from surrounding yourself with “like-minded” people.

All that does is breed sheep who are pressured to conform to the herd, are afraid to upset the status quo and will only give you “nice” rather than meaningful feedback.

You grow by surrounding yourself with BUSINESS-minded people who will challenge your beliefs and get you to think bigger, raise your business consciousness and tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear.

Can Artistry Be Outsourced?

Let’s say one day, you decide to have your portrait painted. After searching high and lo, you find the perfect artist.

So why did you hire that particular artist in the first place? You presumably liked their style, their eye of the world and how they bring together their special brand of magic and chemistry on canvas and found them to possess just the right blend of skill, talent, sensibility and technique, right?

What if you arrived for your sitting at the appointed date and time and discovered that the artist had outsourced the painting of your portrait to someone else?

When we are talking about skilled professionals–that is, where there is required a special/higher level of craft, talent, experience, expertise and training–what happens when the person we hired for those things isn’t the one doing the work? If the talents and skills we hired for and are paying well for aren’t the ones we intended and expected to get, how does that affect the relationship?

If the idea then is that anyone can do the work and someone else can be sent in a professional’s stead, that they are interchangeable, what message does that send to clients? Might that affect the perceived value and what they are willing to pay? I mean, why pay a professional directly who is only going to sub it out anyway when I can get it cheaper direct from the source?

From another view, how does that affect the relationship (if it can be said there even is one) if the focus is on the work, and that it doesn’t need to be done by the person you hired? How might that be redirecting how clients view the relationship and the skills involved? How might that affect their spending behaviors?

Some clients/customers might not care “as long as the work gets done.” But then again, they might not know any better to care.

That’s where it’s up to you to know why those things are important to care about and help clients understand that as well.

An artist doesn’t sub out his work. He couldn’t if he wanted to and it wouldn’t be his work if he did. You can’t outsource that kind of thing.

But an artist can be supported by his own helpers and apprentices. There’s a big difference between outsourcing/subcontracting and being supported by your own help.  If you want to be an artist in your business and command professional fees, it’s up to you to understand the distinction.