Archive for September, 2011

POLL: Want Retainer Clients, But Have a Hard Time Getting Them?

So I have a new poll for all you in the administrative support business. I want to know if you love the idea of having retained clients (clients you provide ongoing support for who pay you a monthly fee in advance at the start of each month), but have a difficult time getting them to sign on.

For those of you who answer yes, please do share in the comment what difficulties you experience with this. (I’ve got something special for you coming up 🙂


How to Name Your Business for Success

Business naming is an area we’ve all struggled with. Perhaps you are in start-up stages yourself and are completely frustrated with where to even begin. So I thought I would round up some advice from a few smart experts, including myself, to give you some much-needed direction.

I love Guy Kawasaki’s down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is style (plus, I think he’s a cutie-pie to boot). In his book, The Art of the Start, he advises never to compromise on your business name–it’s that important and will make your positioning much easier. A few of his tips include:

  • Have a first initial that’s early in the alphabet.
  • Avoid numbers.
  • Pick a name with “verb potential.”
  • Sound different.
  • Sound logical.
  • Avoid the trendy (and cutesy).

All great advice. Personally, while I think choosing a name with an initial early in the alphabet can provide some advantages, they are more incidental in the scheme of things. The person who learns how to market and create her own pipelines will never suffer because her business name doesn’t start with the letter “A.”

Harry Beckwith is a marketing expert I can’t get enough of. I have read everything he’s ever written (and you should, too). In his books, Selling the Invisible and The Invisible Touch, he offers some business naming advice we’d all do well to heed:

  • Give your service a name, not a monogram. What he means by this is that people don’t remember acronyms (monograms). They have no memorability because they have “no spirit, no message, no promise, no warmth, and no humanity.”
  • Pick something that stands out. Generic names encourage generic business.
  • Never choose a name that describes something everyone expects from the service. The name will be generic, forgettable and meaningless. Example: Quality Cleaners. Duh, you wouldn’t go to a business named Crappy Cleaners. However, “quality” is such a basic expectation, you’re not saying anything distinctive or memorable by using that word. Plus, with everyone and their brother using “Quality,” you will only blend in with the crowd, which is what your business DOESN’T need to do.
  • Be distinctive and sound it. The mind best remembers names that are unique, sensory, creative and outstanding. An ordinary name implies an ordinary business.
  • Look for a name that people can see, smell, taste, feel or hear (or all four). Names with exceptional memorability are sensory and engage four of the five senses.
  • Start with your own. When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with putting your own name on the business.
  • Look for a name that makes the prospect, not you, sound important.
  • Say the name out loud. If it doesn’t roll off the tongue easily or has unintended pronunciations or connotations, rethink things. It should also be easy to spell.
  • Keep it short. It should be no more than eleven letters or four syllables max.

What I will add to all this great advice:

Forget about clever/tricky spellings. It doesn’t make you distinctive. It just makes it hard for clients to find your site or look you up online because they can’t for the life of them figure out how you spelled your biz name.

2. Make it legal. That is, do your due diligence and make sure you do not choose a name (or version of a name) that another company in your industry is already using. It’s just asking for trouble and will cause ill will within your professional community. It’s a really, really, really bad idea.

And don’t argue with this advice. Whatever you think you know about the law when it comes to this, I guarantee ya, you don’t. The best thing you can do for yourself is operate under the assumption that your colleague’s business is as important to them as yours is to you. They have every right under the law to go after you, in whatever way they see fit, if you infringe upon their established trade name. That’s their livelihood after all. You wouldn’t want someone doing that to you, right? You remember what they say about “do unto others,” don’t you? 😉

So here’s what you can do, once you find a name you like, to ensure you are not infringing on anyone else in your industry:

  1. Conduct a search in your industry directories. Make sure no one else is using the same or similar name already.
  2. Conduct a search for the name (or the predominant unique identifier) in several different search engines. Use Google, MSN, Yahoo, Chrome and any others you might think of. Better to be thorough now than sorry later. Example: If you want to use “Dizzy Admin Support,” you should search for “Dizzy Admin,” “Dizzy Administration, “Dizzy Administrative,”“Dizzy Business Support,” etc. If someone else in our industry is already using “Dizzy” in their name, forget about using that word.
  3. Search the USPTO.gov Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS). Check to see that no one else is already using the same or similar trade name. Bear in mind that while federally registered trade names have even further protections and recourse, a name does not have to be registered there to be protected. Changing a letter or word is not going to help you if the name can be considered to be substantially the same and/or would still create confusion.

RESOURCE: All the books and authors mentioned can be found on Amazon.com and I HIGHLY recommend you get them–today. As a business owner, it is also imperative you educate yourself about copyright and trade marks. USPTO.gov is a perfect place to start. And having a good Intellectual Property lawyer on your team of professional advisers is always a good idea.

How to Politely Decline Barter Requests

Requests for barter can be the bane of a new business owner’s existence. For a zillion reasons, barter isn’t the wonderful alternative that so many make it out to be (but that’s a different post–or several, lol).

Whatever your feelings are about trading services, the topic of this post is how to politely decline barter requests when you’re not interested. Here are some of the ways I’ve phrased this:

“I’m not accepting barter clients at the moment, but I’ll keep your offer in mind for future reference.”

“Thank you for your kind offer. I have found that it’s much more difficult to keep track of bartering (trade) services. Plus, those services have to be reported as income come tax time, without the benefit of actually earning the cash with which to pay those taxes. To keep it all simple and uncomplicated, I strictly work with clients on a cash basis.”

“Thank you for your kind offer. I don’t need [whatever they are offering in exchange] right now, but I’ll keep this in mind if I ever do.”

“Thank you for your interest. I reserve all my trade and pro bono work for my pet charities/causes.”

One additional thought:  Some might suggest tying your own offer of paid support in with the polite decline to trade, the idea being along the lines of “hey, let’s talk about how my administrative support can help you move forward in your business so you can start earning better and actually pay for the services and things you need.”

Of course, you wouldn’t word it out loud that way, but that’s obviously one of the goals we work toward as we administratively support clients. By helping them get their business organized, humming along smoothly and moving forward, they will eventually start earning better because they’ll start making faster progress on getting things done and have more time to focus on growing their business, working with more clients, and doing more marketing and networking.

However, what I’ve found is that those who offer to trade really aren’t in any position to pay for your services or have no intention of paying for your services even if they were (the use ’em and abuse ’em, get-it-for-free camp).

And you know what rule #1 is for any target market and ideal client:  You can’t afford to work with anyone who can’t afford you. They must be able to pay in order to be a client.

For that reason, it’s perfectly sound business sense to simply decline the request politely and not bother to even try getting them interested in your paid support. Just continue focusing on those potential clients who are eager for your support and can easily pay.

So how have you phrased things when you’ve had to decline a barter request? Please do share in the comments so we can help each other out!

How to Create Case Studies

When you work in a retainer-based business where you provide ongoing support (that is, you work with clients on an ongoing basis every month), one of the first things you should do with every new client is document (put in writing) where they are right now/before working with you. This is the start of your before & after case study.

Three to six months later, you should then solicit each client’s feedback and conducting an interview with them about that feedback. From this information, you will draw your “after” snapshot. (The Client Feedback Form offered in my Success Store is done in a way specifically to help you develop your before & after case studies.)

The idea is to paint a written picture of what life and business was like for the client before they began working with you (including all the problems and pain), and then how things were improved after working with you (this is your “after”).

Case studies are excellent credibility boosters to include on your website. The trick is to start doing this now with all new clients. It can be done, but it’s much more difficult to create the “before” shot with clients you’ve already been working with for awhile.

One way I’ve been able to capture a vivid snapshot of “before” scenarios is with the Activity & Time Analysis diagnostics I’ve done with clients.  You get much more detail about the problems in the client’s business, often picking up on things they forget and leave out when they give you their feedback.

With my Activity & Time Analysis Tool, I’ve been able to pinpoint areas where clients were frittering away their time, what activities were bogging them down, money they were leaving on the table and work they weren’t getting paid for, as well as identifying areas and work they could turn into services and information products for increased/additional revenue.

 

How Long Should a Contract Be?

Dear Danielle:

I’ve secured a small contract and have another interested prospect. My question is two-part regarding retainers. First, how do you decipher the length of the contract (6 months, 12 months)? And secondly, I’ve noticed that some consultants charge a deposit of first and last month’s retainer fee; where others require only the first month’s fee due with signed contract. Your thoughts?

This is a very timely question. I’ve actually been meaning to post something about this for the longest time. I quite frequently see posts in various forums by folks who it’s clear don’t quite seem to understand the whole retainer thing.

The first thing to understand is that when we talk about retainers, we aren’t talking about project work. A retained relationship is one where clients pay a monthly fee upfront to have your support each month. You determine the parameters of what that support will consist of based on your consultation conversations with clients.

In an administrative support business, retainers are going to be your bread and butter. It’s where the bigger, better money is, as well as dependable cashflow. And the great thing is that once you have a retained client base with regular income, you have a much easier road to hoe than those who try to make a living based on nothing but project work, where you are on a constant hamster wheel chasing after the next clients, the next projects, even as you’re working on what’s on the plate in front of you.

Now, as far as the contract goes, the retainer agreement doesn’t have anything to do with how long you work together. It’s there to cover the terms, conditions and expectations of the relationship regardless of how long you work together, whether that’s a month, six months, a year or longer.

You don’t need to define upfront how long the relationship is going to be. It’s simply month to month. You only need to have them sign an agreement once a year.

And even if you don’t have them sign a new agreement once a year rolls by, whatever contract and/or addendums were last in place is what is in effect (this will naturally depend on what laws are involved in your own locality so you should always double-check on stuff like this with an attorney).

Either way, it’s a good idea to have clients sign a new agreement every year that you continue to work together because as your business evolves and matures, and as you make changes to your policies and such, you will want those changes reflected and enforced in your agreements. It’s also a good opportunity to remind both of you of your agreements and commitments to each other.

As far as locking clients into some number of months of work together upfront or collecting first and last months’ retainers, there isn’t really a right or wrong way. I can definitely see the smartness in that. At the same time, I think you may have a more difficult time getting a brand spanking new client you’ve never worked with before to part with that much money when they don’t know you or what they’re going to get just yet. But, hey, if you can pull it off, more power to you.

Beyond that, I can only tell you my own personal preference, which is that I prefer not to hold clients hostage to me as far as forcing them to commit to more than one month at a time.

You should expect a minimum commitment from clients in order to make it worth your while to work with them. A minimum commitment is also absolutely necessary in order for you to get some idea of the big picture of their business, allowing you to do your best work and provide a higher quality of support.

However, I prefer to let trust grow organically. Expecting new clients to commit to a month at a time is far more reasonable. Then, as they see things actually progress, they naturally want to continue working together.

In the retainer contracts I sell, there is a clause that allows either of you to terminate the relationship with at least (x) days written notice (you determine what “x” is, but I recommend 20 days). This gives both of you a fair and reasonable way to end the relationship that doesn’t hold anyone hostage nor leave either of you in a lurch. You can then get a head start on replacing the income and announcing an opening in your roster.

Another thing I see folks confused about (and I know some of them are getting this from training they have taken) is they seem to go about the relationship as if they were still employees. They think (and are sometimes told) that they need to give clients some sort of “trial” or “probationary” period.

Look, I’m here to tell you this is absolutely ridiculous and unnecessary in a professional service relationship, especially when you are using a retainer contract like mine that has a built-in termination clause.

You’re in business to help people and earn money while doing so. You’re not an employee anymore so stop thinking like one! You either decide to work together or you don’t. It’s that simple.

Clients are grown-ups. Once you choose to work together, they can decide for themselves whether the relationship and support is working for them or not. Your job as a business owner is simply to select clients who are the best fit and then give those clients your best work.

And with the month-to-month contract with the 20- or 30-day termination provision, either of you can end the relationship for whatever reason.

In that sense, every month is a “trial” period, but you shouldn’t be discussing things in those terms in your business conversations. It’s just ridiculous. You either expect the monthly commitment or you don’t. It couldn’t be simpler or plainer than that.

What you should be doing as part of your usual process in working with both new and long-term clients is checking in with them periodically about how things are going.

I recommend that for at least the first three to six months, you meet with new clients by phone once a week, but no less than every other week. From there, you can determine together whether to continue with your regular meetings or decrease their frequency. It’s during these phone meeting that you should be having this “how’s it going” conversation with clients, along with your regular talk about work and goals and such.

With your more established clients, it’s likely you will eventually both find that regular meetings simply aren’t needed as you end up becoming really attuned to each other otherwise.

With those clients, I still like to meet once a month on the phone because the voice adds another way to nurture that human connection and relationship, especially when we so often never meet our clients in person.

And with all retainer clients, I recommend getting their feedback every six months.

I want to emphasis this has nothing whatsoever to do with a “probationary” period. I’m gonna kick your butt if I hear you using that term. This is simply taking good care of your clients by always striving to stay attuned to their feelings and needs.

If you are meeting with clients regularly by phone, you will be naturally doing this through those conversations. It has nothing to do with being on a probationary or trial period. It’s called taking good care of clients. 😉

 

Setting Policies for Responsive (and Manageable) Communication Flows

Everyone talks about providing clients with great service. But think about it… if you are interrupting your train of thought to jump the second the phone rings, how great is it for that client whose important work you just interrupted? So for practical purposes in figuring out how you can actually provide great service to client–smoothly and consistently–you begin to realize that you have to be more intentional about your policies and procedures for communication. These are the things that make things manageable in your business. Because if they aren’t manageable for you, then your quality of work and service to clients becomes compromised and unmanageable as well. And that’s not good business or service.

It’s true to a certain extent that you may lose some prospects by not getting back to them right away. At the same time, you’d never get any work done if you answered every call the second the phone rang. It’s crazy-making to even try. As with most things, instituting smart policies and procedures in your business will help you improve your response times and communications. Following are a few tips to make things more manageable:

  1. Establish communication policies. Set a standard for responding to inquiries (e.g., “within 24 hours”). Decide which inquiries get priority attention (e.g., clients or prospective clients).
  2. Post your office hours and response protocols. Tell folks, on your website and in your voicemails, what days your office is “open” and how soon they may expect your return email or call.
  3. Require clients to follow certain procedures. While it might seem like letting clients call you for anything and everything at any time is great service, doing so will actually create conditions in your business that lead to poor performance and quality of service. To be successful, you need to have some protocols that let you manage work and communication well in your business. Don’t be afraid to tell clients how work requests must be submitted (e.g., you might require that they be submitted in writing by email only) or that phone calls and meetings are done by appointment.
  4. Get a receptionist. If you worry that a happy, informative Voicemail message isn’t enough, but still need uninterrupted concentration time to get work done, you can hire a live Virtual Receptionist service like Ruby Receptionists.
  5. Map out a process for qualifying inquiries. There are lots of ways your website can do this work for you so you can reduce the time you spend on unnecessary calls and emails. You can design your website so that visitors are guided toward one action (e.g., submitting a form to schedule a consultation). If you prefer one method of contact over another, emphasize that method and make it the most visible and prominent. Another way to pre-qualify clients is to have them complete an online form that will help you determine if someone meets your minimum criteria for an ideal client and what your next steps should be with that person. In your Voicemail message, ask callers to be sure and visit your website (if they haven’t yet) and give them the url.

Remember, in order to give great service you have to set foundations (policies, standards, protocols, workflows) in your business that enable you to do that consistently and sustainably.

Remembering 9/11

On this anniversary of 9/11, my heart goes out to all those who lost their lives and loved ones.

I remember when it happened, I had the TV on and when the reports started coming on, it was such a surreal feeling. At first, it seemed like it couldn’t be real. I even had a fleeting thought that it had to be some kind hoax, like when the radio program “War of the Worlds” aired. This couldn’t possibly be happening.

But as we know, it was altogether too real.

How to Set Up an Illness-Proof Solo Practice

When you run a solo practice, illness can have a direct impact on your clients and finances. That is, it will if you don’t set your business up with intention and a bit of foresight.

There are ways in which you can operate and work with clients so that the occasional sick day (or two or three) has little or no affect on your daily operations. Below are my secrets and advice for building a solo practice that is practically illness-proof.

1. Be an expert, not an assistant. HUGE difference. Stop working as if you were a telecommuting employee to clients. It’s great to get to know a client’s business really, really well. But that doesn’t require you to involve yourself in their daily operations. When you do that, you don’t leave yourself any room to get sick, which means when you do get sick (and trust me, you will), it will be that much more of a disastrous prospect.

2. Only take on work that can be scheduled. That means, only work that has some leeway by at least three days is my rule of thumb. You don’t want to build a practice based on providing instant assistance and same-day requests (not to be confused with providing responsive attention when customer service issues arise). As an independent professional—not an employee—you are there to provide strategic support and expertise, not daily assistance. You’ll never be able to support anyone well if you are constantly interrupting one client’s work to deal with the next client’s last minute request or “emergency.” Sometimes the client just needs to do it themselves or wait his turn. It’s that simple.

3. Establish workflows and turn-around policies that give you space around the work. Require clients to follow work request procedures that you, not they, devise. Give yourself plenty of room to breath in your turn-around times. This will allow the occasional hiccup in work (such as when illness occurs) to be a non-issue; you simply bump things to the next day or so. And don’t work with clients who can’t operate within your protocols. Those are not ideal clients.

4. Avoid anchor clients. Once you start working with a client for more than 20 or 30 hours a month, you become more of an employee than a strategic service provider or support partner. Anchor clients bog your business down to the point you have no room to grow, work with other clients or move around in your business, much less get sick. Stop doing that. Know when to tell clients that they need an employee. You’re doing both of you a favor. You never want all your eggs in one basket anyway. The general business rule of thumb is no one client should make up more than 15-20% of your business. Illness has far less of an impact on any one client this way.

5. Empower clients, don’t make them dependent. You love your clients. You love helping them succeed. And it’s fantastic and commendable that you’re always seeking to improve and give them your very best. HOWEVER, as an independent service provider (and contrary to the latest ridiculous buzz word of the day), you are not part of your clients’ team. No client should be so dependent upon you that if you were to get sick or need to close up shop for any amount of time, their business falls to pieces and they can’t do anything themselves. If that’s how you are working with clients, you are setting both of you up to fail. Work with clients in ways that empower them and keep them wanting to work with you, not feeling enslaved to you because they’ve been allowed to abdicate responsibility for their own business.

6. Work with an administrative partner. Being solo does NOT mean working alone and doing everything yourself. It simply means you are the craftsperson who works directly with your clients. No one can do everything themselves. By partnering with your own Administrative Consultant, you get someone who can help you with many of the administrative functions in your business, keep it running smoothly AND give you some breathing room by assisting with client work or notifying clients when necessary should you get sick.

7. Practice excellent self-care. You can’t take great care of others unless you take great care of YOU first. That’s what all of these tips are about. You have to have a high standard for taking great care of yourself and your own business before you can extend that great care to others. Acknowledge that you are human; you WILL get sick or need time away on occasion. Let clients know this at the very start of the relationship and how this is handled in your business. This standard also helps you realize that when clients want what you can’t or shouldn’t provide them with, they are not ideal. It’s practicing self-care and integrity when you let those folks know you can’t help them and what they really need instead.

8. Put together a risk management/disaster recovery/business interruption plan. We’re talking about incidental, non-serious illness in this article, but more catastrophic illnesses and events are another story. God forbid anything terrible befalls you and your livelihood becomes at risk. Taking time to put together a disaster recovery/risk management plan will help mitigate any interruptions in your business and service to clients. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece and it’s something you can add to as you go along. Whenever you identify a risk, add it to your plan and then outline what you are doing now or would do to prevent or minimize the impact. For example, one risk for being in business is that a crazy client could say an error you made caused them a problem. One solution would be to have business insurance that would perhaps pay off these claims. Another solution for this risk would be to formalize your strategy in writing for how you would respond to unhappy clients and attempt to rectify things before it ever got to the point of a lawsuit being filed. (You get a free bonus copy of the ACA Disaster & Business Continuation Plan when you purchase SET-01 in the ACA Success Store).

Policies and procedures aren’t only about instilling systems in your business. And they certainly aren’t about being inflexibly militant with clients. Ultimately, they exist because they are the very things that enable you to take fabulous care of all of your clients—equally, consistently and reliably.

In my guide, Power Productivity & Biz Management: The 14 Simple Systems that Will Breathe Freedom, Flexibility and LIFE Back Into Your Business and Relationship with Clients (GDE-41), one of the secrets I share with you is a workflow and turn-around policy that takes great care of clients, gives you room to breath (and get sick should that happen), and creates a practice that affords more freedom and flexibility for LIFE than you ever imagined possible.

Does Your Image Match?

So, I took the car into the shop for some routine maintenance. I go to a place I’ve been taking it to for the past couple years now. They are so awesome. The front desk staff is so friendly. Unlike lots of car shops, this one is actually clean and tidy. They give complimentary engine light checks if you have one come on. They’ll drive you home if it’s going to be awhile for your car. The mechanics are clean-cut, take time to explain things to you clearly, and don’t leer and drool at you if you’re a woman. (Ladies, you know what I’m taking about!)

Anyway, as I was waiting in the reception area for one of the guys to drive me back home, I was nosing around the business card table. This is a little spot where the shop owner lets his customers leave their business cards and flyers. I like to see who else is on the local independent business owner scene (indy businesses are my favorite!), and I came across a card that had me feeling so sorry for the owner.

You see, the biz card said it was a marketing business, but everything about the card loudly contradicted this and instead indicated that this wasn’t someone who understood marketing at all. The card was a stock template from Vistaprint I’ve seen a million times with “business cards are FREE at vistaprint.com” on the back. On the front, the font was so small I could barely make out the name of the biz owner. There was no website listed so I couldn’t go online to learn more about the business and what it offered. And the email was a gmail address.

You don’t have to be a great designer to be in the marketing business. BUT someone in the marketing business… that is, someone who really is an expert in marketing KNOWS (as this is one of the most basic things to understand) that image is everything. If you say you are an expert and professional, your marketing materials MUST demonstrate that. That being the case, this business owner who was supposedly in the marketing profession should have known to hire a designer to put together a proper and professional-looking business card.

So instead of a business that I would ever call for marketing, I get the impression that this isn’t a real expert at all. Now, maybe they really are an expert and really great. But as the only thing I have to judge them on right in front of me, their business card tells me otherwise.

I don’t know this business from Adam. As the first introduction and presentation of that business, their business card is a either a deal maker or a deal breaker. It’s either going to instill confidence in me that they are a successful, expert marketing business that I’d be interested in looking into further, or it’s going to tell me, either consciously or subconsciously, not to bother. And this goes for anything that represents your business–your website, your content, your brochures and cards, etc.

So why is a well-designed website important? Why do you need a properly designed logo? Why spend money on a designer when you have tools on your computer that you can use yourself? Because your business image tells a story to your prospective clients. It gives them clues as to whether you really are a successful professional who is expert at what you do or merely an amateur they shouldn’t waste money on. It helps them connect the dots and encourages them to take the next step (whether that’s going to your website or contacting you for a consultation).

If this biz owner really knew what he was doing, he would have a properly designed, original card–not a template and definitely not one that told the world he was too unsuccessful to afford to pay for his own business cards. He would have a website for people to go to so they could learn more. He would have some kind of offer or call to action on the card. He would use a proper email address on his own domain.

Image is everything people. Don’t skimp on yours.

Twitter Hashtag: #AdminExperts

Earlier this year Donnamarie Needle came up with a Twitter hashtag for us:  #AdminExperts

I think it’s brilliant! I encourage you to use it in your Twitter posts to help it explode and gain some traction. Whenever prospective clients see it, they’ll know exactly who you are–an administrative specialist who can help them succeed!