Archive for December, 2010

What Makes You Happy for 2011?

So do you make resolutions this time of year?

I’ve never been one much for resolutions. But I do tend to feel a renewed sense of energy and excitement for all the wonderful and unknown things to come.

Rather than resolutions per se, I tend to do a quick mental check of a few goals I want to achieve and things I want to focus on.

Like this new year, I have some projects that will be finally completed and I plan on taking more time out for the activities that I had temporarily put on the back-burner. I hadn’t done nearly as much bike-riding this year as I normally do. This will be a year of taking more time out, getting back to focusing again on my own business around second or third quarter, and enjoying all the hard industry work I put in these past five years.

Oh, and VIDEO! Yes!

What about you? What kind of goals or resolutions or focuses do you have for the new year? What are you excited about for 2011?

Dear Danielle: How Do Referrals Work?

Dear Danielle:

How exactly do referrals work?  Does the client recommend their colleague and I call them?  Do they contact their colleague and send them my way or what?  Thank you so much for your anticipated response.  —TA

Well, basically, they work any way you’d like them to work. ;)

Referrals come from lots of different places and come in many different forms.

Sometimes colleagues will refer clients to you. According to our annual surveys, the overwhelming majority of people follow the “what goes around, comes around” philosophy and don’t charge for referrals.  Others do charge referral fees or will want a percentage of any earnings from a client for a certain time period. You’ll want to get clear with the referring colleague as to what their expectations or requirements are.

You can also formally ask clients for referrals. For example, you could make it a standard question as part of your feedback process to ask clients for the names of folks they think would benefit from your support.

Your networking becomes a sort of referral source as well in that it helps you develop your word-of-mouth recognition. As you contribute and people read your posts, you become someone they come to know, like and trust. This leads to folks referring and recommending you to others.

You might have some sort of formal referral program that rewards people for referring prospects to you. Although personally, I really don’t recommend this for a professional service practice. There’s really no need and keep in mind, you would just be adding yet another burden to you administrative managements workload. Keep things simple is what I always say. Anything that unnecessarily increases or complicates work in your business makes it that much less profitable.

Those who genuinely know your work and feel it’s worth recommending to other will do so of their own accord. Your evangelists aren’t looking to be paid. They simply believe in what you do and they want to be a resource for their own audience. Those who do end up giving great referrals to you, you can thank by sending referrals their way as well and maybe once in awhile sending a little gift.

As you become established with a happy roster of clients, they tend naturally to refer you to others when they get a chance. This is another form of word-of-mouth advertising that leads to referrals. But I would definitely recommend being proactive as well in specifically asking clients periodically for the names of folks they think could use or would be interested in your services.

Another thing I would recommend you get conscious about is your calls-to-action. In your signature lines and in your “About the Author” text (such as when you publish articles you’ve written), include a line that says something about welcoming referrals. This puts the conscious thought in people’s head and tells them that you are actively seeking clients.

Be clear as well about who makes an ideal client for you so folks know who to refer to you. “Any warm body” is not an ideal client. Just because folks refer people to you doesn’t mean those prospects are going to be the right fit. So you have to tell people who is the right fit for you.  “I’m looking for  intellectual property attorneys in solo practice who would benefit from leveraging some skilled administrative support in their business.”

How Do I Get this Client to Pay?

Dear Danielle:

I have a client who is giving me the run-around on several outstanding invoices. He has stalled, “forgotten,” asked for extensions and payment plans, said the bank messed up his check printing… you name it, I’ve gotten the excuse. He finally told me he was going to get all caught up on a certain date and guess what? The date rolled around and no payment! How on earth do I get this client to pay up?!

I could repeat all the usual kinds of recourse I think we all know about by now:  turn it over to collections, file a small claim, etc., etc..

You have every right to be paid for work you were engaged to do and for which the client agreed to pay. If the situation is so egregious that you see fit to pursue that by legal means, by all means do so. It’s a perfectly valid option and nothing wrong with it at all.

At the same time, weigh out what the cost of pursuing that recourse will be to you in terms of time, energy and money. It might not be worth the toll it will take and may cost more to pursue than the amount of the debt. And if the client is broke, well, you know what they say about bleeding turnips and all.

However you pursue this, and whether you ultimately get your money or not, these kind of situations are always an excellent opportunity to examine what we contributed to the situation. Because the answer is that, yes, we most certainly do cause some of our own headaches. We have to recognize that and own it if we’re going to improve and be more successful in the future. With that in mind, here are some thoughts:

1. Always, always, always, always work with a contract. Did I mention “always?” LOL. You perhaps are very aware of this already and may have even had this client sign a contract before working together. As you know, a contract doesn’t guarantee that you will get paid or that people will always be honorable and have the integrity to abide by their agreements. But contracts are legally binding and enforceable agreements. Should it get to that point, they can definitely help you prevail should it become necessary to take things to court. Now, a lot of times, that’s more work, more money and more energy than it’s worth. But that doesn’t mean you forgo using a contract. A contract does a lot more than just formalize your legal agreements. A contract helps clients take you and your business more seriously. It shows that you are a professional and it makes sure everyone is on the same page and knows what is expected from each other. Never cut corners on this, no matter how big or small the project or relationship.

2. If you work on a project basis, get some kind of money upfront. Would a grocery store let you take home groceries and decide whether or not to pay later? Of course not, and neither should you do that with your clients. You’re not a bank. You have your own bills to pay and it’s not your obligation to extend them credit or otherwise subsidize their business. The time, energy and expertise you give to clients are very tangible, valuable resources in your business. Get at least 50% (if not 100%) payment upfront before you start any work. It’s perfectly standard, acceptable, established business practice to do so. Not only does it help clients (again) take your business more seriously, it also shows that they take their own business seriously. If they aren’t willing to have some skin in the game, neither should you. In the event that they don’t pay the remainder, at least you’ve got half your losses covered.

3. Don’t let folks go into debt. You don’t do anyone any favors by allowing them to go into debt to you. That only makes it harder and harder for them to catch up. And you have a responsibility to mitigate your damages. That’s why you see work-stoppage clauses in contracts that tell clients: no pay—no work. Immediately cease any further work (and do not hand over any pending or completed work) until the client pays all outstanding invoices in full and gets his accounts with you in order.

4. Work with clients who can afford you. Clients who aren’t in profitable businesses or industries are going to have more problem payers than in those that are profitable. Make this a standard and part of your ideal client profile:  you can’t afford to work with those who can’t afford you. Work on your pre-qualifying process (not to mention your marketing message) so that you get better and better at attracting your ideal clients to you while weeding out the cheapskates, tire kickers and wheeler-dealers who always want to dicker or argue over your fees.

5. Work with honorable people. The minute you get any inkling that a person is less than ethical or honest, let them go. Heed those red flags. If your gut is telling you a prospective client might be a problem, trust me (and yourself)–they will be. And if you are dealing with someone you know has a history of screwing people over and being shady or dishonest, don’t fool yourself that you are the one person in the world they would never do wrong. A tiger doesn’t change its stripes. There will be a day that they do it to you. It’s just a matter of time.

6. Define your ideal client profile. Write out all the traits and characteristics that make someone an ideal client for you. Make a list of the traits you don’t want as well. This is something you continue to update and get clear about throughout the life of your business. This exercise helps solidify your intentions about who you want to work with and who you don’t. It helps you better recognize your right clients when they show up and politely decline everyone else.

7. Let bad clients go. If a door kept hitting you in the face, you’d eventually learn to stop letting it do that, right? So why would you keep working with clients who are basically doors that keep smacking you upside the head? If that’s what is going on, you have no one but yourself to blame. And I say that not to berate, but to help folks get clear and conscious. No one else is responsible for what happens in our businesses. To think otherwise is to be a victim.  When you accept that, you are empowered to take the steps to rectify things in your business. Bad clients and poorly-fitting clients will hold you back. They drain your energy and professional self-esteem. If you want to get anywhere in your business, you have to lose the dead weight. Your right clients are out there just waiting to work with you and appreciate what you do for them! But you’ll never find them and they’ll never find you if you keep yourself buried in muck of bad clients, bad policies and tolerating bad behavior. You have to let the unideal go so that you have room for ideal to come into your world.

Doing these things will save you a world of hassle, resentment, wasted time and negative energy in the future. Onward and upward!

Happy Holidays (with Video)!

Oooo, Christmas is almost here! Whatever holiday you might celebrate this time of year, I wish you much joy, playfulness and renewal. I want to thank you so much for all your fellowship, great questions and wonderful conversations this past year and look forward to many more with you.

Also, here’s a fun little holiday video I put together–enjoy! (And be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel here).

Dear Danielle: How Do I Answer Phones for Clients?

Dear Danielle:

I live in New York and have been a VA/Administrative Consultant for a client in Texas for approximately five months now. Everything is going well. I answer the phone with her company’s name right now. However, I would like to expand now and take on at least another two more clients. How would I possibly handle three clients at once with just one phone line and how would I answer the phone for each client. I recently just began saying my name. What do you suggest? –PC

Ah, you are getting an inkling of what a dead-end it is trying to be a receptionist for clients. This kind of work will turn your business into a J-O-B… a prison cell that forces you to become chained to your phone for certain hours a day. Is that really what you went into business to do?

Plus, think about how you’d have to charge clients. If they expect you to be available for certain hours to answer the phone, they should be charged for those hours, not by the call.

And how will answering phones affect your concentration when you are trying to carry out administrative work for your other clients? What about your own business’s phone calls and consultations with prospective clients?

What happens if you need to step away from the office? Are you really going to appreciate having to check in and out with clients? And even if you took the phones with you, how long are you going to like having that intrusion upon your life? When do you think it will eventually take a toll? Would clients appreciate their calls being answered unprofessionally such as if you are in a noisy space or sounding like you’re out shopping?

If you are intent on answering phones, I don’t have any insight for you as I have never provided that service for clients in my practice. However, if you’re open to it, I want to invite you to explore some different thinking:

There is an infinite difference between going into business to bring your administrative skills to clients who need that expertise in their business and going into business to be an assistant. That doesn’t mean you can’t be an assistant as well if that’s what you want to do. I just want you to know that being an assistant and being an administrative expert are two separate things. You don’t have to be an assistant (or a receptionist) if that’s not what you want to be in the business of doing. Your value is NOT dependent upon also being an assistant. Because providing administrative support and expertise is a big enough role and valuable enough work in and of itself.

You may want to do some heavy thinking about what you really want to be in your business because one will enslave you and limit your income potential and one will allow you to be an expert providing skilled, strategic support while still leaving you with lots of freedom and flexibility in your business and your life. Guess which is which?

Likewise, there’s a complete difference between being an administrative expert and being a receptionist. You get to choose which one you want to be. I just want you to be aware that you don’t have to be a receptionist if you would prefer to focus exclusively on being an administrative expert.

What happens is that newcomers to our industry get hit with the idiotic message that they are supposed to be an assistant to clients, a secretary just like they were in the workforce except virtually. It’s a big, fat farce, and it doesn’t work.

That’s why we see so many Virtual Assistants struggling. They create these businesses that have them operating and working with clients in ways that prevent them from earning well and don’t leave them any room to grow, much less think. They don’t know any other way to earn well and so they fall prey to the thinking that the only way they can increase their income is to create a bigger business or go into something else entirely. I see it over and over and over again.

It never needed to be that way for them in the first place, and that doesn’t need to be your lot either. All it takes to change things around or prevent yourself from falling into the same trap are some simple mindset shifts.

If you are running a business, you are not–and can not–be anyone’s assistant. It is absolutely impossible for you to work and be just like that secretary/administrative assistant you were back in the workforce to clients. It will turn your business into a prison and keep you working with clients in ways the absolutely prevent you from making any kind of real money–at a level you could actually live and thrive on just with the business alone.

You can’t be everything to clients. And you have to understand that when you’re in business, how and when you work with clients and what work you do for them is necessarily going to be much different from how they would work with an employee.

Like I say, you can be an assistant or a receptionist if that’s what you want to do. You can also simply choose to be an administrative expert and say “no” to any kind of on-demand, instant assistant type work that requires you to be chained to a phone or desk or checking in on a daily basis.

If clients need a receptionist, you could do what I do and refer them to a virtual receptionist service like Ruby Receptionists. Because this is specifically and exclusively what they’re in business to do, they can provide this service far better and more economically than you ever could. You are then free to focus on being the best administrative support expert you can be to clients–without being chained to a phone.

Why Your Location IS Important

Your location IS important, but not for the reasons you might think.

This topic came up through some correspondence I was having with someone who had submitted her listing to the ACA Administrative Consultant Directory.

This person was concerned that being listed in one location would limit her to clients from that one geographic area. She felt that “the whole reason for being a “virtual assistant” is to allow you to work from home for anyone, anywhere in the world,” and that “listing by location restricts the Virtual Assistant’s ability to expand her boundaries of business to other places.”

She’s failed to understand her ownership role and control over the content of her own website and how that content should be properly educating clients.

Here’s what you need to understand…

Location doesn’t have anything to do with how folks get clients or where they are from. It has more to do with instilling trust and credibility in prospective clients. Knowing the city, state and country where someone actually lives and operates makes clients feel safer and more comfortable with that business.

And in some cases, geographic location actually is important, either to the Administrative Consultant or to the client.

For example, I work with attorneys, but I work strictly with attorneys in my own state because I know the ropes better here. With the exception of the IP attorney I work with (which is federal), I have no interest in trying to learn all the ins and outs of court structures, rules, filing methods and all those other idiosyncrasies in other states.

For the same reason, I have no interest in international clients either. It’s often too much work trying to navigate between the language and cultural differences.

My business and work are MUCH simpler and easier that way–which also gives me more time for life outside my business.

Sometimes, whether we like it or not, clients just like to have someone in their own state. It’s just a human, emotional thing. That doesn’t mean we stop working virtually. Just because someone is local to you, whether that’s the same city, state or whatever, doesn’t mean you work or consult with them any differently than you would with any other client anywhere else in the world.

Also, because administrative support is a relationship between people, as well as a niche and specialty all its own, it is a category of business/profession unto itself. Using geographic locations helps break things up for clients in the directory, making it visually and mentally easier for them to peruse listings.

It certainly isn’t going to preclude anyone from finding clients in other areas or from clients in other geographic locations from being drawn to you and the solution you offer–at least if you know how to market yourself and create your own pipelines.

Because you aren’t marketing a location. You are marketing a solution to your market’s administrative problems. Your location is simply about being upfront, honest and transparent about your business–and thereby helping instill trust and comfort in clients–which is even more important for online, “virtual” businesses.

Pay What You Owe

I’ve recently heard from several colleagues who have been having trouble getting paid from the VAs who engaged them. I hear from folks like this all throughout the year, but even more so recently for some reason.

Seems to be an epidemic going on. They’re frustrated, not sure what to do and wondered what I think about it. So here are my thoughts on the whole topic…

It’s bad enough when to get stiffed by clients. It’s adding insult to injury that they have to worry about this from their own colleagues.

I think it’s reprehensible and unethical to withhold payment from subcontractors because you are waiting for payment from YOUR client.

YOU engaged your subcontractors, not your client, so PAY THEM fair and square.

And if you don’t have the money, then maybe you shouldn’t be engaging them in the first place.

But subcontractors, you aren’t off the hook either…

Have colleagues who want to engage you sign YOUR contract, and YOU decide what rate you will accept. Just because you subcontract doesn’t mean you have no say-so about how and when and what you get paid—but these things need to be established upfront.

That said, you don’t have any business talking about money or accepting work directly from clients that belong to the colleague you are engaged with. If you’re going to be ethical about this, then you need to inform any clients who approach you in this manner that they need to go through the proper channels and talk directly with the person whose client they are—and that’s not you. Those clients are not your clients; they belong to the virtual assistant you are subcontracting for.

This is yet another reason why that whole “team VA’ term is so ridiculously idiotic. Unless you are an actual employee, you are not part of anyone else’s “team.” So stupid.

Never include in your contracts, or sign any contract that has this, any clause that says you don’t get paid until the client pays the VA you are subbing for. If you do, then you’re stuck waiting or not getting paid if their client doesn’t pay on time or at all.

And if you do sign a contract like that, don’t complain when you don’t get paid. You’re the dummy who signed it. It’s not anyone else’s fault but yours.

From a business standpoint, this is yet another example of why YOU have to be smart in your OWN business.

I get that some folks think this is the experience they need to gain confidence to go out on their own, and sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to help keep some money flowing in. But never lose sight of the fact that when you are working for others (i.e., subcontracting), you’re building their business, not your own.

You’re paid less, you lose a great degree of control over your circumstances, and you waste time and energy that could be spent growing your own client base and long-term success.

My advice (if you’re still nervous about engaging directly with clients):

Stop with the subcontracting and instead look for colleagues who want to engage you as their own support partner in the same way that any other client would retain your ongoing support. You would charge them your full monthly fee just like any other client and you’re going to learn a lot more about the business, managing it, and what it is to provide ongoing administrative support than you ever will doing piecemeal, nickel and dime subcontracting projects.

Dear Danielle: How Should My Client Market?

Dear Danielle:

I have a client who only sells wholesale products with an occasional retail customer. I have convinced him to think about sending a mass email marketing campaign/newsletter for his wholesale customers since his previous website designer never even introduced this idea to him. His response was that he only sells to wholesale customers and is not sure what to send to them.  My suggestion was to send loyalty rewards, small one-time bonus, or a small gift thanking them for their business. Do you have any suggestions for a marketing campaign from a wholesale company to its customers? –LN

Nah, I don’t get into advising clients on how to market their businesses. That’s not administrative support and marketing consulting isn’t the business I’m in.

I might offer my views and suggestions from an administrative standpoint. I might also provide them with some of the administrative support related to executing and implementing many of their marketing activities and initiatives.

But beyond that, how they market their business is up to them. Or between them and their marketing consultant.

I think too many administrative experts are pressured into thinking that they have to fill ALL these other roles in their clients’ businesses. And that’s just not the case. The ONLY role you have to fulfill is the one you are in business to fulfill—administrative support. You will burn yourself out really quick trying to be all things, do all things, for clients, not to mention greatly diminish your effectiveness with all the constant switching of gears.

I mean, would you ask a plumber to fix your car? Of course not. They’re completely different kinds of expertise and lines of work.

Have opinions. Share ideas, resources and suggestions. Being a partner to clients means they get the benefits of your experiences and input. That’s definitely of value and they might learn or hear about something new because of that that they wouldn’t otherwise. But don’t feel like you have to take on roles you aren’t in business to take on and that aren’t your responsibility to take on.

And definitely don’t expend your time and energy being more invested in helping with something that the client isn’t even interested in. You can’t care more about their business than they do themselves.