Archive for the ‘Industry Info’ Category

Dear Danielle: How Much Can I Expect to Earn in this Business?

Dear Danielle:

I’m still in the market research phase of starting my administrative support practice. Recently, a colleague and I were discussing yearly salary and work hours with her practice, and I was wondering if your experience has been similar to what she’s explained, before you got into training and from what you know of others in this business. Here’s what she said:

“I consider myself well established now. Despite this, I work between 15-25 billable hours a week and another 20-40 non-billable hours each week (on marketing, accounting, non-billable matter, etc.).”

My research suggests that someone who’s been in business for five years could anticipate gross earnings of approximately $30,000 per year. However, very specialized people make far more (in the range of $40,000 to $55,000).” –RD

If after 5 years someone is still only making $30,000 a year, there is a something seriously wrong in their business. They haven’t done proper business planning, are not charging appropriately and most like are charging hourly rates (selling hours/time) instead of setting fees based on value and results.

If you base your income on how many hours you have to sell, you will always limit your earning potential. I teach people how to use value-based pricing methodologies instead. Once you increase your business knowledge around pricing and how to price, package and present your fees and support plans, your earning ability goes up dramatically. In fact, you can earn more working with fewer clients that way.

Before we talk about what you can expect to make, I want to first make sure we are on the same page about what this business is about. This is important because your understanding of this will directly impact the profitability of your practice.

You mention the word “specialize.” What this usually indicates is a fundamental lack of understanding about what administrative support is.

Administrative support is already a specialty in and of itself. An Administrative Consultant is someone who specializes in providing ongoing, right-hand, across-the-board style administrative support. That’s an important distinction to understand for a few reasons.

For one thing, it’s a completely different business model from, say, a secretarial service, which is in the business of providing individual, transactional, project-based secretarial services.

They’re the Kinko’s, so to speak, of the administrative world. And the reason it’s important to understand the difference in these business models is because the businesses earn money in very different ways, they operate very differently, they have very different labor and administration needs, expenses and operating costs, and they market very differently and attract a completely different kind of clientele.

However, the very most important reason to understand the distinction is that these two business models deliver completely different solutions.

Administrative support is a relationship, one where you’re providing a long-term, more impactful and integral solution that supports the client’s business as a whole and where the focus is the ongoing dynamic and evolving work relationship.

A secretarial service is more like a one-night stand, where what is provided is a quick transaction where the focus and sole purpose is the completion of a single project or task at hand.

As you can see, then, administration is a specialized function already. It’s also work that is inherently ongoing. So going back to what it means to specialize, we already have a specialty: ongoing administrative support for clients we work with in continuous, collaborative relationship.

If someone specializes in some other function, then they are something else completely. For example:

  • If someone specializes in marketing, they are a marketing professional.
  • If they specialize in web design/development, they are a web designer/developer.
  • If they specialize in bookkeeping or accounting, they are a bookkeeper or accountant.

Your colleague is confusing specialization with categories of business. What you specialize in IS the business. If you specialize in administrative support, you’re an Administrative Consultant.

People in our industry also commonly confuse specializing with the tasks involved.

When we talk about specialization, what that really refers to is not the work or tasks, but rather a target market.

Those who specialize in a target market (which is simply a field/industry/profession you cater your administrative support to) have a much easier, quicker time getting started and gaining clients. That’s because it provides them with greater focus and direction.

Now, that’s not to say that you can’t offer additional related services and support. The point I’m making is just because you offer something else doesn’t make it all administrative support. Web design is web design. Bookkeeping is bookkeeping. Marketing is marketing, and so on. These are each their own separate and distinct professions and categories of business.

There are lots of folks who offer creative and technical services in addition to their administrative support. But that doesn’t make those additional services or divisions or specialties in their practice the same things as administrative support.

They are still distinct from one another.

This is all very important because your understanding of these distinctions will directly impact how you structure and charge your fees to earn well.

Is this becoming clearer to you?

If so, you can begin to see that your ability to charge well doesn’t have to do with specializing in any one task.

As an Administrative Consultant, you already have a specialty (that of ongoing administrative support).

What earning well in this industry has to do with is your view and understanding of your value and the solution you are in business to provide, how you frame and portray yourself as a professional,  how you effectively articulate your value to your desired clientele in the context of their needs, goals and challenges, and the pricing strategies you employ to focus them on the value and benefits rather than hours.

Earning well also doesn’t have to do with how long you’ve been in business or how many billable hours you have at their disposal.

(And if after five years someone is still only earning $30,000 a year, there is something seriously wrong and need to get the help of someone like me).

Those who intimately and more deeply understand the solution they provide and its value to their target market have much more confidence.

This understanding, in turn, allows them to have more effective, resonate, compelling conversations with clients and command professional fees.

Those fees can earn them well into six figures, but you only get there by doing things smartly and strategically. It will require some shifts in thinking about the pricing you offer clients. People who are still stuck selling hours in their retainers don’t commonly earn into six figures.

I really recommend you get my marketing guide. It will walk you through a systematic, step-by-step process of understanding more deeply and clearly the solution and value you provide to clients, choosing a target market, profiling your ideal client, and then putting it all together to come up with your own unique value proposition.

You can also get off the hourly rate merry-go-round (which drastically limits your earning potential) by learning how to implement value-based pricing and how to focus clients on value and results rather than selling hours.

Should We Expect Colleagues to Demonstrate Competence?

Someone new registered for the forum a couple weeks ago.

She met all the minimum criteria and was approved to complete her profile.

Her username had to be changed since she did not follow the registration directions for that (obviously rushing through too fast to actually read them or just didn’t care to honor our request).

When she sent her email to us that she had placed the membership seal on her site, the link she provided showed that she had not in fact actually done that. What she did was place our logo on her site. This was the second step where she didn’t follow directions.

My administrator gave her the standard reply in those situations (“that is not an approved use of our logo and must be taken off the site; please refer back to the instructions for placing the approved membership seal code on your site and let us know when you have made this correction… “).

When she emailed us back that she had made the correction, her profile was double-checked to make sure all steps had been followed (standard procedure).

Unfortunately, she had yet again failed to follow just about every instruction, wasting everyone’s time and attention in the process.

Here’s the message I sent her:


“My administrator has passed this onto me to handle. I’m afraid you have failed to follow several of the instructions. We’ll give you one more try to get things right (you’ll need to go in and read the instructions thoroughly this time). We won’t be able to approve your membership if you are unable to do so. We need members to demonstrate a professional level of competence, qualification, which includes the ability to pay attention and follow directions. That may sound harsh, but as a professional organization, we uphold a promise to clients that we takes very seriously: the the administrative support experts in our group are the best of the best. Not following directions, repeatedly, does not convey to us that level of competence.”

Now, to her credit, this person did not get hysterical like so many do, blaming us for their own failings. She did, however, reply that while she appreciated the chance for “one more try,” it wouldn’t be necessary.

This is a very tame example. You wouldn’t believe some of the ugly hate mail I get when people are not approved.

In this case, we didn’t even “reject” her. We were willing to give her another opportunity to take things a little more seriously, not rush through the instructions, and show us — demonstrate — that she is a competent professional who is able to handle the demands of taking care of clients to a professional standard.

Here’s my frustration in these instances:

We don’t know these folks from Adam or Eve. It’s their job to show us (demonstrate) that they are skilled, competent, qualified professionals.

Would you go to a job interview on your worst behavior, wearing your sloppiest clothes, talking like a street thug?

Would you expect to get the job if you filled out forms incorrectly or didn’t pass any tests you had to undergo?

Of course not.

So why are these people so insulted when the first face they present to us isn’t one that inspires the greatest of confidence?

This society where everyone thinks they are entitled to be catered to and coddled and have everything handed over to them baffles me.

It’s not our job to give them the benefit of the doubt.

If they can’t follow the simplest of instructions here, what on earth are clients going to get?

We can’t represent those who don’t take this seriously or who otherwise don’t demonstrate a level of professional skill and competence.

Our word has to mean something when we tell clients that they are going to connect them with skilled individuals from our group.

We also have an obligation to our members to uphold our standards of excellence and qualification to ensure their reputations as well. You are judged by the company you keep.

If a client has a bad experience with someone who touts our name on her site, our other members may suffer from that association.

The client may think if that’s the level of competence in one, the apple may not fall far from the tree, so to speak. They might not want to hire anyone else from our group after that.

And frankly, no one (not clients, myself, my administrators nor members and colleagues) wants to deal with someone who is a pain in the ass because they consistently don’t pay attention or have to be constantly asked to please follow directions.

We welcome all administrative experts who are in business to provide ongoing administrative support, but they have to step up to the plate and put their best professional foot forward.

So what do you think? Is that too much to ask?

What happens if there are no standards of excellence or at least a minimal display of the most basic ability?

Do you think clients want to partner with anyone who is difficult, defensive and frustrating to work with this respect (because they don’t read thoroughly, need to have requests repeated over and over to them, and don’t follow specifications or directions according to the client’s wishes)?

Why Trade Name Infringement Is Not a Good Way to Introduce Yourself in the Industry

A new member registered for our forum the other day. Unfortunately, we had a dilemma because this person was operating under the same business name as one of our members.

So, I’m taking this opportunity to remind folks about trade name infringement and our principles and standards around that as a professional association.

Because of the online nature of our businesses, we have no geographical boundaries from each other, which makes having a unique business name more important than ever.

I don’t know how other professional associations handle it, but at the ACA, we believe it’s important to uphold the principles of operating ethically and honestly and treating each other well, which includes not infringing upon your colleagues. We do that by not condoning or enabling the practice of trade name infringement.

Besides just being the wrong thing to do, here’s why it’s not in your own best interests to tread on a colleagues toes in this manner and why it’s important for you to come up with your own unique business name:

  1. You don’t want to get sued. Someone with legal rights and established use of an existing trade name can sue you for infringement. It costs a lot of money and energy to defend yourself. If you lose (which you can by either default or because the Court finds in the plaintiff’s favor), it will cost even more. It’s a can of worms you don’t want to open. You should always expect that anyone who takes their business seriously is going to also protect their business interests just as seriously.
  2. It’s not a great way to be welcomed into the community. Relatively speaking, ours is a very small, tight-knit community. People will know you are infringing on one of their comrades. Think about it. If it were you, how would you feel if someone new came into the industry and started using your business name, the one you’ve been using for X years, the one you spent blood, sweat and tears (not to mention money!) building, and around which all your identity and marketing has been based? You are going to create ill will and negative energy for yourself by stepping on an established colleague’s toes.
  3. You don’t want to be confused with another business in the same industry. It’s going to be really important to differentiate yourself from others and that includes having a unique business name and identity. It doesn’t do you any good to be using someone else’s established business name if traffic and name recognition is going to be diverted to the person who was using it first. It creates confusion in the marketplace and there are laws in place to protect right holders from this.
  4. You don’t want to have to redo everything (e.g., web site, marketing materials, etc.). If you are caught infringing, your website can be shut down, you can be forced to relinquish domains you’ve unlawfully squatted on, and it’s going to be a lot of work and more money to start all over again.

So, what do you do? A bit of homework is in order.

To make sure you come up with a unique name and do not infringe on the established trade name rights of any of your colleagues, there are steps you can and should take:

  1. Search industry directories. Make sure no one else is using the name already or anything close to it.
  2. Conduct a search for the name (or the predominant unique identifying part of it) in several different search engines. I suggest Google, MSN, Yahoo and any others you might think of. Better to be thorough now than sorry later.
  3. Search the database. Check to see if anyone else in the industry is already using the trade name you’re considering or any form of it. Changing a letter or word is not going to help you if the name can be considered to be substantially the same and would still create confusion. What does all this that mean? It means it doesn’t matter if you are using “(Same Name) Business Solutions” and they are using “(Same Name) Administrative Support.” You are in the same industry and it’s the novel, identifying part of the name that matters.

One thing that people don’t commonly understand about trademark/trade name law is that owners are required to protect their rights or they could end up losing them. That means, the way the laws are written, they don’t have the luxury of ignoring an infringement and letting you off the hook. They HAVE to go after you if they want to protect their rights in the name. So you are just asking for costly legal trouble if you infringe, and especially if you do it willfully knowing full well that someone else was already using the name.

Also, your domain or domain name availability has no relevance. If you infringe on someone’s name rights (and I’m not talking about generic search engine terms), you can be compelled to relinquish the domain.

Once you find a name that is unique and that in no way can be confused with anyone else’s existing, established identity in the industry, you’re home free.

If you think you were the first to use the name, contact the other Virtual Assistant and see if you can work things out. The good will and positive energy you create by engaging in honorable, ethical business practices will serve you well.

Industry Survey Going Like Gangbusters

Wow! Our industry survey is going like gangbusters so far.

I came back from a little mini get-away and responses have been pouring in over the weekend.

Every once in awhile I’ll take a peek at the results thus far. It’s so interesting and fascinating to see the diversity in our businesses.

I also love reading the comments to the open-ended questions.

One that came in over the weekend is just so on-the-money and very representative, I think, of what we deal with in a large part of our marketplace’s current mentality:

“That experienced, US-based VAs are charging way too much, but at the same time we should be able to do everything under the sun. That we should just do what we’re told to do and not think for ourselves, and in the next breath that we’re not proactive enough.”

Crappy articles about our industry and business are a huge part of the problem.

It’s over 10 years now and they are still using employment terms like “wages” and “references” and phrases like “connecting with employers.”

When are these reporters going to get it right?!

But the “virtual assistant” term itself is a big part of the problem, too.

“Assistant” is a term of employment, not business. People only understand the word “assistant” one way: employee.

So it’s no wonder they think we are some sort of employee and have those expectations.

You can’t call yourself a business owner in one breath while basically calling yourself an employee at the same time and expect them not to be confused.

It’s a dumb term and really should have never been used by anyone in our business. It didn’t even come from anyone in our business. It was coined by a “client” who for all intents and purposes was working with someone in what amounted to an employee role, expect that they were doing it from home.

This is why we have moved onto the Administrative Consultant term.

It more clearly informs clients that we are in the administrative support business and the context of our relationship to them: namely a business-to-business one.

Thar’s Gold in That There Client Feedback

I often sense that those in our industry are afraid of hearing not-so-complimentary feedback.

Which is too bad because that kind of information is good as gold to your business.

You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge or that you may not even know is wrong.

So when clients who are otherwise rational, thoughtful people take the time to give their honest input on things that are offputting to them, we should listen.

I’m not saying we have to throw ourselves off a cliff, much less drop everything and completely change our businesses or approach, at the first hint of any discontent, nor that every client’s personal beef is legitimate.

You do have to know how to discern between valid, reasonable gripes and those that are just ridiculous.

For example, a client who complains that an Administrative Consultant won’t design their website and provide shoppingcart support (because that’s like asking a plumber to fix their car), much less lump it in with their administrative support, is nothing but a cheapskate who wants something for nothing.

That’s not a gripe you need to pay any mind to because it’s like expecting a plumber to fix their car. That’s not the business we’re in. They’re barking up the wrong tree.

However, when a client has repeated unsatisfactory experiences and complaints that aren’t outrageous, that tells us there is a disconnect going on.

If you belong to my association and/or are a regular reader of this blog, you’ve frequently heard me call this the “misalignment of expectations and understandings.”

It would behoove us not to listen and examine this feedback to see where we can bridge the gaps.

That disconnect might be related to the client (and our marketplace as a whole) not knowing how to choose the right administrative partner.

They might have only shopped by price instead of skills, qualification, fit and value.

They might be trying to make an employee out of you (which is the wrong expectation entirely, but which signals that you haven’t done your job of educating them properly).

They might have too much on-demand needs or expectations. Their business and workload might be at a level where we are simply not the right solution and they really need an employee.

All of these kinds of things point out that our industry still has much work to do in the way of properly educating and setting expectations in our marketplace.

The other side of that coin is that we ourselves need to understand the business we’re in so we can recognize the ramifications of setting wrong or unsustainable expectations and the subsequent consequences that leads to.

For example, too many people in our industry are telling our marketplace that they have the same level of responsibilities as an in-house employee.

That’s insanity and a ridiculous, impossible expectation to set in clients, not to mention a surefire recipe for failure of the service provider-client relationship.

Clients need to either hire an employee, or seek an alternative.

But as with any alternative (which means “not the same things as”), there are going to be trade-offs and differences in how you work together.

I recently heard from a business owner who has tried unsuccessfully working with several people in our industry for the past five years whose feedback I found to be very valid.

We actually ended up having a really nice conversation on the phone. He is a perfectly nice man who has very reasonable concerns and has had difficulty getting his business needs taken care of.

One of the things I educated him about was that trying to make an employee out of someone in the administrative support business (business being the operative word here) doesn’t work and in fact is illegal.

For that reason, he simply has to take his idea of on-demand stuff out of his expectations. Because that’s just not how things work in a business-to-business relationship.

Even if an administrative service provider (and it’s usually a newbie) were to take that work on like that, eventually as her practice grew, it would become more and more difficult, and eventually impossible, for her to sustain the ability to work together in that capacity.

Ours is about leveraged, strategic administrative support, not beck-and-call instant support like an employee.

We also talked about working with the right professional for the job.

I referred back to my plumber/car mechanic analogy: If someone needs their car fixed, why are they calling a plumber?

I’ll often hear from clients who weren’t happy with the website they had a virtual assistant design for them, and I’m have to be frank with them: Well, what did you expect? They aren’t web designers. Just because someone owns Photoshop or Dreamweaver doesn’t make them a designer. Why didn’t you go to the proper professional in the first place?

Or they’ll complain that they didn’t get quality writing out of their virtual assistant, and I have to ask them: Well then, why didn’t you hire a real copywriter? These people aren’t writers. That’s not the business they’re in. REAL writers/copywriters know what business their in and advertise themselves as such. They don’t market themselves as some kind of cut-rate gopher or jack of all trades.

That’s why it’s important to understand it’s important to know what business you’re in and what you’re not. Trying to make a mechanic out of a plumber is not going to help anyone.

I addressed his complaint that virtual assistants often don’t have the skills they advertise. I agree with him. I’ve experienced some of the same things.

I’ve worked with many over the years who should not be in business taking anyone’s money.

We’re an unregulated industry and there are too many people looking to make a fast buck who don’t have the background or skills to be doing this work who can hang out a shingle overnight.

But this is also why it is the client’s responsibility to choose properly.

If they want to take the cheap way out and expect five star skill, qualification and service at a McDonald’s price, they are living on Fantasy Island.

These are things he was also realizing himself.

I gave him some ideas on what to look for (for one thing, someone who has well thought out business policies and procedures for working with clients; even someone who has the skills, but not the business foundation and systems, is going to have equally unhappy clients), how to leverage the support in a better way, and how to discern when someone is not the right provider for the work and to seek other solutions instead.

After talking with me, he changed his mind about being entirely through with our industry.

Once we bring expectations and understandings into alignment, our industry and clients and the marketplace at large will be more on the same page and much happier with each other.

Okay, here’s this client’s feedback…

“Danielle, I am hoping you can read my email without trying to strangle me!  I’ve been a subscriber for several months to your newsletter. But I think I am done working with Virtual Assistants. And I have worked with various Virtual Assistants for five years. Spent a lot of money, didn’t really get too far.

“I’ll admit, the first two years, I was a major part of the problem.  I was not very clear on what I wanted the Virtual Assistant to do. But for nearly the past three-plus years, I’ve had enough experience where I can say that many Virtual Assistants:

  • Do NOT have the skills they advertise.
  • Do not have the expertise with products and resources they say they do.
  • Rarely complete work on time.
  • Have a difficult time estimating how much will be involved in a project, which slows everything else down.
  • Suffer from the loneliness factor. When they get someone on the phone, it becomes a gabfest…and I’m paying!
  • In constant “education mode.” They need to spend all weekend getting up to speed on a tool you need them to use (which they professed they had working knowledge of).
  • You become their guinea pig

“I have also found that if you are somewhat flexible in deadlines, a “nice guy” or easygoing, the other clients of the Virtual Assistant will soon take (re-allocate) much of your Virtual Assistant’s prime working time.

“It’s also (to me) become a major red flag when a Virtual Assistant volunteers “Oh, I can do that, too!” (like answer your phones).

“Because of all the reasons above, I can no longer find Virtual Assistants to be a viable option at $45/hour. Many Virtual Assistants are far too over-priced. And I have paid Virtual Assistants amounts like $30, $35 and $40/hour. You do NOT get what you pay for.”

Let’s discuss… what do you think about all this?

What Would You Do: Educating the Marketplace Properly Matters

Here’s the situation…

About a month ago I was approached by someone who is writing a book about successful Virtual Assistants.

She didn’t give me too many details and my usual position is that I have no interest whatsoever in being mentioned in a book unless that book, its context and those involved are in alignment with my standards, values and beliefs regarding our profession and the business we’re in.

This is because who we align ourselves with informs our marketplace and sets their expectations and understandings, rightly or wrongly.

So it matters very much that those you align yourself with are educating clients in a manner that is consistent with what you view as true and proper and responsible.

Otherwise, we just perpetuate the confusion that is rampant in our industry and continue to send mixed, contradictory signals that miseducate both new colleagues and clients alike.

For me, part of my integrity lies in the fact that I don’t sell my soul or change my principles for the sake of earning a buck or gaining the spotlight. If that means I have to say no to an opportunity, so be it.

So I asked her for a bit more information and it was revealed that a survey was done with over 100 virtual assistants who listed who they believe play a major role in our industry, with my name being in the top 10.

She provided the list of names to me, and it was a bit disappointing.

I emailed her back letting her know that it was flattering to be on the list and my interest was piqued, but before I could make a decision, I needed more information on the project, the intentions for the projects and what the goal and purpose was.

I let her know that my main concern was that if a book was being written about our industry, the people interviewed should be those actually in the administrative support business.

Her list included one person who became successful in a completely different field that doesn’t have anything to do with the administrative support business, and there were at least two others who weren’t running administrative support businesses at all: one was a secretarial service (not the same thing whatsoever) and the other was a virtual staffing agency, and neither of whom was an industry veteran or thought leader by any definition. They were newbies themselves who were actually recycling and, in many cases, plagiarizing the established writing and speaking of me and others.

I said I was sure she could understand that I would be leery about participating in anything that miseducated the industry and our marketplace and clients about the true nature of the administrative support business and those who have truly become successful in it.

She was very nice and replied that she was excited to hear from me, thanked me n said she would forward more information shortly.

That was the last I heard from her until yesterday when I received an inquiry about discussing the process of providing a seminar to our network and beginning a relationship with our organization to promote her marketing program to our members.

I went to the website and it only took reading the first page to know that it is definitely not a fit, regardless of how nice of a person she may be.

For example, on the very first page, it is instructing clients to expect:

1. That every Virtual Assistant should provide at least three references and one character reference.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with having one or more current or former clients who are willing to talk to your potential clients about their experience working with you, but the way she’s got this framed is absolutely WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

Business owners don’t provide “references” as if they were applying for a job!

MARKETING (which includes testimonials and case studies with full contact info of satisfied clients) is what businesses do to establish the credibility and confidence clients need to inform their decisions.

The way she frames this, she is educating the marketplace to view us as “workers” and employees looking for jobs instead of business owners who are in business to provide a specific expertise.

2. To look for a Virtual Assistant who understands and is comfortable with your communication needs.

This could be taken a few ways, but given the context of the rest of her site, I interpreted this to mean that she thinks we should go with whatever clients want.

One thing I think is very important for people in this business to understand is that they shouldn’t confuse customer service with servitude. You are the administrative expert in the relationship, not their lackey.

For example, if you are a solo practitioner and you haven’t had a phone policy up until now, once you begin working with more than one client, you begin to realize that you simply cannot be at the beck and call of clients on the phone and expect to concentrate and have uninterrupted time to get work done.

That kind of realization leads you to set up specific policies in your business regarding communications and how work requests are submitted and handled, which is not only for your benefit, it’s for the benefit of clients as well.

If you are fried from taking unscheduled calls while trying to get things done, mark my words, it WILL affect the quality of your work and your ability to keep track of things and stay focused.

None of that is helpful to your clients and your service will definitely suffer. Therefore, it is absolutely a service to clients that you set intentional policies and boundaries. Those things HELP you deliver superior customer service to them.

It’s not a client’s place to set your business policies. If you decide that you can only do scheduled brainstorming calls once a week and “here’s how my business is set up in order to deliver the  best service consistently and reliably to each and every one of my clients,” all you have to do is inform them how things work. You don’t let them dictate how things work in your business.

If you frame it right, it will look like a benefit, not an un-customer-friendly policy (which it’s not, anyway).

This is called STRUCTURE and it is absolutely your best friend in business.

3. To look for a Virtual Assistant who is available during the same hours you need assistance.

The problem here again is that this framing trains clients to look upon Virtual Assistants as on-demand employees or workers of their company.

I’ve said it before and it bear repeating: You are a business, not their employee, and this is a business-to-business relationship. As a business, you have your own policies and schedules that set and run independent of any client. Trust me, you will live to regret the day you trained clients to expect you to work on demand or certain hours of every day.

Yes, do set official business hours, not because that’s the time you are limiting yourself to working, but because it provides framework, parameters, boundaries and respect.

It says, “These are my business hours during which time you may contact my office.”

That doesn’t mean you are at their beck and call or that you are going to answer the phone instantly every time it rings, or that you are necessarily going to be around those days and those times, all the time.

You might set certain times of the day for checking voicemails. Or you might hire an employee or engage an answering service or virtual receptionist to handle your phone lines.

But you can’t allow yourself to be drawn into phone conversations or brainstorming sessions without a proper appointment. You have to inform clients what your communication policies are.

Since you aren’t working with clients in an employee-like capacity, it won’t matter a whit when you accomplish their tasks and projects.

And don’t take on clients who have on-demand needs or expect you to work like an employee.

You, of course, need to have some policies for some kind of timely turnaround. No one is going to work with anyone who can’t competently manage workloads in a timely, reasonable manner.

But I guarantee you, you will not be able to sustain any kind of instant, on-demand assistance once you begin working with more than one client. You just won’t.

Clients are fine with all these things as long as they are informed upfront.

That upfront information is what manages expectations.

So, for example, you could inform them:

“All work requests must be emailed to my office at this address. Work is processed within a 3-day turnaround (or whatever your system is). We’ll have a weekly telephone meeting on Mondays (or Tuesdays or whatever your system is)…”

And all of it will be just fine with the right-fitting clients because they’ll have been properly educated and informed in advance of working together about how things work, what you need from them in the relationship, and what they can expect within that framework.

Just because there are one or two clients you come across who have a problem with that (and there will be those) doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with having intentional business policies and set-ups.

You HAVE to have those or you simply won’t be able to manage your business very well or very long, regardless of whether it’s just you or whether you have your own support staff.

There are going to be some clients who aren’t a fit for what we do.

There are going to be business owners who don’t work very well with email. So what? You aren’t going to be able to work with them.

And there are some who simply need an employee, not us.

That doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong by having structure in your business and smart policies that help you run efficiently.

And again, the hours and days you work should have no bearing whatsoever. If it does, then that client is under some mistaken understandings and has been trained to expect instant, on-demand, employee-like support, which is wrong all the way around.

(This all yet another good example of why the virtual assistant term doesn’t serve us — because it miseducates people into thinking we are some kind of employee when in fact we are independent business owners.)

So here’s my brainstorming question…

A lot of times, I just have to ignore requests when they are not a fit.

It takes up so much time and energy to come up with an appropriate response.

There is some communication that my administrators simply can’t handle for me, that I have to answer myself.

But I often get lambasted no matter what I do.

If I don’t send a reply, then I’m a jerk.

If I do and I make an attempt to construct a friendly, but candid, honest response that there isn’t a fit and why, I get hate mail on that as well.

Ya can’t win for losing!

No, you can’t please all the people all the time. You can only be true to yourself and do what’s best for you.

However, I would like to know what you think.

This is a perfectly nice person I have no doubt, but she is clearly operating under some ideas about our business that are completely wrong and do a disservice to our industry. I couldn’t possibly align my organization with hers because of it.

So, do you think I should reply at all? And if so, do you have suggestions for how I could nicely word a “thanks, but it’s not a fit at this time” response?

Well, I guess that’s pretty good right there, isn’t it?

But usually that invites more communication because they often will write back and want to know why.

Should I provide the why? Do they really want to know my honest reasons? What recommended wording do you have?

The Difference Between an Administrative Support Business and a Secretarial Service

I was reviewing our industry survey results recently.

It was interesting to see how many people still don’t understand the difference between a secretarial service and an administrative support business.

You didn’t know there was a difference? Yes, they are completely different business models.


The difference hinges upon whether the relationship is project-based or it is an ongoing, collaborative relationship of administrative support.

If someone is focused on selling line-item administrative services a la carte, they are providing secretarial services.

It’s like the relationship you have with, say, Kinkos.

You go there for one-off services. You might only ever need them once, or you might be a repeat customer and come back on a sporadic basis. But the relationship is incidental and transactional and they aren’t any more involved in your business than your mailman. It’s not the same kind of relationship as administrative support.

Administrative support is exactly that:  it’s a relationship of ongoing support where you take on specific tasks, functions and roles for a client in their business on an ongoing, monthly basis. It’s not one-time or sporadic projects.

That’s because administrative support isn’t an event. It’s not something you do once and never have to do again, (whereas project work, and the extent of your role in that transaction, ends as soon as the project is completed). Administrative support is ongoing throughout the life of every business.

So, an administrative support business, you aren’t selling one-off, individual services. What you selling is that ongoing relationship of support itself: the opportunity for a client to have an administrative partner who can take on any number of administrative roles or service areas depending on their needs (which you would determine and negotiate through your consultation process).


If all you are doing is project work, then you aren’t in the administrative support business, you’re in the secretarial services business. The ongoing relationship is what differentiates an administrative support business from a secretarial service.

Without the continuity and consistency of the relationship, you don’t get to know the client, their business or their work to the degree that allows you to provide that right-hand value.

Without the relationship, administrative work can only be done in fits and starts and bits and pieces.

Without that ongoing relationship, you can’t begin to develop an idea of the big picture of the client’s business because you aren’t any more intimately involved in it than than if they were picking up a burger from the drive-thru.

Without the big picture, there is no view for helping clients discover where improvements in systems and processes can be made.

Without working together on an ongoing basis, the client never gets to actualize the kind of efficiency and forward growth that occur only when there is a body of intimate knowledge and familiarity that is built and expanded upon on a continuous basis.

It is an entirely unique dynamic that cannot be had without working together, continuously, in collaborative partnership.

If administrative work is performed on a start and stop, occasional basis (services a la carte), the impact it has on the business as a whole organism is very isolated.

But if you are in the administrative support business, you are selling a package of ongoing support (a relationship) which uniquely offers clients the ability to achieve an entirely different, higher body of knowledge, forward growth and results that will not only get tasks done, but build upon and strengthen the foundation of the business itself.

This is what defines the administrative support business model and distinguishes it from secretarial services.

Business Begging Doesn’t Become You

Business Begging Doesn't Become You

I received an email today from a colleague looking for work (I feel like get a million of these every week):

“I have been in the business since 2005 and had established relationships with a number of clients in the different states. However the last few months has seen loss of clients due to their financial constraints. I’m reaching out to you for any overflow work you may have. I do not wish to steal clients; I’m simply asking if there are projects or areas of projects you need assistance with to consider my services. You would get to review whatever I do before forwarding it to your client and so you would maintain representation of your work quality and standard. Also, if a new client contacts you and you are not able to take on their project please pass on my information.”

She included her resume, and has apparently sent this message to a huge list of colleagues whose emails it appears she’s gone to great effort to harvest off the Internet.

My members and I were discussing the message, trying to decide if it was legitimate or not.

If it is legitimate, I am sorry for her predicament. However, even so, she is going about things the wrong way.

To create a successful, profitable, sustainable business, she needs to do what the members of my association do every day: Become students of business and learn how to be smarter, savvier, more knowledgeable business owners.

What does that mean?

It means learning how to:

  • Get over employee mindset (business owners don’t submit resumes and I could care less about your resume; I want to see your competence demonstrated in your communications and how you run your business);
  • Start thinking (and marketing) like a successful business owner and master of your own ship (you position yourself as a loser no one else wants if you have to beg your colleagues for scraps);
  • Charge properly and stop giving away your time, expertise and the value of your work;
  • Define a target market for greater clarity, focus and results in your marketing messages and efforts;
  • Create systematic, methodical and intentional standards, processes and policies in your business;
  • Focus on core offerings, ideal clients AND ideal work (it doesn’t pay to take on anything and everything); and
  • Gain deeper understanding of the real service you offer as an administrative support partner.

Plus, most of us are simply not going to entrust our work to strangers. We are more likely to refer or subcontract to those we have come to know, like and trust through networking and have built relationships with.

While I certainly feel sympathy for her, as a business owner, I’m not attracted to anyone who resorts to business begging or wears their desperation on their sleeve.

It’s a signal to me that there’s a high level of business sensibility missing and makes me also question their competence.

I simply would not entrust my important client work, much less my own business work, to someone who doesn’t inspire anything but the highest confidence.

Who knows; she might land a few small gigs from her email blast. But that isn’t going to tide her over for the long-haul or contribute anything to the fundamental changes that need to take place in her business so that she doesn’t find herself in this predicament again.

I wish her well, and hope that she will have the wisdom to invest the same kind of time and energy she did in harvesting our email addresses toward overhauling her business and educating herself on the points I’ve outlined here.

Her business survival will depend upon it.

Thanks, But No Thanks

I was recently contacted by someone new to the industry to contribute to a book of tips they are compiling for people who are interested in starting an administrative support business.

They informed me that one of the benefits is that I’ll get to put the fact that I was quoted in a book on my resume, and it will help document my expertise.

I then learn that they have been sending this blanket message out to all the members listed in our directory.

On top of this, it turns out they aren’t running an administrative support business at all, but rather a virtual staffing agency. Not the same thing whatsoever.

To put all this in perspective:

  1. They are a private, for-profit business;
  2. They are indiscriminately spamming anyone and everyone;
  3. They want us to write their book for them to benefit their business;
  4. They think we are employees who submit resumes to clients;
  5. They are a virtual staffing agency, not an Administrative Consultant.


What this industry doesn’t need is yet another for-profit book from people who just hung out their shingle and especially not from folks who don’t know themselves that we are not employees and we don’t send out resumes.

Indiscriminately spamming people with for-profit intentions is not a good way to introduce yourself into the community. It certainly has generated quite a bit of ill will among my members.

It’s also not a great way to establish business relationships.

A better idea would be to do a bit more homework first to gain some understanding about who you are contacting and make sure your contact is appropriate.

Like in this case, if this person had done any research, they would know that virtual staffing is not the same thing as Administrative Consulting and that I would probably not be an appropriate person to contact because I am a huge proponent of bringing improved clarity and understanding to the marketplace about the different types of administrative service businesses out there.

I am not interested in the least in contributing to any effort that only causes more confusion and misinformation in the marketplace for everyone involved.

How to Properly Educate Potential Clients About What We Do

An attorney was relating that he was a solo with no employees and was finding himself spending an inordinate amount of time on administration and paralegal-type work.

He was aware of our industry and wanted more information to explore that route. However, he had a few misunderstandings about what we do (e.g., he thought he wanted someone local who could run work-related errands around town), so I spoke up to better educate him and nip any misconceptions in the bud.

I thought I would share my response with you all here as well.

(Notice that I specifically emphasize terms like “independent professional,” “business owner,” “administrative expertise” for example. This helps convey the proper nature of the business-to-business relationship.)


Hello Solo Attorney,

I’m so glad you’ve asked about how to get the administrative help you need in your practice.

A few of the reasons business owners hire an Administrative Consultant include:

  1. They don’t have room/space/equipment for in-house staff
  2. They prefer working alone and don’t want another person in their “space”
  3. They aren’t a large enough business that they have the kind of workload to justify the expense (and administrative hassles) of in-house staff, much less attract the interest of anyone qualified.

That said, you have to understand that we are not employees.

Administrative Consultants are independent professional — exactly like yourself — who are in the business of administrative support. Many of them who have paralegal and legal secretary training and experience specifically cater their support to attorneys.

Knowing that you are are hiring a service and not an employee, it’s also important to understand that there are going to be some differences in how you work together and what work they can support you with.

In the same way that you are in the business of practicing law, Administrative Consultants are in the business of administrative support. They don’t “run errands” or things of that nature. You’ll want to contact a concierge service for that. A local college student or paid intern would also fit the bill.

We Administrative Consultants, on the other hand, are in the business of taking on many of your administrative burdens and supporting you administratively in certain areas of your business.

They do the administrative work that would normally take your time, energy and attention away from the real work — the practice of law — that makes you money.

The great thing about Administrative Consultants is that you are getting a higher caliber of administrative knowledge, expertise and service than you would generally find in a temp or college student.

My association’s industry surveys indicate that the majority of those in our profession have at least 20 years real-world experience and training before going into business for themselves.

(But you will need to be discerning and do your homework because in the age of the internet, anyone can slap up a shingle even if they have little or no skills or qualifications to do so.)

Working together virtually is inherently more efficient and cost-effective. There is a huge amount of technology available that makes it a breeze to work together virtually, and Administrative consultants are experts when it comes to this. These are our tools of the trade after all and how we run our businesses.

You also don’t need to have a huge amount of work for an Administrative Consultant to be interested in working with you like you would with other support options. We typically work with clients in commitments of 10 –30 hours per month.

Plus, you are getting someone who is actually IN business, which means they’re interest is in sticking around and supporting you for the long-haul, not here today, gone tomorrow.

You can’t make a real investment in students or freelancers or work-at-home types who are just looking for side income because there’s no real business commitment on their part. The minute their life/interests/priorities/circumstances change, they are gone or become unreliable.

Administrative Consultants understand your work and business is important. It’s important to us as well.

Besides being in this business myself for over 10 years, I also run a professional association for Administrative Consultants. Anyone who is interested in finding qualified professionals to help support you administratively can check our Administrative Consultant Directory.

To help you know what to look for in a qualified Administrative Consultant and how to find the right one, be sure to also check our the ACA Client Guide.