Archive for May, 2010

Flexibility for Flexibility’s Sake is No Flexibility At All

Flexibility for Flexibility's Sake is No Flexibility at All

Hey, that sounds like a song. But really, it’s an important idea to examine, particularly if you are newer in business.

Sadly, here is the all-too-common way things go for far too many people in our industry when they first start their businesses:

You’re a craftsman—a self-employed service provider. You don’t want to run some big business or become a manager of people. Doing the hands-on work is exactly why you went into business for yourself. It’s as much about meeting the needs of your soul, having an outlet to express your talents and skills, and finding meaning and purpose in your work as it is having more control over the quality of your life and income. And that makes you perfectly happy.

But you’ve never run a business before in your life, and are blissfully unaware at this point what you are really in for.

You go about trying to get clients, any clients, any way you can. “Whatever the client wants,” is your motto; you’ve never heard of the concepts of standards and “ideal clients” and being selective and discerning about who you take on. And because you’ve never run a business, you go about this as if trying to land a job instead of clients. You don’t know any differently (yet).

So you get a client. Yay! You’re so excited! Every thing is hunky-dory… at first.

But then this client starts “bossing” you around, and asking you to do things that weren’t part of the bargain. You do them anyway–you’re nothing if not flexible! But soon enough you start to feel the inklings of resentment. You don’t like the way you’re being addressed. This client doesn’t seem to respect you as a fellow professional. More and more, this client seems to think you aren’t even worthy of complete sentences, only orders barked or grunted at you.

Eventually, you attempt to get things back on track and salvage the relationship. The client on the other hand doesn’t appreciate that you’re “getting uppity” with him; after all he’s paying you to do his bidding (at least that’s his understanding) and doesn’t want any flak.

This client also has no sense of boundaries. You’ve been so “flexible” with him that he now pretty much thinks it’s okay to call you at all hours of the day or night, intrude upon your personal life, and that no matter what hoops he asks you to jump through, you supposed to  simply ask “how high?” And he expects things to be done as soon as he’s barked out the order. After all, you’ve based your whole brand identity on “flexibility” and “instant, on-demand assistance.”

So now this client is putting demands on you that you never bargained for. In an effort to ever be the people-pleaser, you try to accomplish his every command and expectation. And that’s another thing—this client’s attitude has become one of self-entitlement, not appreciation. You rarely get a thank you or good word on a job well done. And now he is starting to ask you to do stuff that isn’t even administrative, much less part of the scope of support that was outlined (albeit only generally) when you first started working together.

You now dread dealing with this person and find yourself avoiding the phone. This client’s work is piling up. You keep procrastinating out of resentment and overwhelm. He’s piled so much on your plate that you are completely miserable and stressed out by it all.

You (finally!) get a clue that this client thinks he’s your boss, not your client! You realize this is really your own fault because that’s exactly how you marketed yourself and your services and how you’ve been delivering them. Like an assistant… an employee… an employee who has no say in who she works for, what work she will provide and in what way and when that work will be accomplished and delivered. Like spoiling a child, you’ve created your own monster by setting no limits or parameters for working together. And like a spoiled child, this client has become obnoxious and intolerable to be around.

You’re also not making any money because you’re spending a ton of unpaid time trying to please this one spoiled, demanding, self-entitled client. You’re definitely not charging enough, and you have zero time and energy left for anyone or anything else. You haven’t earned a penny’s profit, and this client is sucking the life right out of you—and your business.

Miracle of miracles, you do manage to land another couple clients throughout everything, but you’ve got absolutely no control over your schedule, the work nor the demands placed on your time because you’ve established no control and no boundaries. Your every waking hour is now spent trying to keep up with everything, putting out the biggest fires first, and succeeding well in neither. You also now find yourself spending your weekends, evenings and family time on work, and still missing deadlines.

Your newest clients are much more ideal for you–hey, at least you learned a thing or two about choosing who to work with! They’d be dreams if you didn’t have so much darn “flexibility” in your life, but now they, too, are getting frustrated with you because you aren’t living up to the promises you made. You try to hide it, but deep down you know you aren’t doing good work for them because of the way things are in your business, and it wouldn’t surprise you if they bailed on you tomorrow.

Forget taking on any other clients. You’re unhappy. You’re existing clients are unhappy. You have zero room on your plate for anything else. Ironically, in trying to be totally flexible and make everybody else happy, you now have no flexibility whatsoever and no life of your own. And none of the reasons and rewards of working for yourself exist anymore because in trying to chase this “flexibility” ideal, you haven’t taken care of your needs and those of your business first.

This is what happens when people don’t have a deeper understanding of what “flexibility” is really about. Flexibility comes with boundaries, standards, processes, and thinking things through. What kills flexibility is not having that kind of infrastructure in place in your business. Sometimes, in order to do best by your clients, you have to say “no” to ways of working together that are ultimately going to zap your ability to be flexible.

You will have flexibility to give if you instill a foundation that actually creates it. But flexibility for flexibility’s sake is no flexibility at all. It’s a precurser to chaos, unmanageability and unprofitability in your business. Taking heed and learning what that really means in your business is going to help build a foundation upon which you can get the right kind of clients, do the work you enjoy (and do well), and have space and flexibility to deliver the absolute best service to clients that you can.

The bottom line is this: Flexibility without any rules or standards will cage you in a prison of your own making.

Flexibility with standards and boundaries will allow you to soar and create a life and business you love.

What can you learn from the scenario I painted above? What boundaries and standards will you set in place to avoid this from happening in your business?

Have you started making a list yet of the traits and characteristics of both your ideal and un-ideal clients so you can better recognize them when they show up at your door?

How will your business work and what will your day look like once you have more than one or two clients? Will the way you are doing things now work as well, give you space around the work and maintain your sanity once you have more than one client? What policies and procedures can you put in place NOW that will allow your business to grow smoothly and profitably into that future vision?

A Portrait of Two Products

Which would you want to pay for:

Product A:
Toast. White, wheat or English muffin… $1.00

Product B:
Toasted Bread. Two generous slices of our handmade Artisan bread (your choice multi-grain, stone-milled German rye or honey wheat) toasted to golden perfection. All our breads are baked fresh daily and made with 100% whole wheat goodness. Served with a side of farm-fresh whipped butter and raspberry jam… $2.00

Guess what this has to do with your business and how you frame what you do. 😉

Another Reason Why Sending Emails to Your List and Customers is Helpful to Them

One of the technology vendors I use, I actually detest.

I have tolerated this particular vendor’s absolute lack of good customer support for far too long.

It’s been a thorn in my side that I’ve put up with only because it was too much of an ordeal to move to another platform.

But at my first opportunity (which is now finally arriving) I will be ditching them so fast anyone standing in the way will have their heads spun around like a top.

One of the reasons our relationship has deteriorated so much is poor/lack of communication.

Tech companies (which is what this one is) are often the ones that fail miserably in this department.

As in this case, they tend to think everyone’s world revolves around their product. As if the first thing everyone does in the morning is open up their program to check for messages and notifications from them.

I hate to break it to them, but almost no one does this. Ever.

Most people’s business lives still revolve around and rely on email communication.

So when a new version upgrade is out or there are bug patches to be fixed, for example, we’re expecting to be notified by email… to get some kind of message alerting us to go to their website or open up their product to place the order or download the upgrade or what-have-you.

Without that prompt, you never, ever know.

And what ends up happening is you completely miss any inkling of new developments and only find out by accident, sometimes months later, of something you would have liked to have known or really needed to know at the time.

Yet that’s what this company and thousands of others do–they never send any kind of email and instead expect customers to go open the product and find out that way.

And so those customers don’t ever find out.

I’ll learn about some important security release in some completely random accidental way months after the fact and call up only to be told, “Well, we posted a notice inside the admin panel.”

I am almost never in the admin panel and the place and the way they post this information, you’d never see it unless you were specifically looking for it.

It’s completely maddening—and an absolute trust and relationship killer.

So next time you worry about whether your emailing is too much, don’t.

Chances are it is completely helpful. Even expected.

Better to over-deliver than under-communicate.

Should There Be a Probationary Period?

Dear Danielle:

I’m wondering if I should offer a three-month probationary period to new clients to make sure we are a fit. Is this customary? Is it a good idea?

A probationary period for what? Are you applying for a job?

“Probationary periods” don’t have any place in a business relationship. Probationary periods are for employees. The term reveals someone who is thinking with employee mentality. But you’re not applying for a job. You’re running a business. Aren’t you?

Here’s how I would advise you to shift your thinking on this. First, the concept of a “probationary period” in your business is really akin to auditioning. And auditioning is obsequious. It portrays you as someone who doesn’t think of herself as a business equal with something of quality and value to offer.

It’s also narcissistic and condescending. Who are you to second-guess a client’s decision to work with you? It says to them, “I don’t think you are an adult who can be trusted to know whether the decision you made to work with me was a good choice or not so I’m going to patronizingly give you a few months to still decide.” You’re basically telling them they are too stupid to make their own decision and commitment.

Worse, it tells them to second-guess you… after you went to all the effort to let folks know that you are someone with something great to offer who can really help. It puts them in a “testing” frame of mind that actually delays the start of the “real” relationship.

And that’s just flat out stupid. You don’t need to be tested. You just need to get down to it.

Here’s how business works…

You study your target market. You get to know the people in it, how their businesses are run, what their challenges and objectives are and how your solution can fit into resolving those challenges and achieving those goals. So you put up a website that speaks to them and those things. You create compelling, resonate messaging and package your solutions in a way that is most attractive to them and draws them to you. You hang out and network where folks in your target market can be found and you have real, genuine conversations with them, allowing them to get to know you as a person while  getting a sense of your competence and expertise at the same time.

Eventually, someone with a need for your solution and who is attracted to you and what you have to offer will want to talk with you about working together. That’s where your consultation comes in. You might have one conversation, you might have more. After that, each of you are grownups who get to decide for yourselves whether there is a mutual fit or not.

And if there’s a mutual fit, you enter into a business relationship (that’s your contract) and begin working together. That’s it. But what you do is replace a “probationary period” with a clean and easy termination clause in your contract that allows either of you to end the business relationship with X amount of written notice (personally, I use 20 days notice).

Simple as that. There doesn’t need to be some irrelevant, drawn-out “probationary period.” At any point that the relationship becomes not a fit anymore, for either of you, for any reason, you can easily walk away according to the terms of the termination clause. It really doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

(By the way, all of the contracts in the Administrative Consultant Success Store include legal language for this.)

The only “auditioning” you should be doing after you have entered into your business contract/retained administrative support relationship is the continued competent demonstration of your skills and following through of the things you promised you could/would do for clients–basically, just doing good work. That is what will secure their desire to keep working together and growing the relationship.

And any client who truly is wishy-washy, can’t make a decision, and wants you to keep jumping through auditioning, probationary hoops is not one you can afford to waste your time and energy on. Next!

How Do You Find Time for It All?

How Do You Find Time for It All?

This was a question posed on the community forum recently.

Systems, structure and smart, intentioned business policies are what allow me to find time for everything.

Of course, there are always a few folks who rebel at the idea of structure, their usual argument being, “I went into business for myself to have more freedom, not more restriction!”

But here’s the thing: When you operate without structure, without foundation, without systems, you actually create more burden, more chaos and less freedom and choice.

It’s systems and infrastructure that give you more flexibility and time to live and enjoy life.

So here are some of the simple policies and systems I have in place that give me lots of room to move around in my business with less stress and more time and flexibility.

  1. Assign one day a week for administration. It can be any day of the week you like. Mine happens to be Mondays. The point is that on that day, you focus only on administration in your business. This can also be a day you set aside to focus on training or skills improvement or research. Whatever you like. On my admin day, I am officially closed to clients and they all know this. I don’t talk to clients, I don’t respond to clients and I don’t do any client work.
  2. Assign one day a week for meetings. Years ago I used to take meetings, both scheduled and on the fly, on every day of the week. At the time, I had a separate bookkeeping division in my practice and unintentionally fell into a routine of weekly office calls for those local clients. Omigawd! Talk about crazy-making. Don’t even ask me what on earth I was thinking back then, lol. I definitely wasn’t thinking ahead about how doing all that would affect my business (and my sanity) down the road. Eventually I realized it just could not continue. It was very stressful, it put huge demands on my time (which reduced the number of people I could work with) and made it really difficult to transition into real work and concentration. My life and business did a complete 360 (for the better!) the day I decided to a) never to make in-person office calls again, and b) allow only scheduled/by appointment meetings, never on the fly.
  3. Schedule all calls and meetings (especially when it comes to consultations). I know this is a repeat of #2, but it merits its own bullet. When you interrupt yourself to take a call, you are not only losing that time for the duration of the call, but also the time it takes to transition back into working concentration (which can take up to 20 minutes or more). Sometimes, your entire flow can be thrown off. Not to mention the fact that you simply can’t be on your best game flying by the seat of your pants. You’ll be far more successful and make a way better impression if you schedule and then prepare in advance for those client consultations and weekly meetings. What I do instead is focus folks on email communication. I can more easily coordinate scheduling that way. If they do happen to call the office, they can leave a message, and I have a set routine when it comes to checking Voicemail and returning calls. Primarily, however, the standard and policy in my business is email communication.
  4. Don’t work with anyone and everyone. I have a very clear and specific market I work with. Trying to do everything, be everything, for anyone and everyone simply does not work, particularly for solopreneurs like us Administrative Consultants. When you focus on a specific target market and know very clearly and definitively what you are and what you do for that market (and what you don’t), you end up not having to constantly switch mental gears all the time (which is time wasting and energy draining in itself). The work then becomes easier and takes less time, your business gets easier and quicker to run and administer, and your service and responsiveness improves as a result. I guarantee, you will make your business and your life so much easier and less stressful, with more time and freedom for your own life, if you do the same.
  5. Keep things simple. I’ve noticed that a lot of people when they’re new in this business like to “play office.” They love to shuffle papers, create endless binders and enter every little detail into some kind of project management software. I think it makes them feel official and productive. You may have time for that now when you only have one or two clients, but that isn’t going to work when you’re juggling a full practice. You want to structure your practice for the full-roster business in your future, not the business you have today or you’l never be able to grow financially. And that means not complicating your business needlessly. Most of your work and communication and updates with clients requires nothing more then simple email. And re-entering info and details you already have in an email into some project management tool is not only re-work, it’s overkill. That’s more time you’re spending on administration, one more layer you are creating open to human error. And all that time and energy you spend on that is time and energy you won’t get to spend living life. I don’t know about you, but one of the reasons I went into my business was to improve my quality of life and have more time for it, not to work day in and day out in my business, much as I do love it. You will find balance is impossible if you complicate your business and increase your admin in those ways and it’s really unnecessary.
  6. Charge good and well! If you don’t charge enough, you will have to work harder and take on more clients to make the money you need, while having even less time and being more stressed on top of it. And that’s a recipe for failure—for you and your clients. It literally doesn’t serve anyone for you not to charge properly, professionally and profitably. No matter what the penny-pinchers and the business ignoramuses howl, you charging well is actually a service to clients. It’s what will allow you to stay in business and work with fewer clients, which means you’ll have more high quality, personalized time and attention for those clients you do work with.

What is “Expertise?”

People would much rather work with experts than with generalists.

That’s because their perception is that an expert can help them better (which, if the professional truly is an expert, they can).

People will pay more for experts as well.

But what makes someone an expert? What is “expertise?”

Here’s a list of characteristics I’ve started to help define what “expertise” means and get you to thinking about your role as an Administrative Expert.

What Is Expertise/What Makes Someone an Expert

1. Specific (e.g., administrative support is a specific and separate expertise from, say, web design or bookkeeping).

2. Experience

3. Training/education

4. Creativity

5. Talent

6. Critical thinking

7. Business knowledge/acumen/sensibility

8. Understanding of clients and the market

Do you have any others to add to the list?

“Virtual Professional” Is About the Stupidest Term I’ve Ever Heard

“Virtual professional” is about the stupidest term I’ve ever heard.

What in the hell is a “virtual professional?” What makes someone a “virtual professional? How does that term distinguish one profession from another? What separates particular fields and areas of expertise? How do those two words tell the audience what a virtual professional does, specifically? Oh, that’s right–it doesn’t!

A virtual professional could be anyone doing anything virtually who considers themselves professional. So a doctor who sells medical information on a website is a “virtual professional” and a building contractor who markets for clients on the Internet is a “virtual professional.”  Attorneys, handymen, interior designers, architects, you name it. By that logic, if they sell services or market online, they’re all “virtual professionals.”

Gee, that makes a ton of sense (not)—a word to encompass every living breathing professional on the planet who happens to do business online so that it literally means absolutely nothing.

Lot of good that does me if I’m a client. If I’m looking for a bookkeeper, I’m not going to sit there and go “I know! I’ll look under “virtual professional.” If I’m looking for a web designer or administrative support or whatever other specific expertise or discipline I might be seeking, why on earth would I ever search under “virtual professional?”

I wouldn’t. They wouldn’t. Because it doesn’t mean anything. It wouldn’t even occur to anyone to do that. And even if it did, the results would be all over the place. They’d have to sort through pages and pages of all the inane, irrelevant listings in order to find the one or two (maybe!) that actually did the thing they were looking for. No one is going to do that.

Why Technology Will Never Replace the Human Brain

Why Technology Will Never Replace the Human Brain

Someone emailed me with what she thought was a typo in one of my Success Store products.

While it turned out there wasn’t any error, I definitely appreciated the kindness of her effort to alert me.

Other things have gotten past us before and it never hurts to double-check. Those extra eyeballs are much appreciated!

One of the reasons she alerted me was because the word in question was flagged by the spell-check feature in Word.

This got me to thinking about why technology can never replace the human brain.

Take biz card readers, for example. They’re neat and all, but they still require a human being to go through and make sure all the data converted over correctly and got inputted to the right fields.

Same thing with voice recognition software. There are folks out there who think that technology will make it so they never need another transcriber or proofreader again. They could not be more wrong.

While the technology is pretty darn nifty and can be applied in all kinds of situations, there isn’t a voice recognition program out there that doesn’t still require an actual human being with a firm command of language to make sure everything was transcribed, spelled, punctuated and formatted correctly.

Only a human being will know how to correct incomplete sentences and make sure all grammar rules are correctly applied.

Plus, like in this instance, just because a program like Word flags something doesn’t mean it’s incorrect. It takes a human being to know better.

The human brain has job security!

Because only the human brain can distinguish between contexts and apply critical thinking.

Technology can’t do that. It can’t think like a person, and it doesn’t have a human being’s ability for discernment.

Language and communication are the heart of everything we do in business. Which is why it’s imperative that administrative support experts have a firm knowledge and command of these things.

Never Outsource Your Core Competency

I’ve heard it commonly said that clients don’t care about this and don’t care about that. All they care is that their work gets done.

But the thing is, they do care. Very much.

They care when they are made to feel like a thing (and not a person) on an assembly line. They care when they have to deal with a constantly revolving door of workers they have only fleeting, impersonal contact with. They care when the right hand never seems to know what the left hand is doing. They care when they have to start over and begin at the beginning developing a shared knowledge base with every new person they have to deal with. They care that their work is passed off to people they never bargained for. They care that they are paying premium fees when that work is passed down to those (less skilled, less qualified, less creative, less thinking) underlings they don’t know, perhaps don’t like, and/or who don’t do as good a job as the person they thought they were hiring. They care that they don’t know who, what or where their work and information is being stored, viewed and passed around to.

Sometimes their dislike for this stuff isn’t even conscious. They just know on some level they aren’t happy with how things are being handled.

At some point, it’s up to you to understand what is important and why those things are important–even if clients don’t know or understand those things themselves. They aren’t going to know or understand all the subtle distinctions and nuances. And they don’t have to. That’s your job. Because those subtle distinctions and nuances can make all the difference in your service levels and delivery, your clients’ satisfaction, and ultimately, how they view and trust their relationship with you and how loyal they are to you.

One line I really love from Tony Hsieh’s (he’s the founder of Zappo’s) new book, Delivering Happiness, is this: Never outsource your core competency.

This reminds us that our work is our relationship with clients. Whatever the thing is that you are in business to do, whether that’s delivering shoes or providing administrative support, THAT is your core competency. Extraordinary service comes from extraordinary caring–about your clients and your craft. No third party will ever care nor be as passionate about your clients and delivering your core product or service to them as you.

Never abdicate your relationship with your clients.

Get Your Synergy On

One of the independent experts who supports me in my business is my programmer, who has been working with me for about three years now.

My tech guy (as I like to call him) and I are in the midst of several big projects. In working together, it reminds me about how awesome the dynamic is when you work with someone with whom you have an ongoing relationship. Not to mention just being able to hand over work to someone else who knows what they’re doing so that my brain stays free for ideating (to borrow the term from the IBM commercial).

That’s not to say that I just throw work at him and forget it. It’s a participatory process.

I need to pay attention to his questions as they come up, and respond in a timely manner.

I appreciate his skills, attention and responsiveness, and give him the respect of responding quickly when has a question or needs feedback from me.

He is doing work that is important to me, after all, and it would be both rude and wasteful to make him wait on me for an undue amount of time.

The wonderful thing is that there’s a mutual respect that occurs in this dynamic, one that creates a whole other creative level for brainstorming and innovation to occur.

And for clients, it’s like this when you work with an Administrative Consultant as well.

The participatory process that is inherent in the collaborative partnership is why clients are able to accomplish so much more with an Administrative Consultant.

The back-and-forth give-and-take creates a synergy that allows you to work together at a higher, more productive level.

And the longer you work together and get to know each other, the easier and better all of that gets.

You can’t get that kind of dynamic working with someone impersonally or only occasionally on a transactional basis.

It’s something that only comes by working in close, one-on-one partnership with someone over a period of time.

The longer you work together, the more your shared body of knowledge and intimate familiarity grows and the more cohesively and intuitively you are able to mesh, think and work in sync.