Archive for February, 2012

Dear Danielle: How Do You Cope with Holidays?

Dear Danielle:

I have a question for you. How do you cope with holidays? I’m about to go on holidays for a month. The first year I was doing this full time, I actually worked while I was traveling. Last year I had a friend fill in with a couple of my clients doing some of the work and other parts were left until I returned (mainly database entries). However, this year, I am requiring my friend to take on a lot of my clients (about six of them). One particular client requires my friend to take over everything I do which has required me writing a very long and extensive manual and take the day to train her tomorrow (only part will be for this client). However, when I asked if the client was willing to pay for some of the cost of my time in preparing the manual and for training, they have baulked. It has taken me approximately 8 hours to write the 60 page manual plus there will be another 3 or so hours training tomorrow for just this client. Who do you think should be responsible for paying for this? Sarah Munro, Sarah’s Office Services

Two questions for the price of one! lol

Let me preface things by saying there’s no right or wrong way when it comes to how you want to handle things in your business. So I’m just going to offer my own personal thoughts on this.

As far as the manual goes, to me, that’s just the cost of doing business. The client didn’t ask you to go on vacation and they didn’t ask you to develop a manual so you could have your support step in to do things. They just want to have the support they are paying for each month. If it were me, I wouldn’t charge the client for this as I initiated it as something to make things go smoother for me while I’m away.

And even if they had asked for the manual, I would still include it as part of our relationship retainer. Of course, you may not be pricing and packaging things the way I do, so that makes a difference as well.  I charge and get paid well enough that things like that don’t even need to be a blip on the radar, so to speak.

You actually have me somewhat stumped on the month-long vacation, lol. I mean, I have never taken an entire month of vacation away from my business. But I also don’t feel deprived in any way because I’m not working like a slave the rest of the time either. I don’t ever have feelings where I need to escape, which I know a lot of people do have (not saying you do, just saying in general).

My business is part of me, part of my life, so when I go on vacation it doesn’t bother me to keep a certain amount of tab on things and keep up with the most important things and delay or reduce others to half-mast.

In fact, maybe it’s just me, but one of the things I really enjoy when traveling or going on “vacation” is (for example) sitting in front of the ocean and doing a little work or checking emails on the laptop and aircard. When I lived in Europe, one of the things I absolutely loved to do was “set up shop” at my favorite cafe and do work while savoring the sights and sounds, people watching and soaking all the atmosphere in. Cafe society in Europe is so delicious!

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m going to actually deprive myself of a real vacation either. What I do is let clients know at the beginning of our relationship my policies and standards when it comes to the fact that I will be closed at times and even go on vacations. I don’t want them to be taken by surprise (which they really shouldn’t be anyway, but still it’s helpful to have those conversations upfront so they expect it and know exactly how things work).

I let them know how and what things will still be taken care of during that time (or not, as the case may be) and how/when they may need to step in and do things themselves. Yes, clients should never be dependant upon you! It’s their business and they should be able to step in when they need to.

I want clients to view our relationship as a whole, in the context of ongoing, so when they pay by monthly retainer, it’s more of an installment type of thing, in an abstract way of thinking of it. At the same time, I can’t justify for myself being paid a full month’s retainer if I plan to take an entire month off without giving them any level of support whatsoever. If I were to ever do that, and really and truly not work at all (and I’m just speculating here because I’ve never fully taken an entire month off), I would probably make sure there is some kind of support still available while still being half mast and/or maybe give them some kind of reduced retainer rate.

The whole vacation thing is one of the reasons I advocate for Administrative Consultants partnering with their own Administrative Consultant in the same kind of ongoing, monthly relationship that our clients have with us. When you do that, you have someone who gets to know you far better than someone stepping in off the cuff, who learns the ropes of your business and is a partner to you, not a subcontractor. This makes it much easier and more fluid for them to step in and take care of things when you are away.

I hope you have a blast on your vacation. And if I do ever decide to take off a whole month, I’ll be coming to you for advice!

Dear Danielle: Should I Post Pricing on My Website?

Dear Danielle:

Quick question. Is it good business practice to place your price list and hourly fees on your website? Talanda Ferguson

It’s always the “quick” questions that are anything but, lol. Whether or not to post pricing on your professional service-based business website is a frequent topic of conversation and debate. It takes a bit more in-depth learning and education to understand why it’s not really a good idea when it comes to professional services.

I write about this topic frequently so I’m going to point you in the direction of a couple of my previous posts that will help you better understand the pros and cons and the reasons I advocate against posting rates:

Price Is NOT the Bottom-Line
Screening the Tire Kickers

Andy Beale, a well-known marketing consultant and blogger at Marketing Pilgrim, also wrote an excellent article on this topic. His article is directed toward the marketing industry, but the advice is relevant to any kind of professional service and consulting business, including Administrative Consulting:

Why Marketing Agencies Shouldn’t Publish Their Fees

I also want to mention that I’m not an advocate for hourly pricing. I didn’t invent the methodology, but I did introduce our industry to the concept of value-based pricing, and I originated the process for how to employ that methodology with ongoing support, which is what I really recommend you look into. You can visit my Value-Based Pricing Toolkit product page to view a video and learn more about why selling hours is actually killing your business.

Let me know if this helps. And do post your comments and questions so we can keep the discussion going. I’m particularly interested in hearing the reasons and concerns any of you have about why you think you need to post your fees. I may be able to shed some light and give you some info to see things from a different perspective that ultimately will help you earn better and gain better clients.

Dear Danielle: How Does the Shaky Economy Affect Us?

Dear Danielle:

What do you perceive will transpire within the VA scene with the upcoming shaky global economy? What would you suggest, especially to new VA’s such as myself? We have not acquired an established clientele yet, we are scratching to get a first client! Thank you. –Marie-Brigitte Souci

Thanks for the question, Marie-Brigitte. 🙂

First, I do want to gently remind that we use the term Administrative Consultants here. I’m not concerned with the VA industry. I answer questions related to those who are in the administrative support business and for many reasons, we do not use the VA term.

I want to encourage you not to be concerned about the economy. First, because things really are on the upswing, and second, because it really doesn’t need to have anything to do with you. You’re looking at things from the wrong angle, and if you’re worrying about clients who are worried about the economy, you’re focusing on the wrong clients.

Here is a post I wrote in 2011 on this topic that I think will help you see that there is a different approach and why the “shaky” economy doesn’t have to relate to your business in any way:

Dear Danielle: How Is the Economy Affecting Out Industry?

Let me know if that helps!

Dear Danielle: Should I Turn Work Away?

Dear Danielle:

I’ve learned a lot from you in regards to Value Based Pricing by purchasing your system. Love it! The only question I have is, do you turn away any admin work that doesn’t fit into your packages? I sometimes have clients ask me to help out with a quick spreadsheet or troubleshoot why a login isn’t working etc. Do you have any tips on how this translates in value based pricing? MD

Thanks for the great question! I’ll do my best to help.

Quick answer: It depends. But let’s examine why and where you may be wanting to take your business.

Personally, at my stage in business, yes, I typically do turn away small ad-hoc project work if that’s what you are referring to. It’s just not worth my time or attention. I make enough from my retainer clients that I don’t need to bother with penny ante stuff like that. And I have more time to devote to my retained clients and more time for my own life because of it.

This is something you begin to realize once you decide that you want to start earning better in your business. Lots of people think they need to take anything they can get, everything that comes their way. And that’s certainly their perogative. If someone is starving and they need to put food on the table, yeah, you’re going to take that work, and any work you can get.

However, continuing to operate in that mode will keep you in the position of what essentially amounts to picking pennies up off the ground. You’ll never create a better, more well-earning business that way. And project work like that will keep you from building a more leisurely paced business–and life. You’ll forever be on a hamster wheel in a business like that.

Getting to a place of higher earning requires intention about the kinds of work and clients you take on. It means saying “no” to certain work in order to focus on getting the kind of work and clients that actually lead you from a hand-to-mouth (or hamster wheel) existence to one where you are earning and profitting well and, in turn, creating the life you want for yourself.

Now, you use the word “clients” rather than prospects so I’m not sure if you meant people who are already retained clients or if you actually meant just random people (prospective clients) who don’t want to retain you, but just want little one-off things.

If it’s retained clients you meant, and they were asking for something outside the scope of their support plan, again it depends. For retained clients, I give the best of my time and attention. If they have a quick, little one-off thing that falls outside the scope of their support plan, a lot of times I will knock that out for them just as a bit of client love. Their long-term business and relationship is more financially profitable for me than a few extra bucks. However, if a pattern begins to emerge (which I will notice in my six-month review of their account) that they really do need ongoing support in a particular area, that’s when we have a conversation about adding that support area onto their plan (and the price goes up accordingly).

But, yes, if it’s just a random person who has found my site and just wants a little project, I turn those away. Just not worth the distraction or my time and effort. One of the reasons I’ve been able to build the practice I have today is by saying “no” to things like that.

If you want to build a retainer based and more well-earning business, you have to say no to any client or work that isn’t in alignment with that goal. I realize there may be a balancing act some folks need to do when they are first starting their business. The caution (and where folks get caught up on) is that if all you ever do is taken on penny-ante project work, it will keep you from building the business that you’d rather have. It just eats up all your time and attention.

I know some people like to say, “But those little projects could turn into retained clients if they like my work.” Again, that’s not building a business based on intention. That’s trying to grow a business based on hope. Doesn’t work. And there’s a better way.

I’m sure you’ve heard me repeat the adage, “You will never get what you don’t ask for.” And this is exactly what this means. If you don’t ask for and expect a commitment from clients, you will never get one. If you don’t ask for exactly the kind of clients and relationship that you prefer to have in your business, you will never get them.

The tail will forever be wagging the dog (the business and clients running you and not serving your needs) and you will never build the business you want unless you ask for it. That means not accepting just any ol’ work and clients. It means telling clients exactly how you work with them (e.g., by monthly retainer) and then only accepting those clients who are ready to work like that. You gotta stop wasting time on everyone else. It’s just delaying and distracting you.

And contrary to all the advice you hear out there on this, I do not recommend you take on a small project so clients can “get a taste of what it’s like to work with you.” Would you go to a home builder and ask them to “just build me this little thing here so I can get an idea of what it’s like to work with you?” They wouldn’t do it (and they’d probably laugh behind your back). It’s just not worth their time to deal with dabblers. And you can’t make it worth your time either or you’ll be doing that the rest of your life.

Focus on the people who are ready to work with you. There are far better ways to allow prospective clients to “sample” you without you being distracted or wasting your one-on-one time. Heck, your entire website should be a “sampling” and demonstration of you and your skills, knowledge and expertise.

I want you to refer back to the Administrative Consultant business model blueprint you received with the Value-Based Pricing Toolkit. This outlines exactly how you can offer them “samples” without letting the “nibblers” take you away from your focus.

Let me know if that helps. 🙂

Dear Danielle: Do You Think Buying a Franchise Is a Good Idea?

Dear Danielle:

I was wondering why you have not considered franchising an Administrative Consultant business? With everything you have in place it seems like something you may have considered. I ask because one of my clients is a franchise person and asked me why I had not considered it. Then I thought… well, if Danielle hasn’t done it, there must be a reason why. Just curious about your thoughts on the subject. –JL

Thanks for such an interesting question! I really appreciate those.

This topic actually has come up before in other conversations with colleagues, but I haven’t ever posted my thoughts about it here on the blog.

To get to the quick of it, I’m against franchising. It’s hard to put into words and explain all the reasons why, but I’ll give it a try.

Fundamentally, I don’t believe buying into a franchise is good for Administrative Consultants.

It might be good for the seller because they make money from it, but I don’t think it’s good for the people buying into them.

Sure, I could package up my branding and sell it as a franchise and make money regardless.

But if my core belief is that it only really and truly benefits me, I would not feel that I was living in truth and integrity.

It would not sit well with my conscience to sell people something that I didn’t believe was actually any good for them.

Here’s why I don’t think it serves you as an Administrative Consultant…

First,  you have to understand that providing a professional service is not the same as making and selling sandwiches for a living (e.g., buying into a Subway franchise).

You can’t franchise personality, chemistry, critical thinking, unique experience, and higher level skill and expertise.

These are exactly the things that make what we do a craft and differentiate one Admin Consultant from another and makes each unique to his or her own ideal clients.

You simply can’t bottle that.

Second, when you apply a cookie cutter approach (which is what franchising does), you turn what is a craft into a commodity.

And when something becomes a commodity, it loses its specialness and uniqueness.

It becomes just another identical product the customer could buy from a million other places.

When everything is the same, when it’s made to look like there isn’t any particular skill or expertise required and it’s not magical and unique, the natural inclination is to look for the cheapest provider.

When that’s the case, you will be stuck competing on price and that’s a death knell for any business.

If you expect to command professional fees and be perceived as an expert with valuable expertise and unique delivery, then you can not allow yourself to become just another commodity.

Third, when you buy a franchise, you are only building and strengthening the value of the franchise’s brand, not your own.

For all the reasons that people buy franchises (they think it will be easier to get started, market, and make money), the opposite happens.

You are not special and different and unique when you are just another bottle on the shelf.

If you want to skip the hard parts in business, then you should resign yourself to earning poorly because it is going to be that much harder for you to differentiate yourself from the rest of the clones and command professional fees — the very things you thought buying someone’s brand franchise was going to do for you.

Plus, if I were to ever franchise my brand, in order to maintain the quality and integrity of the brand and earning power of the franchise, I would have to be really picky about who bought into it.

I’d also have to put resources and mechanisms in place to monitor franchisees to make sure they were observing the terms of the franchise.

All of which would require a lot of time and energy and yet more details and work I have absolutely zero interest in. There’s just not anything in any of that I would derive any positive energy from.

The flip side of that same coin is that if anyone is allowed to buy into the franchise without any qualification, everything those others franchise owners do affects your business and reputation as well.

My personal values affect everything I do in life and in business. I can’t divorce them from my work or relationships.

It’s why I’m simply incapable of doing business with anyone I think is unethical or associating with people or groups I’ve come to learn are dishonest and unscrupulous.

I can’t wrap my brain around how that works for other people.

I mean, I think people are often fooled by false veneers and seduced by pretty words, especially when they are looking for an excuse anyway. But a wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf.

And I think when it comes to self-interest, denial is very handy and makes it easier to rationalize and justify.

But denial requires a level of unconsciousness and I am too highly conscious and uber-aware as a person.

Of course, being highly conscious often doesn’t make it easy to get along in this world.

But no one ever said choosing the right thing over self-interest was always the easy thing to do. (Just musing out loud here.)

At any rate, for me, values and principles aren’t things you can conveniently tuck away in a drawer just because you have an opportunity to make money or someone unethical has something you’d like to take advantage of.

For that reason, I couldn’t ever be in the franchise business when in my heart, I honestly don’t believe it would really and truly serve the people who bought into it.

Sure, I could maybe make more money. But it’s not the kind of money I would feel good making.

For me, making money is pretty much the last consideration.

Not that I have money issues and don’t like making it. Far from it!

It’s just that what energizes and motivates me primarily is the beauty and purpose of the work and engaging in my craft… practicing, honing and mastering it and doing good work for clients that really helps them move forward.

I also value and respect myself and what I do and hold it in high esteem (and charge well for it) and expect clients to as well — or they don’t become clients.

The money part takes care of itself after that.

What I truly think and believe is that Administrative Consultants are much better served creating and nurturing their own strong, unique brand and identity.

Buying into anyone else’s brand or franchise isn’t going to help them do any better, get ahead any faster, or be more successful because skills and the ability to serve clients well and nurture relationships aren’t things that can be purchased or borrowed.

They either can do well on their own, or they aren’t going to make it regardless, which brings us back full circle to the pointlessness of buying a franchise.

Much better for them to invest their time and money in learning more about business and marketing and increasing their skills and knowledge so they can create and succeed on their own merits.

Happy Hearts Day

I hope you are having a wonderful Valentine’s Day and that you are luving up all the sweethearts in your life—including clients—and that you’re getting some awesome luvin’ in return.

Thank you for being my Valentine, letting me in your life and allowing me to share my business knowledge and advice in the hopes that it helps you have a kick-ass life and business! You’ve enriched my life tremendously. 🙂

Dear Danielle: Why Would I Need a Confidentiality Agreement?

Dear Danielle:

I recently purchased your entire startup package for Administrative Consultants and I’m finding it so useful. Thank you. I do have a quick question regarding one of the forms: It’s the customizable confidentiality agreement. I can understand why a prospective client would expect me to sign a confidentiality agreement, but how do I explain to them that I need one as well? I read the contract, but I still don’t understand exactly what it is I’m asking them to hold in confidence. Can you break it down for me in clear, easy to understand language? This would go a long way in helping me to help my clients understand what I’m asking of them. —CA

If you’re new, you might not want or need to use it right now. You might not have developed your processes and programs to the extent that they become valuable intellectual capital. But eventually you will if you’re in business for any length of time.

Intellectual capital can be your unique processes, systems, tools,diagnostics… all kinds of things that you develop yourself, that make your service unique. Many businesses find it important to protect that intellectual property. When that’s the case, you want to make sure clients understand that any of the proprietary information, processes, tools, etc., that they become privy to through your work together are intellectual property that they may not share with others or coopt or adapt for their own use. And that’s because you have a right to keep those things private for use just with your own clients and not make them public information, and you have the right to earn money from those things however you see fit.

Here’s one example… let’s say you come up with your own signature database system that you use with clients. And say you allow clients the use of this while they are a client. Since this proprietary and original database is part of your intellectual property and proprietary systems, and are a part of what differentiates your service from others and adds to your unique value, you obviously do not want everyone to have access to it. The client also does not have the right to sell your system or make use of it for their own personal gain. They also don’t get to use it if they no longer are a client, if that’s what you deem. You, as the owner of the system, are the only one with the right to say who gets to use it, how, when, etc. It’s proprietary intellectual property that you alone own and control however you see fit.

This is why you would have them sign that kind of confidentiality/NDA agreement. It’s for the same reasons that they might ask you to sign one as well. You are both businesses with intellectual property and proprietary information. 😉

For more information on this topic, check out the Confidentiality topic category of my blog.

Dear Danielle: How Much Should I Charge This Client?

Dear Danielle:

I have a potential client I am having discussions with right now. He projects giving me various tasks requiring from basic assistance up to project management skills involving analysis and online business management. I have been asked to quote one rate per hour regardless of the complexity of the task involved. I have also listened to your recording of charging value added pricing which makes sense to me. Ordinarily I charge £25 per hour for basic VA services up to £65 per hour for more complex tasks inclusive of research, marketing and analytical tasks. This potential client operates internationally. How much would you charge based on value added pricing? I would truly appreciate your help in this. Thanks and regards —LG

Thanks for the question. 🙂

Unfortunately, due to antitrust laws, I can’t tell you what to charge. That’s really something you have to come up with on your own according to how you value yourself and what your business needs.

I will say though that anytime you start itemizing individual, line-item tasks and assigning a hierarchy of importance, it has the effect of commoditizing yourself and what you offer.

That’s not something you want to do in your business because it comes around and bites you in the rear when you need for clients to understand that the value isn’t in the tasks, it’s in how the tasks help them move forward in their business and what those tasks allow them to accomplish or gain or achieve.

When you understand that perspective, you see that there’s no reason to itemize or value one task as more or less important–they are ALL important to the big picture of the client’s business.

If you haven’t yet, be sure and download our Pricing Calculator and go through those exercises.

This will help you get clarity around what you need and want to earn in your business. Base your decisions around that, not bending over backwards to customize your entire billing structure and business operations for one client. The tail will forever be wagging the dog otherwise (that is, the business and clients running you, instead of properly the other way around). You’ll never build an ideal practice that way.

Dear Danielle: How Do I Improve My Skills?

Dear Danielle: How Do I Improve My Skills?

Dear Danielle:

What do you recommend we do to keep on track and improve our skills? Conferences (online or in-person), classes? Do you have personal recommendations of some? —Stephanie Bateman

Great question!

A lot of times people will take classes willy nilly. They aren’t sure what they need so they sign up for anything and everything that comes along in case they might need those skills some day.

Or they’ll fall prey to manipulative marketing that tells them such-and-such are the “hot skills” that ALL clients need and if you don’t know how to do this or that, you won’t be as valuable, or you won’t be able to charge as much, or you will otherwise be a failure or just a “generalist.” (Complete BS and I hope you are smart enough not fall for those kind of sleazy sales tactics and messages.)

I’m a HUGE proponent of lifelong learning and always being in curiosity mindset! But going about things that way can get expensive fast, you may end up not even needing to use the skills you learned this way, and it’s the worst way to determine how to support clients.

Here again is where having a target market can really keep you focused and save you a TON of time, energy and money, all of which you have finite stores of and need to be smart about where you invest them. 😉

When you have a target market, you know what kind of work you do for clients, how their businesses are run, what their common goals and objectives are, and you can get training to elevate, improve or modernize your skills accordingly. Let your target market needs and the work you do for them determine where you spend your skills training and continuous learning time and dollars.

For example, if you work with attorneys, learning all the various e-filing ropes is a wise investment of your time and attention because that’s knowledge that’s of great use in your support work. If you don’t work with bankruptcy attorneys, taking bankruptcy training would not be a good use of your time and attention. See what I mean?

Also, remember that just working with clients keeps you on your toes. All the time that you are working with them, you are learning new skills and improving upon existing ones as you learn new and better ways of doing things and new tips and tricks for the tools and software you use.

I think conferences can be fun, and they’re certainly good for networking, meeting new people and forging bonds and maybe learning some snippets. It’s really a personal preference, but I haven’t ever seen or attended any conferences that imparted any real learning. That’s not to say you shouldn’t  attend them. You may get some valuable business learning. I just doubt that you’re going to get the kind of skills training we’re talking about here. That’s not really the function or purpose of a conference.

It’s better to take skills training when the need arises, when you see there is going to be a meaningful use or purpose in your business and for your target market in the immediate future. That is, sort of like I mentioned above, you can waste a lot of time and money just taking classes you only think you might use later on. So, it can be a way to manage and be more discerning about where you spend that time and money by letting your business and client needs dictate any skills training you decide to take. You’ll take to and retain what you learn much better this way, and it will certainly help take the pressure off you thinking you have to learn everything RIGHT NOW.

Looking at things from another angle, it can also be energizing to take certain skills training just because it interests you and you get joy out of it.

For example, I really enjoy learning the ropes of video editing. Maybe it’s due to my love of filmmaking, but I just love putting video together and learning how to use editing tools to create nicely polished and professional transitions and effects.

I have not used this skill for any clients as yet and it would be a side, project type offering anyway (this would never be something they would get included in their administrative support, but rather be charged separately since it is both project work and a completely separate service and skillset). But the energizing effect it has on my creativity carries over into my business. Those things that enrich our spirit enrich our businesses by proxy. And there’s everything good about that!

Personally, I tend to do a lot more self-taught learning, at least in the beginning. I enjoy figuring things out myself. But even then, there comes a point in my learning curve where I need the help of someone more knowledgeable to attain higher expert levels or when I need to learn something faster than I can figure it out on my own. That’s usually when I take a class.

So keep in mind that self-paced, self-study is an option as well. There are all kinds of online, free and paid training and tutorials options out there for just about everything you’d like to learn.

The main thing to remember is this isn’t something you need to be stressed about at all. I find that everything always falls into place just as it’s meant to. Take what you need, when you need it. Take what you enjoy. Ignore the rest.

Hope this helps!