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A workshop on “The Success Process” earlier this week still has me thinking.  Speaker Charlotte Woods, of Tell It To Your Face, defined being present as being here now, in the moment, focussed and engaged.  She also suggested that being present with clients can be a competitive edge.  Love it!  The more we really listen and focus on what clients need, the better able we are to address those needs.

But wait, my business is conducted online which means that I am never physically present with clients because I work from my own office and communicate with clients over the Internet and on the phone.  So I challenged myself to think of ways that I can be more present with clients without actually being there face-to-face.  Here’s how to be more “present” when working with clients online.

1. Include the personal details in your professional online presence.  While it’s important to appear professional and capable, don’t neglect to include some of those personal details that will individualize you and set you apart as a real person and not just a website with auto-responders.  A blog about business is an excellent place to add this real dimension about yourself to your business practice.  Your “about” page or profile page on your website is another excellent opportunity to share something of the real person behind the website. Include a photograph of yourself and your staff and tell the story of just how you got here and what you think about doing this business.

2. Be responsive.  Dedicate the time in your schedule to return emails and phone calls in a timely manner no matter how busy you will get because you will get busy and feel like you don’t have time to take care of it all.  Clients will appreciate the regular contact and it will strengthen your connection.

3. Be realistic about your limits up front.  In order to be real and to be present with your clients, you can’t promise them everything like 24/7 access to you personally because that is not going to work out in the long run.  Let clients know ahead of time when you are available for calls and emails on a regular basis and what your RUSH or urgent policies are.  Managing your clients’ expectations proactively will serve to develop trust between you and your client.

4. Be reliable.  It almost goes without saying that you should do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it.  I’ve heard the advice “under promise and over deliver” before and will repeat it here without much ado.  Life will happen and the more you communicate about the bumps along the way that cause delays, the more your client will be prepared and adjust his or her expectations.  I find it better to pad my schedule with some contingency time on projects and to be pleasantly surprised when I finish ahead of schedule rather than the other way around.

5. Really listen.  Sometimes I know my business so well and what the client needs that I am tempted to jump right into talking about the solutions I can offer.  It’s better when I clear my own mind of assumptions and my expectations and just listen to their story.  There will be plenty of time afterwards to craft a solution that fits their needs.  I always take notes and slow down to write what I am hearing so that I can really concentrate on what’s being said.  The bonus is that I also have a written record to refer to when I approach the next step.

6. Put it in writing.  Just providing a short list of what you said you will do next in an email to the client supports the verbal exchange and offers an early opportunity to clarify the communication.  It also shows that you were listening and how you have organized yourself to present a solution.  It can also become a basis for a more formal and essential working agreement or contract for the job which benefits both the client and yourself.

In fact some of the advantages of working online with clients are the very things that allow be to be more present.  I manage my own time and schedule so I know when and how to focus on my clients and their needs.  I don’t have to physically be there which means that I am not rushing to get there, finding parking, and thinking about where I am going next.  I can relax a bit and bring my focussed attention to the problem at hand.  And I really enjoy working mindfully on projects for clients without interruption.  The work gets my best attention and gets done more accurately.

This list is just a beginning as I am sure there are many more ways to really be present while working for a client online and ways that working this way becomes an advantage for clients.  Please share your ideas in the comment section below.

Just this weekend, I was delighted by the term “flexistentialism” in article in the Times Online,  The Rise of the Virtual Workspace.  After the article on the employment trend of the growing number of workers who telecommute, the term is defined as the “new work/life balance.”  The article contains many pithy terms and I laughed out loud when I read that one of the advantages of the new virtual workspace is “no more physical spam (constant colleague interruptions).”  Having worked in many offices and educational institutions, I know exactly what that means and how it can affect my productivity.  It’s not strictly true that there are no interruptions on the home office front as now my personal life is right there and can become a potential new source of interruptions and distractions, if I were to let it.  It can be challenging to work at home while my son is home from school, as no matter how many times I explain to him about work and life boundaries and the importance of pretending I am not there because I have to work now…Really,  I am there.  A virtual mom is not an option in his six-year-old eyes.  So I work around his schedule and find the uninterrupted time I need to get my projects done in my role as an online office manager (also known as a virtual assistant or VA).

According the Times Online article, a VA is “your virtual assistant, who picks up calls, checks e-mails and irons out contracts from home.”  VAs can do that and a whole lot more for businesses.  It’s an unfortunate term as even though the industry is at least 20 years old, many people have still not heard of virtual assistants.  That would be the nature of being virtual or “not physically existing as such but made by computer to appear do so.”  Huh?  I may not be physically present in my clients’ offices but I am a real person, connected to my clients’ workspace by the Internet and phone.  An “online assistant” might have been a better title although explaining the range of what an assistant can do for a business can also be a challenge.  If only I could get away with the term “digital bohemian.”  Would not appeal much to clients but might make me feel more liberated as I tackle my workload for my clients and my own business!

I’ve also seen the term “crowdsourcing” which means sending jobs to the best of the “crowd” competing for the work. Outsourcing really, but by dropping the “out,” the term is supposedly less threatening.  “Out” means less work or jobs for those who are “in.”  It’s not really a new concept as freelancers and consultants have been working as subcontractors for businesses before the digital workspace revolution.  The technology of connecting people to their work and other workers, whether they be the boss or the client or co-workers or colleagues, is what has changed or improved.  We are making new words to describe the nuances of the social consequences in the work and home space.  I’ll be enjoying my front row, virtual seat and continuing to look for new terms for the new workspace.

I love this link at PBS Kids which explains the process of time management to kids quite simply!

The easiest way to help you get everything done is to budget that time!   This is all about:

  • Examining your Have-To’s and Want-To’s, and how much time they’ll take up.
  • Working out a plan that lets you spend the right amount of minutes or hours on each one.

It really doesn’t have to be any more complicated for us adults.   A time budget for a typical day for an adult might look like this:

Wednesday:

Sleep 8 hours
Shower, dressing, ready for work ½ hour
Breakfast ½ hour
Commute ½ hour
Work 8 hours
Lunch 1 hour
Commute home ½ hour
Errands or exercise 1 hour
Household chores 1 hour
Dinner 1 hour
TV/media time 1 hour
Reading/personal time 1 hour
Total time spent: 24 hours

Wherever you work, it’s also helpful to specify how much time you have to work on different projects each day.  Eight hours for someone who works in a home office running her own business might look like this:

Wednesday:

Check emails ½ hour
Make phone calls ½ hour
Work on project for client #1 2 hours
Meeting with client #2 1 hour
Marketing activity 1 hour
Finish work on project for client #1 1½ hours
Wrap-up email for the day ½ hour
Meeting with subcontractor ½ hour
Updates (to contact database or bookkeeping) ½ hour
Total time spent: 8 hours

Budgeting your time can be as easy as making a list and checking it twice (what you planned to do and what you really did).

Although I love the simplicity of a list, I can relate better to a visual block or chunk of time plotted on a calendar grid .  The more time an activity takes, the more space it takes up on the calendar and my brain gets that instantly.

Here’s what last week looked like in iCal which is the calendar program that came with my computer.

Here is what I planned to do last week.

Here is what I planned to do last week.

I print out this page and update it manually throughout the week as things go.  These notes are sufficient for managing the time on the life side of the balance.

I get a bit more specific on the work side of the balance and use another program called Klok (available as a free download) to track my billable and my unbillable work time.  This information is critical to billing on current projects and estimating future projects.  I can also see how well I am sticking to my priorities.  Am I really working on marketing activities everyday like I planned to or did I let it slide because I was too busy with another project?  This graphic does not lie and I can make adjustments as I plan for the next week.

Here's how I tracked my work projects (I

Here's how I tracked my work projects in Klok (some things have been left or cropped out for client privacy).

I found myself watching the classic Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory this weekend with my son and have been singing along to our life ever since.  As in “I want a bus.  I want the whole bus.  And I want it NOW!” in true Veruca Salt-style.  It doesn’t make the bus come any faster but it does make my son laugh and pass the time a little more colorfully.  When I have my wits about me, I can use laughter to defuse many would-be-meltdowns while waiting with him.  Being just six, my son exhibits all of the character traits of his parents, just more obviously and larger than life.  Impatience is one that I cringe to see as I both recognize it in myself and find his display of it rather uncomfortable.  He’s just learning to replace the word NOW with please and to turn down both the tone and volume of his delivery.

And that’s one of those lessons that I re-learn even as I try to teach it.  As adults, we all know better than to stomp about and demand NOW.  So we resort to more subtle displays of our impatience.  I sometimes find myself in a hurry and this sense of urgency seems to mask my impatience.  So I’ve just been starting to notice what I am doing when I start to hurry.  What a difference in my day it makes when I replace this NOW sense of urgency with either a laugh or just a mindful moment and a breath to turn down the volume on myself, just a bit.  I relax and feel better and end up at my destination on time but feeling much happier than the impatient version of myself.  I’ve also noticed that sometimes I am hurrying along for no real reason, it’s just a habit.  When I catch myself at that, I really have to laugh and switch gears.  Impatience doesn’t really make things happen any faster.  In fact, it can make things seem like they are taking much longer.

Now, business feels so much more competitive to me than the bus stop.  But I need clients NOW I may catch myself thinking and stomping my foot.  Since business is really about building relationships, there is really no advantage to hurrying that along.  There’s just taking the time to do good work and to find good fits with clients.  In fact, on the advice of my marketing instructor, Allison Bliss of Allison Bliss Consulting, I have been using C.J. Hayden’s book Get Clients Now! as a guide to building my business and growing my client base.  The NOW in the title appeals to my sense of urgency but the program presented in the book is about setting up positive and proactive routines to consistently practice authentic marketing for small service businesses.  What a great habit to establish in place of feeling impatient or overwhelmed (the other thing I feel as a start-up business owner)!  I keep the book in sight to remind me that I do have a plan and can breathe easier as a result.

And I remember that Veruca Salt gets kicked out of Wonka’s factory as a bad egg.  It’s the honest and polite Charlie Bucket who gets the whole factory!