Archive for March, 2011

Are Virtual Assistants Employees or Independent Contractors?

That’s the topic of a recent article on the USA Tax Aid blog here: Are Virtual Assistants Employees or Independent Contractors?

It reinforces something I’ve been telling folks all along about those team/multi VA businesses: ICs are not legally part of your team/business and they shouldn’t be listed as such on your website.

What they don’t seem to be able to grasp is that there are legal implications in portraying someone as part of your team.

Someone is not part of your team unless they are an actual employee and if you insist on calling them that, you are going to put yourself smack dab on the radar of the IRS.

Which is why the “team/multi VA” term is so idiotic.

If all they are doing is farming out their work and clients to other companies, there is already a (proper) term for that. It’s called subcontracting.

And those people, in order to be considered independent contractors running their own businesses, are not part of their team.

Regardless of your position on subbing out your client work/relationships, the fact is that sub is not legally part of your team. You don’t get to tell them when/where/how and you certainly don’t get to dictate hours and pay. And if you do, then you are going to quickly find yourself owing money and facing a great deal of hassle that could bankrupt your business.

Subcontractors do not need to be and shouldn’t be on your website.

It’s not about depriving them of “credit.” If they take on a subcontracting job, they don’t get credit. They are doing the work on behalf of your company. It’s your company whose name goes on the work. That’s just how subcontracting works.

You don’t have to like it. But if you want to argue about it, take it up with your tax authority. I think you’ll be set straight real quick. ;)

This is also another reason why you (or any business owner) should NOT submit resumes and references:  because you then give the wrong appearance that you are an employee applying for a job/position.

That’s NOT how business owners market.

Not talking about this and getting the story straight is as stupid, irresponsible and unethical as telling people they don’t have to pay their taxes.

Dear Danielle: How Is the Economy Affecting Our Industry?

Dear Danielle:

I am considering starting an administrative support business.  I have been self-employed for 10 years and know about the hard work and research which goes into embarking upon entrepreneurship. I would like to know how the economy has impacted this business. On one hand, I can see businesses downsizing employees and benefiting from hiring administration support without the extra costs of taxes and providing benefits, which is more cost effective to their bottom line. On the other hand, I can also see how some businesses would think hiring a virtual assistant can be another added expense to their bottom line. Any feedback from you would be greatly appreciated DA

Thanks for the question and I’ll do my best to help shed some light so you can look at this another way.

You see, I always struggle with questions like this (which is why it has taken me this long to answer) because… well, how do I say this… it’s not the right question to ask. Not that you are wrong for asking. I’m here to help. 🙂

So let me try to explain…

The first thing I want to help you get a clearer understanding about is the fact that virtual assistants are not “outsourced help,” replacement staff or contract workers (a contract worker is a legal term for someone who is an employee of a staffing company).

In fact, if you read any of the back posts on my blog, you’ll see that I don’t like the term “virtual assistant” at all as it miseducates clients and industry newcomers alike and sets wrong expectations and perceptions right from the get-go (this is why we use the term Administrative Consultant).

On top of that, when you are running a business, you are not anyone’s assistant any more than, say, an attorney is an assistant to their clients or a coach is an assistant to their clients and so on. Just because you “assist” people, doesn’t make you an assistant. You see?

As someone in this profession, you are providing a skilled professional service, no different than an attorney, an accountant, a bookkeeper, a coach, a designer or what have you.

All of these professions, ours included, requires a high degree of specific skill, experience and expertise. We aren’t replacement workers. As administrative experts, we are providing an expertise—the expertise of administrative support—to businesses that require our particular skills and knowledge.

Once you understand things from that perspective, the question isn’t about how the economy is affecting companies that are downsizing. Those aren’t your clients. Because anyone who is simply looking to replace employees at a cheaper cost is not looking to value the skills or the relationship and is only interested in saving money. If you make those folks your clients, you can bank on always being on a hamster wheel trying to fend off competitors willing to work even cheaper than you.

Which leads me to my next point. You will need to educate yourself about who you are seeking to work with and what their motivation is in hiring you.

When you seek the right clients, the economy has no bearing on anything at all. Because by working with the right people (and you only need a handful of ideal retainer clients to do really well financially in this business), you will be creating your own economy.

You want to focus on a market that truly has a need for the expertise you offer, not the ones whose initial motivation is looking for cheap right from the get-go. So let me walk you through this thought process…

Who is going to truly need and value having an administrative partner? Is it the big company who can afford their own employees or who is only looking to reduce their bottom line? Or is it the solo and boutique companies who run smaller scale operations, often from home offices of their own, that don’t warrant employees  or don’t have anywhere to put them even if they wanted them, but who still need the support and understand how it will help them run a more profitable business and make faster progress? Who do you think has the greater need for what we do and will therefore place a higher value on it because it has more meaning to their business success?

This is why the economy has no bearing once you understand who your market is. Those who need and value what you are in business to do will pay because people who want or need something, prize it more highly and place greater importance on paying well for it. Which again, makes the whole question about the economy irrelevant because you are only going to seek a market and ideal clients who need and value the expertise and are able and willing to afford it.

So your task as a new business owner in this profession is to find a target market who a) has the highest need for what you are in business to do, b) can be found easily enough in order to market to them and fill your practice, and c) earns enough money to pay for professional level fees.

Always remember, you can’t afford to work with anyone who can’t afford you (not my quote, but one I love a lot although I’m not sure of its origins).

Hope that helps!

How Do We Work Together Virtually?

This is a common question from clients who are new to working with Administrative Consultants. The word “virtual” throws them for a loop and makes it sound as if it’s some mysterious new mode of operation. In reality, they’ve been working virtually all along with businesses of all kinds and just never realized it. Here’s what I mean…

When you hire an attorney, accountant, designer or any kind of professional, does that person come to your office to do their work? Do they work according to hours you set? Do they sign in and out with you whenever they begin or end working on your stuff?

Sounds silly, right?

Of course they don’t do those things. That’s the nature of working with independent businesses and professionals. They do their work from their own places of business and according to their own work schedules, processes and policies. You may or may not have ever even meet in person.

And things get done, right? When you retain someone to draft a contract or design a logo or take care of your accounts, they do what they do without needing to be physically present, right? So how does that happen?

Well, you communicate by phone and email, maybe even video chat. Files are sent by email or fax. Electronic signatures are obtained with tools like Echosign. Working documents are shared and transferred via tools like Dropbox. Shared collaborative workspaces are set up with services such as Airset to keep files and information organized in one place. Remote access or online accounts are sometimes used to get things done on your behalf.

This is the day and age of technology, baby! There is a mind-boggling array of tools and services that make working together “virtually” a breeze. Anyone who uses a computer and has ever done business with any other business or professional has already been working “virtually.”

Clients work with an Administrative Consultant exactly the same way. But people get hung up on the word “virtual.” Which is why I’ve always been an advocate for not using it whatsoever in your marketing.

A business is a business. It matters not how or where or when you work. If you’re a traveling salesperson, your vehicle is the platform by which you connect and work with clients. If you are a flower shop, it’s your brick and mortar store. Operating a professional service business is no different–it’s just that the computer happens to be your “office” and your tool for working with clients and delivering your services.

The fact that you are an online business is of no importance. The tools are incidental details–don’t focus on that or you will continue to confuse clients and make it seem much more complicated and mysterious than need be.

And for goodness sakes, stop using the analogy of the administrative assistant or secretary. All that does is confuse clients and keep them (mistakenly) thinking that you are some kind of temp or under-the-table substitute employee.

Is It Any Wonder Clients Balk at Your Fees?

I hear from people all the time complaining about the fact that they seem to ever hear from prospects who balk at their fees and only want to pay $10-15 an hour.

If you identify with that, I gotta be honest with you. Almost every bit of this difficulty stems from what YOU are talking about with them on your website and in your marketing message.

There will always be cheapskates in the world who want to devalue other people and get work for free.

But that leaves the rest of the prospective client market and they are absolutely influenced by how you “sell” yourself.

YOU control what they are focused on.

And let me tell ya, what many of you are focusing them on right now is creating the very mindsets you are frustrated with and seek to discourage.

Go to just about any Virtual Assistant website and all you see people talking is how affordable they are, how they are cheaper than an employee, how much clients can save, discounts on this, free hours on that… etc., etc.

The only thing you are talking about is money and saving. It’s no wonder this is all they see and hear then:

If you want to attract well-paying clients—clients who expect to pay professional level fees and value the work—you have got to stop talking about money in your marketing message. Period.

You are attracting all the wrong prospects and training them to devalue you. You are telling them that the only thing that is important to them and you is how much you cost.

Let me say that another way… if you all you are talking about is money, all you will attract is money-conscious clients.

Do you get that?

If your marketing conversation is all about how how cheap, affordable and “competitively-priced” you are, how much they will save and giving discounts left and right, you are going to keep getting clients who are only looking for cheap. They won’t see or hear anything else.

Surely, you actually have something of value to offer… don’t you?

So talk about THAT!

How does your work improve their business and life? How does it help them move forward? What problems does it solve? How might their outlook and clarity and stress and mood be improved with your help?

Think of all the ways your work and skill and knowledge contributes to making your clients’ businesses better, and focus on those things. The clients you attract with that message will be like night and day. Promise.

And if you want to learn how to stop selling hours and price and package your support based on value and expertise instead, be sure to check out my Value-Based Pricing & Packaging Toolkit.

Do You Hate Tracking and Reporting Hours to Clients?

If you hate tracking your time and reporting it to clients like some kind of employee, you aren’t alone. I’ve been watching the results of the survey on this question and you are in good company. People overwhelmingly hate this aspect of hourly billing.

Tracking and reporting your time is a huge administrative burden in your business. Plus, it focuses clients on how long things take you instead of how the work you do helps them achieve their goals. It’s no wonder they then get nitpicky about hours–that’s what you’ve led them to believe you’ve sold them and they want to make darn sure they’re getting what they paid for.

On top of that, did you realize when you bill by the hour, you actually make LESS money the better and faster you are? Do you get that? You are penalized financially for actually providing better service. That’s ass-backwards, wouldn’t you say? Shouldn’t you be REWARDED for the skill and speed you deliver?

Because that’s what is meant when we use the word “value.” Value is about how you help clients move forward better, faster and more skillfully. Value is NOT about how much you can give away for nothing.

Billing by the hour STOPS you from earning better and moving forward in your business. It keeps you working with clients in ways that limit your earning potential and don’t leave you any room to do anything else in your business. The problem is that most people don’t know how to charge any other way. They don’t know how to structure their fees and frame their support if time is not the unit of measurement. And so they stay stuck, working tons of hours with clients, yet still struggling to earn the money they need and having no time for a life outside of their business.

I want you to know, there is a better way. And what I have to share isn’t just about a billing methodology. So much of this directly ties in with your marketing, how you are framing things and how your business is currently structured. What I have to teach you will make your business easier to run and you’ll be able to sign up and work with clients more effortlessly while making way more money.

How to Price and Package Your Support Based on Value and Expertise--NOT Selling Hours!To learn more about positioning your business with proper pricing and how to avoid the hourly billing trap, get my guide How to Price and Package Your Support Based on Value and Expertise–NOT Selling Hours!

POLL: Do You Prefer Live Teleclasses or DIY eProducts?

So I have a new question for you… when it comes to paying for business/marketing learning and you can only do one or the other, which do you prefer: live teleclasses or self-paced do-it-yourself e-products (e.g., ebooks, videos, audio recordings)?

Also, what is the reason for your preference? Curious minds want to know! Please do contribute to the conversation in the comments. 🙂

You Are an Administrative Artist

I recently saw some Internet marketer use the phrasing “must have the heart of a servant” in reference to virtual assistants.

Give me a freaking break. Can you believe the condescension? Ewww.

That kind of thinking is just more evidence about how many in the marketplace view us:  as underlings… servants. And that’s because a lot of these people really think of us as assistants rather than as business peers and independent, professional service providers.

When I hire a professional, whether it’s an attorney or a coach or a bookkeeper or whatever, I don’t sit there and go, “… and they should have the heart of a servant…” When you hire a professional of any kind, do you say, “Oh, and they must have the heart of a servant.” Yah, right, LOL. No one does. And you’d be politely shown the door by any of these people if you did.

ANY professional should be service-oriented if they are going to succeed in business. That’s not the same thing as someone saying that you as a virtual assistant in particular need to have a servant’s heart. That’s just patently offensive. Do you get the difference?

But this is exactly how so many view the term “virtual assistant.” They think that we’re some kind of servants and lackeys.

Yet another reason why the term “virtual assistant” doesn’t serve us (at least, those of us who are in the administrative support business). It generates disrespectful attitudes like that.

If you want to talk about hearts, I say have the heart of a craftsman, an artisan. Our work is no less an art form and craft than any other kind of skilled trade.

People who have pride in their business and their skills and love exercising and honing them are the ones who care more deeply about their client relationships and doing great work. You certainly aren’t–and don’t have to be–anyone’s freaking servant to do that. You are an ADMINISTRATIVE EXPERT!

My Heart Goes Out to Japan

The thing that’s been foremost on my mind since over this weekend is the earthquake in Japan. First an earth-shattering quake, then devastating tsunamis, nerve-wracking aftershocks and nuclear plant explosion one after the other. God only knows what the after-effects of that last thing will be… for all of us.

The death tolls are nearing the thousands. Survivors are living on ramen noodles and rice balls with no running water or electricity. I’m fervently hoping that our Japanese exchange student, Takao Kawamura, and his family are okay.

On a personal note, we were also a little worried about whether we would have any effects from the tsunami since we live on the water and they had been issuing high alerts in our state. That’s our house there in the photo, and during super high tides and other events of nature (which, thankfully, are rare), that water sometimes rises right up onto the deck.

Nothing ended up reaching our inland waters, but I know some of our coastal towns in Washington, Oregon and California suffered some pretty severe damage. No loss of life that I’ve heard of so far, thank goodness.

It’s so horrific and my heart goes out to the people of Japan. My wish today is for all of us to take a moment of quiet and send them every single one of our prayers and positive thoughts.

We can each of us do something to help as well by sending a donation to the Red Cross. You can donate directly on their website, or you can text the word REDCROSS to 90999 and your $10 donation will show up on your next phone bill.

Please, do this… right now. Can you imagine how grateful you would be for the help and kindness of strangers if it were you and me this had happened to? You are not going to miss that $10, but I can tell you this: your humble act of generosity will come back to you, and you will forever carry in your heart the love and goodness you extended to your fellow human beings in their time of desperate need.

We are our brothers’ keepers. What happens to one of us, happens to all of us.

PS: Unplgged compiled a great resource with additional ways you can help, get involved with relief efforts and find missing family and friends

Dear Danielle: How Do I Convince Clients They’re Big Enough?

Dear Danielle: How Do I Convince Clients They Are Big Enough?

Dear Danielle:

Okay, here is a question. I keep getting the message that “I am just not big enough to outsource yet,” even though they have tasks which they are too busy to schedule to do like blog writing, articles and social media networking. How does one convince an entrepreneur that they are indeed “big enough” to contract with an Administrative Consultant? –ST

The quick answer—you don’t.

You don’t want to focus on the people who think they have to do all their own admin work. If they don’t have the need or the want for what you do, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

The bottom line is those folks are never our clients. It’s a complete effort in futility and a waste of precious time and energy trying to convince them otherwise.

Focus only on the folks who have a need/want for your support. They are the ones who are open to hearing how you can help them and have a need for what you do and will therefore place greater value on it and be willing to pay. You’ll have greater success in getting clients (and the kind of clients you want) if you do.

It also sounds like one of the reasons you’re talking to the wrong people is because you perhaps don’t have a target market.

If you’re trying to talk to anyone and everyone, you’re going to waste a TON of time and energy spinning your wheels talking to the wrong people and not getting anywhere.

If you don’t have a target market and don’t know enough about them to know who has the need, you’re gonna have to get clear on that. There are three first rules for deciding on a target market.

  1. It must have a need for what you’re in business to offer. You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “trying to sell ice cubes to an Eskimo,” right? Same principle. You can’t sell something to someone who doesn’t want it or need it. When they have a need, they will place greater value in how you can help them and therefore be willing to pay for it.
  2. It must be able to afford you. For example, I see lots of people wanting to target “mom and pops” and “startups.” First of all, those are not target markets, those are demographics. Not the same thing. But the other problem is that those kind of clients are typically the least able to afford any kind of professional services. When this is pointed out to colleagues, some of them will wail, “but they really NEED me!” Look, you gotta stop trying to save the world and “fix” people. You can’t afford to work with anyone who can’t afford you and you’ll go broke and hungry trying. Find the folks who can pay and let the others come to you when they get farther along. You can’t sacrifice your own financial needs and well-being to help them or you won’t be able to help anyone. Take that to the bank. ;)
  3. There must be enough of them that you can easily find and market to enough of them to fill your practice. I won’t say there aren’t exceptions to this rule, but generally, if the market is so obscure or esoteric that you can’t find them easily or there aren’t enough to fill your practice, you’re really going to make your life unnecessarily hard. Find another, easier to find market with larger numbers of people already in it.

Oh, and if you want to know why you need a target market and how it will dramatically increase the success of your business, here’s an article I originally wrote back in 2009:  Where Is Your Arrow Pointing?

Once you know who you’re talking to specifically, it becomes infinitely easier to find out when and what makes them seek out and be willing to pay for administrative support. Which is what you then tie directly into your marketing.

And that begins and ends with your compelling message. It’s the very foundation of all the rest of your marketing efforts. Marketing isn’t simply going through the motions of marketing activities. Without the foundation of a resonate, compelling, attractive message that appeals to your target market, none of the actual marketing activities is going to really help you.

Learning how to market in a way that allows you to attract the right people, speak to what their emotional interests are and command professional fees is an art and science. It involves understanding your market and marketing psychology.

It’s not even difficult. It’s actually pretty simple. The only thing that’s required is a) the focus and direction that a target market gives you, and b) a shift in your thinking and understanding about marketing.

You would really, really find great benefit from my guide, Articulating Your Value: How to Craft Your Unique, Irresistible Marketing Message to Stand Out from the Crowd and Attract Ideal, Well-Paying Clients.

Without the foundation of a proper message, none of the actual marketing activities is going to really help you. That’s what this guide is all about—helping you craft your message which is the foundation of any marketing activities you engage in. It’s about marketing and developing not only your own unique, compelling marketing message, but one that helps you command professional level fees.

How Do I Know If the Virtual Assistant Is Working?

If you ever have a prospective client ask, “How do I know my Virtual Assistant is working if I cannot see what he/she is doing?” you need to rewrite your marketing message.

That kind of question is a sure sign that you have written about yourself and what you do as if you were a substitute employee or virtual worker instead of an administrative expert and professional service provider.

You will never have a client ask that question if your marketing copy is written properly.

And if you don’t know how to do that, you need my guide: Articulating Your Value: How to Craft Your Unique, Irresistbible Marketing Message to Stand Out from the Crowd and Attract Ideal, Well-Paying Clients Who Can’t Wait to Hire You (GDE-38)