Archive for the ‘Policies & Procedures’ Category

How I Helped One of My Clients Love Her Business and Clients Again and Make More Money

Recently, a colleague shared an excellent article about saying no to unnecessary meetings and respecting our own time more overall. (You can read the full article here.)

I definitely share the author’s sentiments and have written versions of the same message myself many times over the years. (This, for example.)

It’s so important to remember that as service providers, we are running businesses. We are not gophers for clients to do with as they please.

In fact, we have a duty to protect and preserve our important business resources (e.g., our time and energy) and use them most efficiently and effectively so that we can continue to help clients and do our best work for them. A business won’t survive otherwise.

As such, it is up to us to set our own policies and expectations in clients around how and when meetings work as well as what the communication protocols shall be.

Those aren’t things that are up to clients to dictate, and they should not be expecting that as a matter of course.

It reminded me of the time I ran across someone who was very young (no work, business, or life experience to speak of) and brand new in our industry whose first client had her attending all “team” meetings by phone every single morning.

At the time, she defended it and could not be convinced otherwise that it was not her role as a business owner to have clients require her to attend their regular, daily internal meetings.

Eventually she wised up and learned (the hard way) that business owners are not employees, and it most certainly is not any client’s place to “require” you to do anything. 😉

I was also reminded of one of my early clients whose belief that “the customer is always right” was killing her. She came to dread working with her clients because of this unhealthy belief system, and it was creating an existential crisis in her life.

How could she make her living if she was beginning to hate dealing with her clients? She loved her work, just not everything they were “requiring” her to do, particularly when it came to endless meetings.

She was a solopreneur making over $1 million a year. That’s not the kind of money that’s easy to walk away from, but at the same time, her clients were running her ragged and she was miserable. Something had to give.

So I thought I would share the story of how I helped her shed this mindset and the steps we took to turn things around in her business so she could enjoy working with her clients again and not quit her business.

It’s a good example of how we, as Administrative Consultants, are so often in a position to guide and advise clients as a natural extension of our administrative support, expertise, and experience.

Perhaps it will inspire some ideas in your own Administrative Consulting practice on how you can further help clients.

This client was a high-end gala designer who conceptualized, produced, and executed the theme and experience of major fundraising events (think multi-million dollar budgets for $5,000+ a plate balls).

One of the pitfalls of her business was that she was constantly being sucked into endless group meetings with the local boards of these events, sometimes two or more times a week.

And she absolutely hated it.

These meetings were such an unnecessary time-suck and complete waste of productive time.

They ate up far more in travel time and preparation than the meetings themselves, which would sometimes last over two hours.

And more often than she’d prefer, they turned out to be merely bickering sessions between board members who couldn’t agree on anything. What did they need her there for?

Worst of all, attending all these meetings utterly stifled her creative energy—the very thing she was paid big bucks for!

This client was amazing at what she did. It’s a unique form of art in and of itself.

But while she knew what she was doing when it came to her talent, she had no previous business experience or training so dealing with clients, setting boundaries, and managing expectations was all new territory for her.

Since she had no frame of reference, she just assumed, like a lot of new business owners, that the “customer is always right” and whatever they want or ask is how she should be doing things.

One day as she was getting ready and lamenting to me over the phone about having to go to yet another one of these dreaded “dog-and-pony shows” as she referred to them, I asked her, “So why do you keep going? Do you realize you can say “no” to these meetings? YOU are the artist, not their employee. If they want to work with you, they need to conform to how YOUR service works, not the other way around.”

This was an epiphany to her!

She was this amazing, sought-after designer, and it had never once occurred to her that she could refuse to indulge in these endless, ridiculous wastes of her time; that it was, in fact, imperative for her to do so from that moment forward or she wouldn’t be good to anyone, least of all herself.

How could she do her best work for these clients if she allowed them to deplete her?

And if she didn’t put her foot down and start respecting her own time and energy, they certainly weren’t going to either.

Having done this in my own business and having helped a couple other clients by that time in this area as well, I outlined some of the things that could be done that would make a dramatic, positive difference in her business and how she worked with clients.

She resolved right then and there that she simply could not go on as she had been and asked me to help her.

First, since this was project-based work above, beyond, and different from (i.e., not included in) the monthly retainer she paid for my administrative support, I determined an upfront monthly flat fee for my consulting services. I estimated that we would need 3-4 months to fully implement everything.

Through a series of weekly phone calls, we explored and documented the specific issues she wasn’t happy with in her business. During these calls I provided suggestions and helped her see how we could rectify the issues she was experiencing by clearly identifying her standards (e.g., what values were important to her around money, work, clients; what she wanted for her business, for herself, and for her clients) and then implementing policies and procedures and creating tools that worked in support of those standards.

Our work together involved:

  • Making a list of the problem issues that were making her miserable and inhibited her creative flow.
  • Creating a picture on paper of what she wanted her business to look like, how she ideally wanted things work.
  • Formalizing her standards and values around these things on paper.
  • Helping her visualize and map out her client and creative processes and the practical steps involved, and charting this out on paper.
  • Fleshing out and formalizing new and improved policies and procedures and incorporating them into her client contract.
  • Creating a “client bible” (a/k/a Client Guide) that shared with clients her values around the whole client experience and preserving her time and creative energy with smart policies and procedures so she could do her best work for them. This guide worked as a tool that further educated and informed clients and set and managed their expectations about how she worked with clients, her communication protocols, the different stages of her design process, the specific kind and number of meetings that would be involved in her process, as well as what was expected from the clients themselves. For example, with regard to the dreaded meetings, the new protocol that I suggested and she agreed would be perfect was that beyond the initial consultation or two, she did not work or meet directly with boards or committees once she was engaged. She required clients to appoint one to three people that she would be working directly with from that point forward, with one of those people being her primary contact and liaison. This required boards and committees to work out their ideas and disagreements among themselves first on their own dime. This saved her a lot of angst and was a much more efficient and effective process for all involved.

Besides needing to stop the cycle of endless meetings she had allowed her clients to expect, we also identified that how and when they were expecting to communicate with her the rest of the time (i.e., ringing her any time of day and night!) was another one of her problem areas.

Here again, she had the misguided and detrimental belief that she had to be constantly accessible to clients on demand. She thought it would make them “like” and appreciate her more.

But being too available, she realized, was backfiring and actually had the opposite effect of causing them to have no respect or regard for her, which definitely was not her intention.

We set that right by establishing formal communication standards, policies, and protocols that clearly informed clients about her client hours and what forms of communication were acceptable and when.

This was something she hadn’t done before whatsoever!

Going through this process helped her see even more clearly how she was not respecting her own time and value and, therefore, clients weren’t either.

She realized where she was being too informal when it came to certain polite boundaries, and too lax in charging for other things, as well as simply not charging more profitably overall.

It helped her see where she could be charging higher fees and more intentional in how she worked with clients and doing things in a way that worked with HER creative process.

Toward the end of this realigning/re-centering process, we identified areas where my monthly administrative support could be further utilized to help ease even more of her burdens.

For example, with the newly identified and mapped out client-onboarding process we put together, we could clearly see steps that I could take on for her that would free up more of her time and attention such as the contract-signing and payment process, dissemination of the client guide, answering initial client emails and questions, and setting up and administering client files and accounts.

(This increased workload, of course, warranted an increase in my monthly administrative support fee.)

By engaging in the effort to change what wasn’t working for her, she took a stand for:

  • her own self-care,
  • doing work that was up to her professional and artistic standards, and
  • what she needed from clients in order to accomplish those objectives.

She learned that by setting clear boundaries and parameters, she wasn’t saying no to clients (something she was extremely averse to doing previously), she was actually saying yes to providing them with the best experience and outcomes possible.

When clients had a better understanding of the boundaries and protocols expected, they became much easier and happier to work with, and were much happier with her and what she created for them.

The consequence of our work together was literally life-changing for her:

  • She realized that “being nice” and forever agreeable to meeting after meeting was not benefiting her or her clients.
  • She hadn’t realized before that clients only had meeting after meeting because they didn’t know any better either. Her taking charge of her own business and processes gave them the leadership and guidance they needed (and unknowingly craved) from her as the professional in the relationship. The happy, unexpected byproduct was that they saved themselves all that wasted time and energy as well.
  • By better respecting her own time, it helped her also gain more respect for the value of what she created for clients.
  • She ended up having more time to take on more ideal projects and do even better work for the clients she served.
  • She increased her fees and kept better account of work and value for which she should be charging.
  • Because she wasn’t stuck in endless meetings any longer, she had more time to go on the soul-enriching trips around the world that fed her creativity which, in turn, benefited her clients.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, her joy and happiness returned which further fueled her creativity and excitement for the work.

I hope this helps you see how you, as the person who provides your clients with administrative support and expertise, are in such a perfect position to also be of help to them in improving and growing their businesses.

I have worked with and observed far too often consultants who simply don’t have the administrative skill and expertise to execute their ideas for clients (much less had anyone like you who could help them do that, hint hint).

As someone who is intimately involved in and familiar with your clients’ businesses, you can be so much more effective in not only sharing advice and ideas for improvements, but also implementing those changes and incorporating them into the administration of the business overall.

It’s why we are Administrative + Consultants. 😉

I have a LOT more to teach you on this.

When you learn how to do all these things in your own business, you can also do them for your clients.

One blog post isn’t going to do it, though; it’s just not an adequate medium for that kind of learning.

My best advice is always to get my entire system because each piece is an integral part of the overall picture. You can’t fully learn one area with the absence of the others.

If you are only able to start with one piece, however, my Pricing & Packaging Guide will show you how to understand and map out different work and revenue streams in your business and how to present and provide that kind of additional support to your clients (and how to make more money yourself doing it!).

Any questions, shoot me an email. I’m always happy to help where I can. 🙂

Here Is Another Good Question to Ask in Your Consultations

Here Is Another Good Question to Ask in Your Consultations

Self-care is a big theme in my life this year due to having to manage the care of my elderly father for the past five years who has Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy Bodies dementia, on top of trying to manage my business and client work and have some semblance of personal life left.

Life happens, and you will thank yourself to the moon and back for putting smart policies and processes in place now that honor your boundaries, standards, and needs in your business.

Along that vein, choosing clients well plays a huge role in taking good care of yourself, your business, even your other clients—because one bad client causes a host of problems not only for you, but for them as well, in all kinds of direct and indirect ways.

One of the traits to look for in your ideal clients is that they are easy to work with. Clients who are easy to work with are amenable to your systems and processes (because those are what allow you to work well together successfully), and open to doing things in new and different ways than they may be used to doing them on their own.

This, therefore, is a vital topic to address in your consultations if you are seeking to connect with the best-fitting clients possible.

You could frame the question something like this:

“Similar to how you have certain ways of doing things in your business, I also have specific methods, protocols, and systems in place that allow me to best manage my various client workloads and create optimum efficiency. Any new clients I accept onto my roster need to be amenable with these methods and systems and open to some new ways of doing things in order for us to work together effectively. For example, I may need you to adopt a certain format for email subject lines and be consistent about that. Is this something you feel you can do and are open to?”

Something like this will open up an exploratory conversation that can also give you some good indications as to how easy or difficult a prospective client may be to work with.

If they think they are too important, “too busy” to pay attention to details like that, or if they are otherwise resistant or dismissive of what you need from them, that is a red flag you should heed.

They need to understand that in order to work together and for the relationship to work, there are simply some things you are going to need from them in order to do your best work and run a sane and happy practice (which benefits everyone).

If they can’t fulfill that end of the bargain, those are people you should think twice about taking on.

Clients who make you pull your hair out are just not worth the headaches they create in your business and your life.

PS: Implementing a thorough, well-thought out consultation process is one of the BEST things you can ever do for yourself and your business as it will help you get more ideal clients who say YES! to working with you and weed any with whom you don’t wish to work.

Interview with Danielle Keister, Founder of the Administrative Consultants Association

Interview with Danielle Keister, Founder of the Administrative Consultants Association

Last month a colleague asked for an interview with me, and I thought I would share my answers with you here as well.

Your Name:

Danielle Keister

Name of Your Business:

I am the founder of the Administrative Consultants Association (ACA), a professional organization for those running administrative support businesses. I also run my own administrative support business supporting solo attorneys who practice in the areas of business, intellectual property and entertainment law.

Years in Business:

I’ve been in business since 1997 when I officially took out my business license; longer if you want to include the years I did this work on the side informally. I originally started the organization now known as the Administrative Consultants Association (ACA) in 2005.

Q1. Tell me about starting your business. Why did you start it?

My husband died without warning in 1995, leaving me a young widow with a daughter to raise on my own. An unexpected loss like that really makes you question life and what you want out of it, how you want to live, what you want for yourself and your children, etc.: Are you living life on your own terms? How happy are you in the 9-to-5 grind? Is my child really getting the best of me if I’m tired and working all the time just to make ends meet? What kind of life am I providing for her? Is this really all there is?

I had previous forays into a few side businesses that I never really took anywhere. It was after the loss of my husband that I decided to get serious about taking the skills I had and turning them into a real business I could make a viable income from to create a better quality of life for myself and my daughter. I didn’t want to be a 9-to-5’er the rest of my life.

Q2. What is your role/job? What sort of responsibilities do you have?

I would say “job” is the wrong terminology to be using here since we are business owners, not employees. Some people may think that is pedantic, but consciously understanding the difference between employment and business ownership and having a business (not employee) mindset begins with using correct terminology.

In all my years of mentoring, what I’ve found is that those who never truly get over employee mindset and continue to work with their clients as if they were still employees don’t survive long in this business.

This is why I continue to clarify the distinction and make sure everyone I come across “gets” it. I want people to succeed in this business, which really starts with developing that all-important business sensibility.

As a solo business owner, I wear three hats: 1) I’m the CEO responsible for the development and direction of my business and making important decisions about the business; 2) I’m the manager responsible for managing all the moving parts and taking care of administration of the business; and 3) I’m the service provider — the craftsperson whose skills are the stock and trade of my business services.

Q3. What is your typical day like?

Very generally speaking, on a typical day, I wake up according to my own internal clock (I haven’t used an alarm clock in years).

Once I get up, I do a little yoga and stretching, eat, and then get cleaned up and dressed for the day. I fully admit to working in my bathrobe every once in awhile if I don’t have any plans to go anywhere that day, lol. But most of the time, leggings or long skirt with a comfy but stylish tee is how I roll.

I don’t like to rush into the day and prefer to check emails and get things sorted in my in-box as the first thing I do.

There is a lot of talk in many online places that discourage this, but I prefer the opposite and find this email clearing and organizing step much more conducive to my productivity for the rest of the day.

I then tend to dive into client work around 10 or 11 am (I always joke with people that my brain doesn’t get juiced up fully until around 11 am).

Depending on what’s on my plate for that day, I may work until between 4 and 6 pm. But it really varies, depending on the day’s workload, what priorities are in the queue, and what else I’ve got going on.

If the work in my queue gets done early, I don’t jump into the next day’s pile. I go enjoy life!

It does take discipline, though, not to fill your free time with work, work, work.

I think for most of us, our first instinct is to get as much done as quickly as we can. But that is really counterproductive and keeps you on a hamster wheel. It’s not good for you and ultimately it ends up not being good for clients.

You have to be diligent about respecting your own boundaries (which in turn trains clients to respect them as well) and give yourself lots of breathing room so you don’t burn out in this business.

At some point around noon or 1 pm I’ll knock off for lunch, maybe go somewhere to eat.

I also try to get a good walk/hike on most days (try being the operative word here lately). Depending on the weather, sometimes that’s first thing in the morning, sometimes it’s around midday, sometimes it’s later in the evening.

It really all depends, and this is the beautiful thing that I’ve created in my business: the freedom and flexibility to be able to listen to my own natural rhythms, structure my business around my life, and do what I want, when I want, while still taking great care of my clients. (I never sacrifice their needs; it’s all a matter of setting proper expectations and boundaries.)

I’ve also created what is essentially a 3-day work week (you can get my entire business management system here):

  • Mondays are my Admin Days where I take care of the admin in my own business or working on my business.
  • Tuesdays are my meeting days that I reserve for telephone meetings and appointments with clients and others.
  • Wednesday through Friday is when I do client work.

For the past few years, my life has been extra stressed caring for a sick, elderly dad. In full disclosure, I’ve really let my own self-care down. I’m beyond grateful I’ve built a business that allows me to do this for my dad, but it’s not easy and still comes with a cost that has taken a toll on me. Making my own self-care a priority again is something I wrestle with on a daily basis and am currently working to improve.

(For a more in-depth snapshot of my typical day, check out this post.)

Q4. What is the best thing about owning your own business?

As touched on above, the freedom and flexibility to live a less rushed/forced life; the ability to live according to my own natural rhythms and internal clock; and the ability to structure my business and its policies, procedures, and protocols so that I have plenty of time for life (or whatever is most important at any point in time; for me, right now, that is my dad).

I never ever want a business where I am living to work instead of working to live.

One of the things I’m always saying to my clients and colleagues is that your business should support your life, not suck the life from you. It took a lot of fits and starts, trial and error, and course correction, but I’m very proud of the business and income I’ve created today.

I also love that my daughter was able to see that self-sufficiency and determination modeled and be a part of my business journey.

Q5. What is the hardest thing about owning your own business?

Well, I’ll be frank with you: business ain’t for sissies, that’s fo sho!

I was extremely fortunate to have had some opportunities come up that gave me the financial means to take care of myself and my daughter while I started my business.

And later I was also fortunate to have a significant other to lean on during the rough spots, of which there were many, make no mistake.

It takes an extreme amount of perseverance, determination, self-motivation — and time —to get a business to a point where it’s actually solvent and sustainable and eventually profitable.

And, of course, everyone’s mileage and set of circumstances will vary. You just take advantage of everything you’ve got going for you, figure out the rest, and if you can get past all that, the rewards are amazing!

Q6. What advice do you have for someone wanting to start a business? What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?

One of the reasons I started the ACA was to provide others with the knowledge and easier path in starting their own administrative support business that I didn’t have way back when. I did it all without knowing there were others doing what I was attempting to do.

One thing that was pivotal in my success was realizing that a secretarial service is not administrative support.

Secretarial services are project-based businesses where the person does something here and there for drive-by clients.

It’s an inherently volume-driven business, one that requires you to always be on the hunt for your next clients and projects, even while you try to complete the work in front of you.

It’s a plodding, exhausting way to try to make a living and extremely difficult to get profitable.

Once I realized that, instead of project work, I could provide administrative support being an ongoing right-hand to a handful of regular clients on a monthly basis instead of a constantly revolving door of one-time or sporadic clients and rinky-dink projects, that’s when I cracked the revenue code.

But it took me a few years to get to that realization and figure out how to structure things properly.

Now, I base all my training and business education products around that basic tenet so that others won’t waste so many months or years.

I show them how they can build a business based on retainer clients (which is where the bread-and-butter is) while still taking advantage of project work that comes along that is of interest to them (which is gravy).

Another bit of advice I have for folks is not to take shortcuts with the business startup process. Every step helps build your business mindset and sensibility.

People get impatient with the process and want to jump ahead of themselves and it’s really to their detriment and that of their clients.

I’ve seen more businesses shutter their doors because the owner didn’t put the proper foundations in place before taking on clients.

Don’t rush things. There is a little bit of back and forth involved as you figure things out, but beyond that, there is a basic step by step process involved in any business start-up. Don’t skip those parts:

  • Do the business plan.
  • Learn how your local, state and federal taxing and licensing works and what your responsibilities/obligations are.
  • Don’t take on clients before you’ve got at least a basic website up and mapped out a rudimentary set of policies, procedures and protocols. Your website is an incredibly important tool in properly educating clients about the nature of the relationship and bridging understanding so that you attract your right, most ideal clients. You will find that having something there to start with is going to be incredibly helpful in building, growing, and honing your business from there.

These are all exercises that help you create the strong foundations you need to be able to get — and keep — clients. The problems with clients and not getting the right ones happen when those things are absent.

If you were interviewing me, what other questions would you have for me? Let me know in the comments!

Are You Feeling the Squeeze?

Are You Feeling the Squeeze?

A question people commonly ask in our business is “What hours do I need to be available for clients?”

They ask this question because they’re still thinking in assistant-mindset.

Here’s the thing:

You’re in business to provide a service. You have (or will have) several clients to take care of.

You simply cannot be instantly available to each and every client at the drop of a hat.

In fact, trying to do so will negatively affect your quality of work and client satisfaction.

You therefore need to understand that in business, when and how you and your clients work together is necessarily going to be very different from when you were an employee filling a position working for one employer.

This is the reason that “full-time” and “part-time” and what time zones you and your clients are in are completely irrelevant.

Instead of hours, what you need is a plan — a system — for managing your workload and requests.

This frees you from being chained to your desk 9-5 and having to be an “instant assistant.”

A system gives you the structure you need to handle everything in a timely manner without being rushed and squeezed and stressed.

It also gives clients a framework they can depend on without forcing you to be at their constant beck-and-call — which, by the way, is a business-killer because as your business grows into a viable income you can live on, that is not a promise you can sustain.

You NEED space to do great work for clients.

In the early years of my practice, I went through all these same growing pains.

I ended up with clients who thought I was their assistant (because, stupidly, that’s what I called myself back then).

Eventually, I had over 10 monthly retainer-paying clients — and I thought I was going to lose my mind.

That’s because those clients expected me to be at their immediate beck-and-call, just like an assistant.

I tried, heroically, to live up to those expectations, right up until the day that I realized how utterly miserable I was and what a mess my business had become.

Instead of doing good work, work that made a difference in my clients’ businesses, I was spending all my time in communications and jumping from fire to fire.

I didn’t have a business I loved, I didn’t have a business that supported my life. I had a business and clients who ran me.

That was not what I had envisioned for myself whatsoever.

That’s when it dawned on me that where I had failed was in not being in charge of my own business; by letting clients decide how things would work in my business (instead of the other way around).

I had let them make the rules by abdicating that authority in my own business.

I had not set any policies, practices or protocols in my business with any intention or forethought whatsoever.

I was under the misinformed delusion that that was what customer service was all about: jumping to attention the instant the client commanded.

I thought all I needed to do was give great service, which at that time to me meant: rush to respond quickly to everyone and get work done as fast as possible.

Oh, what a silly, naive girl I was!

Thank goodness I realized what utter nonsense that thinking was and came to my senses relatively quickly after “only” a few years of suffering.

Good service is so much more than that and involves a much bigger picture.

Many, MANY hard lessons were learned during that unhappy period.

Thankfully, my business survived (most are not so lucky), but not without shaking things up and completely overhauling how things work in it.

I had to get conscious and intentional about what I wanted from my business, how I wanted to work, who I wanted to work with, and what my values were around my work and serving clients (also known as standards).

This helped me then begin to set simple, but clear policies, procedures and protocols for operating my business and working with clients that supported those standards.

It was only then that I was able to begin creating the happier, more joyful, fulfilling business I had always wanted all along and that I enjoy today.

Now, I no longer have to work with so many clients (10 retainer clients was WAY too many, and I was WAY undercharging at that time as well).

I don’t have clients sweating me any longer because now I have a system for how work requests are managed and carried out that gives me the stress-free space I need to do the work well without being crowded.

The best thing is that I have far happier, more satisfied clients now than I ever did when I was trying to be that “instant assistant.”

And because they know exactly how things work upfront (all part of my system), working together is so much easier and more peaceful.

I also have the added benefit that I have a lot more ability to move things around to suit my life.

If something comes up and I decide I need an afternoon off or to take a day off in the middle of the week for something special, my system allows me to do that without my clients experiencing any hiccups.

I share this system I’ve developed in my own practice and have used happily and successfully for over 15 years now with all my clients in my guide: Power Productivity & Practice Management for Administrative Consultants.

If you are early on in your administrative support business, this is the perfect time to put a system like mine in place because it’s easier to on-board new clients in the ways you want than it is to retrain them after they’ve been spoiled by unsustainable practices.

However, even if you’re already established, but are feeling the squeeze and realize that something needs to change in your business, my guide shows you how to transition existing clients into new policies and procedures.

It’s never too late to improve your life and business. 😉

Too Much Accessibility Is Not a Good Thing

Too Much Accessibility Is Not a Good Thing

Contrary to popular belief, too much accessibility is not a good thing.

This advice column is a good reminder of that.

It uses the example of a co-worker overstepping boundaries, but the same principle applies when it comes to clients: You don’t need to be so instantly available.

In fact, it can actually lead to the opposite effect of what you intend: poor customer service and unrealistic client expectations.

When you respond instantly to every beck and call, you are training your clients to think you have nothing better to do than sit there and jump as soon as they command.

That is NOT a good precedent to set in your administrative support business as it leads to all kinds of boundary overstepping, disrespect (of you and your time as a business owner with other clients to care for), and resentment (and resentment is a relationship-killer).

Keeping some buffer area around you is actually healthy for your business and the relationship.

This is why I’m always advising people in our industry to formalize their communication standards and turn-around times, and then inform clients about those policies and protocols so they know ahead of time how things work in your business and what to expect (as well as what they may not expect).

So whose fault is it when this becomes a problem?

Hint: It’s not the client’s.

That’s like getting mad at someone for calling you in the middle of dinner. You’re the one who answered the phone. They didn’t have a gun to your head. 😉

It’s you who has to adjust the behavior and set the standards.

I don’t let clients call or text me for several reasons:

  1. I don’t want to be chased around and sweated like that.
  2. I’d never get anything done.
  3. I’m not trying to be that technologically connected. Remember: healthy boundaries. Technology should be a tool, not an obsession. There’s a time and purpose for it, but outside of that, I don’t want it taking over and interrupting my life. For me, it’s a conscious decision to keep it to a minimum.
  4. I don’t want to have to chase after a million loose ends scattered all over a bunch of different channels. That just creates more work and chaos that is neither efficient nor a productive use of time and energy. Plus, it allows more room for error. Order is the name of the game.

I inform and instruct clients at the beginning of our relationship that all our communication is to be by email (with separate emails for each separate topic, by the way). Client calls are reserved for our regularly scheduled weekly meetings or by appointment otherwise.

This way, I can use my inbox as the central communication hub, have a “paper” trail (so to speak) for everything, and be able to keep everything organized, sorted and tidy in one place.

So, I tell clients: You can email me any time of day or night, but here is how and when your communications and requests are handled…

(I also explain why these standards are of value and benefit to them: because ultimately, they allow me to provide them with better service and support.)

And then I honor those standards I’ve set and don’t overstep my own boundaries.

Have you formalized your communication and turn-around standards and protocols? Have you incorporated that information into your client guide? Are you going over that information with clients in your new client orientations?

If not, make it a priority to do so now. You’ll thank yourself later, and clients will both respect and be impressed by it.

It demonstrates to them that you have good management skills which gives them greater trust and confidence that you will competently manage and deliver the work you do for them.

And, you’ll be modeling smart business practices that they can implement in their own businesses (with your help).

How to Come Back from Burnout

How to Come Back from Burnout

A recent article I came across on Lifehacker (What Causes Burnout and How to Avoid It) inspired some thoughts about burnout.

Burnout happens to everyone in our business, to varying degrees, at one time or another.

Some of it is the natural ebb and flow of things, and it’s good to be cognizant of that.

It’s also not necessarily a permanent state. There are some underlying causes for burnout that you have some measure of control over.

For example, burnout can happen if we don’t feel appreciated in our work, if we aren’t getting enough positive (or any) feedback from clients, if we’re being treated like a peon rather than a respected administrative partner:

Burnout can also happen when we over-complicate our business. What are some of the things you can examine there?

  • Can your systems and processes be simplified?
  • Are you making exceptions to your normal processes for certain clients? (Maybe it’s time to stop doing that.)
  • Are you billing by the hour and tracking time for clients and submitting time reports to them? Maybe it’s time to stop doing that as well.  (That was a rhetorical question. Yes, it’s HIGH time everyone stops doing that!).
  • Are you charging different rates for different clients? How about deciding what and how you charge and applying it to ALL of your clients?

Every exception you make, every standard you step over, every policy you bend, is making your business (and life) more difficult. More ease goes a long way in curing burnout.

Maybe you aren’t charging enough and constantly being broke is bringing you down. Well, things are never going to change until you do something different.

What could you differently there? RAISE YOUR FEES, SISTAH!

The alternative is to stay broke and unhappy in your business, which I’m going to guess is not what you went to the trouble of starting it for, now is it?

  • If you’ve never done any kind of proper business planning around fees, be sure to download our free ACA Income & Pricing Calculator. This is going to help you get clear and conscious about the economics of business and what you really need to be charging for a profitable, sustainable business that will earn what you need to thrive.
  • Get off the hourly-billing merry-go-round — because it’s killing your business. Watch this video to learn why.
  • Learn how to implement value-based pricing instead in your administrative support business. This will teach you a whole other simpler, yet more profitable, way to run your business and offer your support.

Have you experienced a bit of burnout at any time in your business? What did you feel was the root cause of the burnout? Were you able to overcome it and get inspired again? What helped you?

It’s Not Enough to Love What You Do to Do Great Work

It's Not Enough to Love What You Do to Do Great Work

This is unquestionably sage advice.

If you don’t love what you do, you aren’t going to do great work.

And you’re going to hate doing it.

You can’t do right by your clients or live your best life that way.

But there are two important important ideas missing here:

  1. You can’t take great care of others unless you first take great care of yourself.
  2. You can’t do great work if you don’t set the standards and create the environment that allow you to do that.

Without setting the foundations for these things, it’s inevitable that you will come to dread your work.

In taking care of yourself first, that means pricing profitably, making sure you are charging enough so that you are earning comfortably and your business is sustainable.

You can’t take great care of your clients if you are stressed out about money or constantly preoccupied with needing to make more (because you haven’t priced properly in the first place).

Pricing profitably allows you to do your best work for clients and give them your best attention.

You also need to set the stage to do great work.

That means setting standards and having boundaries, and establishing policies, procedures and protocols that create the conditions to support these things.

What level of quality is important to you as well as your clients?

Breakneck speed is not a sustainable pace. You’ll need to set expectations around turn-around times that give you plenty of breathing room.

What do you need from clients to feel valued and appreciated?

Are those the kind of clients you are choosing to work with?

Are you loving what you do right now? Are you loving the way you are doing it?

What do you want to leave behind in 2016? What do you want more of this year? What do you want do differently moving forward?

Dear Danielle: What Are Your Thoughts About this Deadbeat Client?

Dear Danielle: What Are Your Thoughts About this Deadbeat Client?

Dear Danielle:

I recently experienced every startup business owner’s nightmare. One of my clients (a fast talker) was extremely upset because I had to resort to threats of involving my business attorney. It is absolutely outlined and spelled out in all of my contracts. He went off on me, tried to avoid payment, but I did not back down. He refused and did not pay the late fees that are also outlined in my contract as well, then had the audacity to tell me, “I’ve been in business for 35 years and never seen such aggressive payment policies.” I reminded him how I bent all my rules for him from the start in order to accommodate his needs, drastically lowered my pay, and okayed him to pay upon invoice vs. upfront for projects. After he found that I was not going to back down and accept the loss, the funds miraculously appeared in my account. However, he did not pay the late fees he had incurred. He is someone I will always run into as we are associated with the same Chamber. Not only did he insult me countless times, he also left some very rude messages. I stayed calm the entire time and continually reminded him of the contract we had gone over together and signed, and how with any business, his included, no one will render services without payment. My attorney advised me to take the loss for the fees because he eventually paid and to let it go, especially considering how low the amount was from start. Needless to say, after a long disturbing message from client, he says, “We will no longer do business. Don’t call us anymore.” I laughed thinking, he can’t be serious? Surely, he couldn’t have thought there would be any more services after that. Ultimately, I thought about it; he knew I had just begun. What he didn’t know is that I have many years of experience behind me. Just because a business is up and coming, that doesn’t mean you’re illiterate as to how business should flow. I am now considering that he may taint my good name with lies to cover what he has done. What are your thoughts? —Chaunte’

I’m guessing while you are justifiably upset, you may also be feeling a bit beat up and second-guessing yourself, wondering if you were out-of-line in any way.

I don’t know the backstory here and not sure exactly what happened, but if you did work he engaged you to do, you are certainly entitled to be paid.

That said, I call these first clients (the ones we take on when we’re new in business) “practice” clients.

We learn a lot from these initial clients, particularly what we don’t want in our businesses, who we want to avoid working with in the future (a/k/a unideal clients), and what red flags to look for and be conscious of moving forward.

We also have to cut ourselves a little slack when we’re new and forgive our missteps and possible clumsiness.

The good news is that we can learn from these experiences, gain clarity about how to do things differently next time, tweak and adjust our processes and infrastructure accordingly, and improve our finesse.

Since you asked for my thoughts, I’ll share a few in no particular order in the hope that you find some useful ideas…

  1. The first thing I keyed in on was your characterization of this client as being “a fast talker.” This seems like the first red flag you recognized, yet you took him on anyway. It would be worthwhile to do a bit of soul-searching and ask yourself why? If it was clear to you that this client was a bit of a “Slick Willy,” what made you ignore that red flag and not trust your first instincts? Will you ignore your intuition the next time a slick talker approaches you? Is this the kind of client you really want to be working with? If not, what will you do differently next time? What can you put in place that will help you take on more ideal clients and weed out ones who aren’t a fit?
  2. The other related thing that stood out was your mention of how you bent over backwards for this client, gave him discounts and breaks you normally wouldn’t, and stepped over your own policies and self-interests. Why? Because no good ever comes from this. All it does is teach clients how to treat us poorly and take us for granted. So it would be good to ponder and examine what might be going on here as well. What I see happening quite often when we are new in business and don’t yet have a firm frame of reference of our value is that we tend to overcompensate. We don’t think what we offer is enough; we think we need to “prove” ourselves. In fact, this is the worst thing we can indulge in when we’re new because the worst kind of clients smell that neediness and desperation like blood in water. A lot of this clears up as we gain experience in our business and working with clients. But often a person can go out of business before they can gain the insights, professional self-esteem, and confidence to overcome these debilitating tendencies. This is why I always tell people that they can’t afford to work with crappy clients, not for any amount of money — they are business killers and can destroy a person’s morale and confidence in the blink of an eye.
  3. This does not sound like a joyful experience whatsoever. If you have clients you have to threaten with attorneys and legal action, there is something very wrong. Sure, you might be in the right, but do you really want a life and business working with people who are not honorable, that you can’t trust, who disrespect you with nonpayment and cause you anxiety about whether you are going to be stiffed? I’m guessing not. So, one important step to avoid this in your business moving forward is to start two lists: one for all the traits and characteristics of your ideal client and one for all the traits and characteristics of your UN-ideal client. Continue to add to these lists with every new client experience throughout the life of your business. It will be a constant work in progress; the point is that it is one of the very best exercises in getting clear about who you do and don’t want as clients so that you heed red flags and trust your gut in the future. As you consult with new clients, keep those lists handy. They’ll remind you whenever you’re tempted to step over your own standards about who you do and don’t want to work with (and more importantly, why).
  4. Yes, it’s good to have proper contracts with legal language that spells out what the actions and late fees will be if a client doesn’t pay. At the same time, this should always be a very last resort for the very worst-case scenarios. The best course is to avoid working with crappy clients in the first place. The better, more productive, focus is not to underscore every legal point and hammer clients over the head with them, but to improve the ways in which you get clients and how they are educated all along the way. This is why we have a website and steer clients there first so it can pre-educate them and set the proper context. It’s why we have a specific consultation process to further instill proper mindsets and education, as well as determine fit, before we take on clients. It’s why we need to get clear about the business we intend to be in (e.g., do you want to be in the project business where everything is a transaction, or in the business of ongoing administrative support where there is a more personal relationship and where you can charge an upfront retainer?). It’s why we are discerning about the clients we take on and go through specific, intentional steps in on-boarding new clients (e.g., having a Client Guide and conducting a new client orientation with new administrative support clients). It’s why we get clear about our own standards, values and goals and what is important to us in our businesses — so that we can establish the policies, procedures and protocols that support them.
  5. I agree with your attorney. Even though you may be entitled to them, forget about the late fees. It sounds like you got the principle amount. This client is not worth allowing him to suck any more of your precious attention. To continue to let it take up space in your mind is giving energy to the wrong thing, to your detriment. For your own sake, forget about this client and move on.
  6. Deadbeat clients can happen to the best of us, particularly when we’re new. At the same time, it should be mentioned that clients often don’t pay because they aren’t happy with something. Did he give any reasons for why he wasn’t paying? Did you ask him? A lot of times some honest dialogue and meaningful probing can unearth what the real problem is. Barring a client just being a jerk and thinking he can take advantage (which it sounds like this client was), it’s very useful to us to forget about being in the right and make a sincere attempt to see things from the other person’s perspective when an issue crops up (which can happen even in the best client relationships). The insight and feedback we can gain is like gold to our businesses — as long as we make good use of it.  So don’t shy away from direct, honest, respectful dialogue with clients. Don’t be afraid to ask — and hear — what could I do differently? What would make this better for you? You can use it to figure out where your blindspots might be and improve your systems and processes (for them and for you).
  7. One way to avoid deadbeat or otherwise un-ideal clients is to have a website. I noticed you don’t have one yet. While I get that people often want to take on clients before they have a website in place to start making money right away (and there is no shortage of morons out there telling people they don’t need a website to start their business), I would argue that this is a mistake. It is not to your benefit in any way for you to be doing business without a website. In so many ways, your website IS the business. Your website isn’t just a way to market what you have to offer. Its other value to you is that it provides a tool with which you can properly educate clients and set and manage their expectations and mindsets before you ever start working together. This is what will get you more consults with more (and better) clients.  To take on clients without the benefit of a website where you can send them to get informed about how things work in your business, what business you are actually in, who you are looking to work with (and who you’re not), etc., is like charging into battle without a gun. Your website can help you prequalify and attract more of your ideal clients, educate them in the way you need them to be so they enter the relationship with the right expectations and mindsets and understandings (and respect!), and weed out those who are not a good fit for you so your time is not wasted.
  8. It’s important to note that this was a project client, not a retained client where you were providing an ongoing relationship of administrative support. These are two completely different business models. It’s worth getting clear and intentional about which kind of business you want to have because the kind of clients you get, the way you work together, how you get them, how you make your money, and the processes you go through with each are very, very different from each other.
  9. Another way to get more intentional about the business you consciously choose to be in and the kind of clients you want to work with is to choose a target market. A target market is simply a field/industry/profession that you cater your administrative support to (like attorneys or financial advisors or coaches or speakers, etc., etc.). The benefit is that when you know specifically who you’re focusing on, you can get clear (more quickly and easily) about how to craft your solutions, how to market them, and where to find and get clients more quickly and easily. When you have a target market, you don’t have to take on projects with any ol’ client for not enough money. It helps you get more of your ideal clients and provide more ideal solutions designed specifically for them (which allows you to command higher fees).
  10. We always get a do-over. Each and every day is a new chance to learn, improve, do differently, and grow.

***

What about you? Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? How did you resolve it and what did you change moving forward?Save

How to Manage Last-Minute Work Requests at the End of the Month

In view of recent inquiries from colleagues, today I’d like to point you to one of my classic posts that relates to setting and managing client expectations through the policies and procedures you institute in your practice, and working with clients in a way that honors your standards and boundaries around self-care, effective business management, and quality of work and client-care.

Dear Danielle: How Can I Handle Last Minute Work Requests at the End of the Month?

Dear Danielle: Client Is a No-Show, What Should I Do Now?

Dear Danielle: Client Is a No-Show, What Should I Do Now?

Dear Danielle:

I’m sitting here waiting for a local client to show up in my office to pick up their “rush” job that they wanted me to drop everything for yesterday. I worked on this project for them until well past midnight. They said they would be here to collect my work at a certain time. I’ve been waiting now for over three hours with no sign of them, much less a phone call. I’m fuming! And this isn’t the first time this has happened. How should I handle this? –NT

What I don’t understand is why people in our industry seem to think “local” has to mean “in-person.”

Why treat local clients differently than you would clients in any other part of the world?

It shouldn’t matter where the clients operate or how you initially met them.

None of your business and transactions require you to have an office or do anything in-person. All of your business, local and otherwise, can be conducted “online” (i.e., via email, shared file drive, Skype, delivery, etc.).

I would even tell you it should all be done that way if you want to manage the business efficiently and have more time available for billable work and clients.

Think, really think, about just how much of your business resources are used up doing anything in-person for one client: the scheduling time, the travel to and from, time preparing, time spent getting professionally presentable, the time it takes away from your other clients and paying work, the loss of concentration and interruption of workflow…

In-person work and meetings cost vastly more in any business, even more so ours, because they take up much more time and energy. You can work with 10 x the number of clients — and make more money — in one hour of online time vs. one-hour of in-person time with one client.

If you’re going to do anything in-person with clients, you can charge a MUCH higher premium because it is a special service and consideration outside your normal operating procedures.

Doesn’t matter if a client is local. I don’t allow them to come to my home/office to drop off or pick up documents.

That’s what couriers, delivery services, the mail, and online shared document drives are for.

And I set those expectations upfront before I ever work with them.

I accomplish this by having a client intake/onboarding process.

This involves giving them a New Client Welcome Kit that explains things work in my business and what the policies and procedures are for working together, and then going over these things with them in a new client orientation meeting (which is done over the phone or Skype).

I certainly wouldn’t allow a client to continue to disrespect and abuse my time. Remember, we train people how to treat us. Trust me, you and your business will benefit greatly by nipping this practice in the bud.

So here’s what I would do:

  • Be direct and let this client know that you have an expectation that your time is respected in the same way you respect theirs.
  • Discontinue this ill-conceived idea of doing in-person work and transactions.
  • Draft a letter to your local clients and let them know that you’re implementing new policies and procedures in your business that ultimately allow you to serve them better. Point out that you are discontinuing the policy of office pickups and drop-offs, and that anything that can’t be sent back and forth electronically or via online shared directory in some way, may be couriered (or mailed, or whatever) to and from your office.
  • Adopt a special rush fee policy and get that into your contracts (this is already included in our contract templates from the ACA Success Store).
  • Send an official communication out to all your clients that rush projects may incur extra fees at your discretion.
  • Alternatively, you can also make it a standard in your business not to accept any rush work and require clients to plan ahead within your specified guidelines. (That doesn’t mean you can’t still help out a great client in a pinch if you so choose, but you want it to the exception, not the rule.)
  • Reevaluate your clients and consider firing the bad ones who can’t get with the program and consistently demonstrate a lack of appreciation and respect for you. Just because you have a policy to penalize bad clients doesn’t mean you should keep working with them. They are demoralizing and de-energizing to your business and exact a heavy toll that none of us in solo practice can afford. 😉
  • Start an Ideal Client list and an Un-Ideal Client list. Write down all the traits and characteristics of an ideal client for you (e.g., has no problem working together virtually, respects my time, follows my policies and procedures). Then write down all the traits and characteristics of all the bad clients you’ve had (e.g., disrespects my time, doesn’t show up or follow through when they say they will, is constantly disorganized and in a rush, always wants me to do rush work, but then doesn’t appreciate it when I do, wants everything yesterday…). You get the idea. Keep updating and honing these lists throughout the life of your business. Pull them out anytime you need to remember why you are in business for yourself and what you want for your life and happiness, and any time you are tempted to step over your standards and take on a client who exhibits any of those red flags.