You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Business services’ category.

Is cold-calling still an effective technique for reaching potential clients? I’ve been asking myself and people in my network this question for awhile about whether or not it made sense to try calling potential clients directly. For the most part, I accepted the answer I heard from more than a few people: don’t call, I don’t have time to talk to you. Reach me through email and my online networks and if I’m interested, I will contact you.

This was an easy answer to accept because it’s what I would say too. What do I do when someone I don’t know calls me up to sell something?  Exactly.  I try to firmly and politely get them off the phone as soon as possible so I can get back to what I was doing before I was so rudely interrupted.  This was my airtight case for not calling potential clients unless I had a lead or a referral or anything that would warm up my reason for calling.  I really didn’t want to be the person on the other end of the line, getting rejected.

How could I get over that fear? I accepted the challenge on a job for someone else. I called up 200 people and experienced every shade of gray on the scale between no answer to getting an appointment scheduled. Here’s what I learned:

1.  Have a script to follow loosely. I stumbled through reading it the first few calls and am grateful for the patience of the people who still listened on the other end of the line. Once I warmed up, I could improvise but still convey the same message, only more naturally and less like a voice on an answering machine.

2. It really does help if you smile while you are talking on the phone even if nobody else can see you.  It improves your own attitude and warms up your voice. The listener can hear that smile.

3. Most people are very polite about expressing their lack of interest. Thank goodness! It’s not personal. Move on to the next call.

4. Some people don’t understand your message in the way that you intend. It’s so tempting to try to explain what you really meant.  Any clarification I tried to offer did not change the refusal and in some cases only irritated the recipient of my call.  Better luck next time and move on to the next call.

5. It really helps to offer an incentive. What will they get for their time? Is there some advice or tip that will save their time or help them out in their business, even if they don’t engage your services? The more you show your respect for their time, the better reception you’ll get.

6. That said, keep it brief and deliver your message about the value of your services as succinctly as possible. Practice makes perfect and a script helps.

7. Keep track of your results. A simple table with the name of the contact, the name of the company, and the phone number will do with columns for the response (no answer, refused, or scheduled) and another column for the appointment time (and additional contact information) as needed.

8. Some people are interested! After calling a list of 200 names, I was able to schedule 4 appointments for my client.

Is that effective? For a small business, like myself, that’s a lot of time to spend on the phone, not connecting. It all depends on what happens with the 4 sales calls. If they result in large or long-term contracts, it will be worth the clients’ investment in me and my time. But is it enough of an incentive to motivate me to start calling potential clients? What do you think about making or receiving such calls?


Whether you love or hate it, keeping up with your emails is good for business.  The trick is to stay current without spending all of your time responding to emails or becoming mired in a backlog of emails that all needed your attention, last week.  Here are some tips to help you keep your emails manageable:

1. Block out time to do your emails.  Even though I can get through my emails in half an hour on most days, I schedule an hour each morning to do emails and then I feel really good when I finish up early, just like it feels when a meeting wraps up successfully before the time you’ve alloted.  Instead of constantly checking and replying to my email throughout the day which can distract me from my day’s tasks, I will check my email again before and after lunch and at the end of the day.

2. When tackling a batch of emails, start at the top and work your way down the list.  You might be tempted to answer the fun ones or the most pressing emails first, neglecting the others for another time.  Warning–it’s those neglected others that become clutter and clog up your email inbox, making it harder to see and address those important emails.

3.  Use email folders for storing emails that you want to answer later.  I use a “reply later” folder for my non-work related emails which I respond to after my prime working hours.    I can catch-up with a friend or help find a volunteer for my son’s classroom on my own time. Tucking these emails away for later keeps them out of sight and out of my mind while I am working.

4.  Use a folder for storing your online networking (Facebook and Linkedin) messages.  I respond to these in a batch once or twice weekly (I really don’t want to spend all of my free time on the Internet! After all, that’s what I do for work).  I find that I can keep up with my messages this way so that I am networking online and re-connecting with people.

5.  Another useful folder is for “Bills to pay.”  I park my online notices there until Tuesday when I sit down to take care of bills for the week.  Everything gets paid on time and I don’t have to look at the PG&E bill every time I review my email or worry that I’ll miss it this month.

6. Limit the number of folders that you will review later.  I use just the 3 described above.  The point is not to spend my time moving my emails from one file to another.  I do keep archive folders for emails that I need to keep around for reference but don’t review very often unless I am looking for something.  I have folders for client correspondence, events I am considering, resources I might want to investigate some day but not this week, groups I belong to, and topics I am interested in. I let the size of my email window dictate the number of folders I maintain so that I never have to scroll or open a folder to find a folder.

7.  Unclutter your email inbox.  You only want to look at and think about what you need to do today.  Everything else needs to be reviewed and responded to immediately (anything that can be done in 2 minutes or less, just do it per David Allen’s advice in Getting Things Done), stored in a folder to respond in a batch later, archived for reference, or deleted.

8.  Don’t be afraid to delete emails.  All sorts of useful information that you have requested either through Google Alerts, Yahoo group digests, e-newsletters, and blog notices will flood your mailbox every day.  Scan these for useful information.  Bookmark any interesting links for future reference.  Delete the email messenger, the email that delivered the information.  Trust your snap judgement on this one, if it doesn’t merit your attention now, when or why will you ever look for it again?  I love to think of the Internet as a vast storage system, holding all this information for me whenever I might need it.  And yahoo groups archive their messages already so I don’t bother keeping copies in my mail system because I can go to the message board and search for items posted in the past.

9. What do you think might slip through the cracks?  I used to worry about change of address notices because I store contact information in a couple of places.  Now I keep a folder of “database updates” to review whenever I am working on my contacts.  I will review the change of address notices and make the necessary revisions while I already have the database open.

10.  What about those smart mailboxes?  My mac has an interesting feature that will sort emails by predetermined criteria.  For example, all emails from a certain sender will be grouped in a smart mailbox.  I watched the demo at the Apple Store with interest but increasing horror as I say how it worked.  All of the emails stay at the level of the inbox.  When you select a smart mailbox, it pulls up the relevant emails.  Nothing is actually filed automatically for you, just searched and reprioritized for you.  I couldn’t imagine looking at that many emails all the time and not stressing out.  Each one is like a trigger to my brain and I would get lost in distractions if I had to look at all of my email all of the time.

Any other ideas for keeping your email inbox under control?

Want to keep your office lean and green?  Or do you just want to see the top of your desk again?  Get in the habit of using and keeping as little paper as possible in your office by following these 10 simple tips:

1.  Think twice before you print anything from your computer.  Better to create a PDF document to file on your computer where space is endless than a paper document you have to file in the limited space in your cabinet or desktop.

2.  If you do have to print something out, print on both sides of the paper.

3.  When you are done with the paper, shred it (if it contains confidential information) or recycle it.  Think twice before hanging on to it for future reference someday.  Keep a virtual copy in your computer filing system if you must hang on to it.

4.  Use the Internet as your filing cabinet for reference materials.  Bookmark all that interesting stuff you find or that finds you.  You don’t really need it on paper because it’s out there, waiting for your attention someday.  If it’s really critical reference information, see tip #1 about filing PDF documents on your computer because links are dynamic and content does change.

5.  Evaluate your paper clutter.  Do you need the whole paper or just the information from the paper?  Information belongs in your databases where you can search and find it as needed.  Store contact information in your database and events in your calendar.

6. Do your banking and pay bills online.  This will cut down considerably on the amount of paper mailed to you each month.  Be sure to download and file your statements as PDF documents now so that your bank isn’t tempted to charge you for it later.

7.  Scan receipts and other paper that you have to keep.  Your flatbed scanner on your all-in-one printer could do but the time it takes will discourage this habit.  A “Neat Receipts” scanner ( works quickly and is available for the Mac and PC.

8. You’ll have to use smart file names in order to find the documents fairly easily again.  One great idea is to prefix the filename with 4-digits for year, followed by 2 for month and 2 for date (2009_03_06filename…) so that the computer will sort the files chronologically.

9.  Back up your digital files regularly.  I’m sure you back up daily online and to an external hard drive, right?  If you are really going to really on your computer for e-filing, you need to make the system redundant.  Saving your digital files to a CD often works too.  Best practice would be to store those CDs in a safe deposit box, away from your computer so if disaster strikes…

10.  All that room left in your filing cabinet!  What should you keep in there?  Signed original documents such as birth and marriage certificates, contracts, deeds, etc.  If it’s really important, keep a copy in your file drawer and the original in a safe deposit box.    What else is there?  The stuff you need and want to keep forever like the artwork on your refrigerator door.  Tax returns from before the time you e-filed.  That lottery ticket that just might win.

We all get busy and tend to stash the things we know we are supposed to keep track of (like our business finances) into a pile to deal with later, when we have the time.  The pile grows until it becomes a sorting job that could take out your weekend.  In the interest of saving your weekend, you might hire someone to set-up your files or do it yourself.  A few tips from someone who looks forward to filing follow:

1) Pick up some basic file folders and print out these labels:

• Business Checking

• Business Savings

• Payroll

• 2 labels for each month: January, February, etc. as you will use these for filing your deposit records and your petty cash receipts

• A-C, D-F, G-I and so on through the alphabet (you will use these alpha files to file proof of payment of your bills)

• Telephone

• Utilities

• Rent

(and any other bills you pay monthly that you would like to separate out from the alpha files so that they will be easier to find)

• Business Credit Card

• Petty Cash

2) Put the labelled folders into a drawer grouped by income (here’s where you put your deposit records) and by expenses (where you put the bank and credit card statements, vendor files, and petty cash files).

3) Now you have a home for your basic bookkeeping records!  File statements into the appropriate folders and get in the habit of always putting the most recent statement on top or in the front of the folder so that your files will remain in chronological order.  If you print out reconciliation reports from QuickBooks, attach the January report to the January statement and so on.

4) But where do the receipts go?

• Cash receipts go into the monthly petty cash file folders.

• Put your credit card receipts into an envelope in your credit card statement folder.  When your monthly statement arrives, you can match and attach the receipts to the statement in chronological order so that the detail and the documentation they provide are available to you or your bookkeeper when entering data into your bookkeeping system.

5) What about the withdrawal slips?  Keep them in the checking account folder until the monthly statement arrives and then attach them to the statement they match.  Do the same for Point of Sale receipts and any paperwork for transfers of funds between accounts.

6) Deposit slips can be filed by month.  A good practice is to make a copy of the individual checks deposited to attach to the deposit slip so that you have a complete paper trail of these transactions to support your QuickBooks records.

7) To create a paper trail for your expenses, copy each check you write (or use a check stub) and attach to the invoice (bill) as proof of payment.  File these either in the separate vendor folders for those that bill frequently or into the alpha file folders.

These basic practices will keep your financial records in order to support your bookkeeping.  Keeping these records in order means that you will always be able to find proof when you need it.  You’ll be pleased by the time you’ll save when you have to find a receipt for an item you’d like to return or need to show the phone company that you really did pay your bill last month.  It will also be easier for you or your bookkeeper (or your assistant) to enter the information into your books.

Business owners need to know and track some basic financial information in order to make smart business decisions on a daily basis.  For a service business, the most important number to know is how much to bill for time on an hourly basis.  That number has to add up by the number of billable hours worked each month to a bigger number that covers expenses, self-employment taxes, and the owner’s draw.  Expenses include computer equipment, professional services, office supplies, rent, cost of medical insurance for owner (and employees), etc.  Those numbers add up quickly so it’s important to keep track of them.  Remember these numbers when speaking to potential clients and resist the temptation to offer discounts to bring in more business.  Be fearless about defending that number and your time!

I almost want to write that last line over again, just to let it sink in to my own head.  From the beginning, I have been on top of the dollar numbers and the hour numbers.  In my eyes, the number of hours worked were even more valuable.  And while I fearlessly defended the financial numbers, I starting slipping on the numbers of hours I was working.  More time put in to the business would make it a better business, right?  Only that wasn’t my vision driving my work and business.  How could I sacrifice my own family time to the siren call of just one more thing to do at the computer for my business?  I didn’t want to help others find their balance unless I could help myself first.  Over the New Year’s holiday, I resolved to be fearless about defending my time and making a real choice to stress less, even if it meant taking on the challenge of finding a job and letting the business just sit there on its own for awhile.

Job hunting?  How is that not stressful?  Once I started looking for a job, I created a whole new category of things to stress about it, if I let myself do that.  For the most part, I am trying to still be the fearless business owner by focussing on what I want and going out and getting it.  I just plug my ears and think “I can’t hear you” whenever someone tries to tell me how tough it is out there right now.  Believe me, I already know!  I am more interested in thinking and talking about what to do about it.  Here’s where I need to remember my own advice: be fearless about defending your number and your time.  Because it’s tempting to accept less just to get working and to get some money coming in.  But it just makes it harder to find and be open to what I’m really looking for.  So I went to my temp agency with my number and my hours.  I know that they are in a tough spot too and am glad that they called with some offers, even if they couldn’t match my numbers.  I had to say no, thanks to some of the temp work.  And I had to adjust my own expectations, this really was going to be a challenging process and going to take longer than I had hoped.

In the end, knowing my numbers as a job-hunter helps me make smart decisions about what opportunities I should pursue and which ones aren’t going to cover my monthly bills.  It’s never just about the numbers, of course.  It’s about my values, skills, and interests too.  I use all of these factors to filter all the possibilities out there and really focus on what I want and what I need and those positions that exist where those two overlap.  It ends up saving me a lot of time, my most precious resource.

Some businesses still expect to pay entry-level employees only $10-$15 an hour for administrative assistance.  This will pay for a warm body in a seat who may be bright and willing to take direction, if the time and management resources are made available for training this employee.  The business must provide a workspace, computer and other office equipment for this individual to use.   And the next one, once the employee gains skills and moves on to take a better-paying position elsewhere.

Smart businesses will pay $20-$25 an hour for more experienced assistance.  This wage may attract someone with the skills and motivation to do the job well.  Regardless of the workflow, during slow and busy periods, this person is paid to show up and work (and go to meetings).  Their performance and productivity is evaluated yearly and raises meted out accordingly.  Such a person still probably needs to be trained and managed which means the business needs to make those resources available also.  These businesses still have to pay for benefits such as sick and vacation pay, health care insurance, employment tax  and retirement plan contributions.  It’s quite a commitment of management and financial resources.

Really smart businesses will pay an online office manager $40 an hour or more for expert assistance on an as-needed basis.  The business will save money in the end because the “Virtual Assistant” or VA covers his or her own overhead expenses, benefits, vacation and sick time, and self-employment taxes.  The right fit will be a highly motivated professional who works either by the project or on an hourly basis.  Once a working relationship is established, the online administrator needs minimal supervision, provides his or her own training and office equipment, and only charges the business for productive working time.  The proof is in the results.  Did the work get done as agreed upon?  The online professional expects to be evaluated on his or her productivity constantly if he or she expects to be retained.

The solo service professional, whether he or she works from home or from a small office space, never really works alone.  Some of the lure of entrepreneurship is going it alone or taking on all of the responsibility for the company.  That may be so, but building the business involves engaging with many others.  Whether connecting with clients or colleagues, or collaborating with other professionals, doing business involves one in many relationships, in person and online.

Always seeking a better balance myself, I enjoy immersing myself in a project and working free from distractions in my own home office.  Such a space and time enables me to work mindfully and find the flow, the state in which we lose track of time and ourselves.  Working from such a space produces better work and greater satisfaction in the work, to the benefit of the client and myself.  I also really enjoy people and would start to feel isolated if I did not connect with others on a daily basis.  It’s easy to do by participating in discussion groups online and by attending weekly local networking events and following up with meetings for coffee and lunch with colleagues afterwards.  And of course, communicating with clients is all about creating and tending a professional relationship.  And asking others for help is always a wise move, whether it be for professional services that the business needs or the moral support that the owner needs.  And providing help to others in making connections or relieving other owners from some of the burden of the work they need to do to run their own company.   Starting one’s own company truly is a pleasure in terms of both working alone and working together.

My business offers office support services for other businesses, mostly for consultants and others who bill their clients for their time.  These business owners are under pressure to maximize their billable time so that work comes in, gets done, and brings in the money that keeps the whole enterprise going.  In the beginning, when the business is just one person doing it all, the ratio of billable to unbillable time is about 50/50.  That unbillable time is spent running the business, or taking care of all the administrative tasks required to do sales and marketing, client relations, database management, bookkeeping.

As the business grows, and more work comes in from more clients, the billablity of the owners’ time increases.  And the amount of administrative work is increasing too so the owner has more unbillable hours to put in to keep the business going.  Unfortunately, there are still just 24 hours in a day.  The amount of time available to do all the work, billable and unbillable, isn’t going to change as the business grows.  The smart owners are able to delegate the essential administrative tasks to others whether it be to an employee or to a virtual assistant like me.  These tasks get done and the owner has more time to spend on billable work or sales or on vacation, whatever the owner needs.

Are there other options?  Well, the owner can try to do it all.  But that owner will have to limit growth and turn away business so as not to exceed his or her capacity for doing the work.  The owner might try to just do the billable work and let the unbillable (unimportant?) tasks slide.  But that won’t work either as the administrative tasks are necessary for the quality of the work itself, excellent customer service, and control of the business’ finances.

It’s an interesting challenge for me as an office manager and business owner.  I know the importance of excellent administrative work and love to take over and get things organized, simplified, and well-documented for the overwhelmed business owner.  But as my own business grows, and more works comes in, I will eventually find myself in a similar position as many of my clients. With an insider’s view of the benefits of delegation, for sure I am going to avoid overwhelm in favor of delegation.  It’s a win-win for both parties.

As the owner of a service business, I know it is all about great customer service.  Many of the business owners I assist are service business owners themselves.  So we are in agreement that great customer service is important and central to doing business.  In an ideal world, the service provider would be able to recognize the value of great service and accept assistance when and where needed.  We all need help sometimes.  In the real world, the helper may have trouble asking for some help in the first place.  And once he or she asks for help, may have trouble accepting the help offered.  It can be hard to let go when the owner is used to doing it all by him- or herself.  Consequently, I have been thinking about ways to help a helper.  And it is advice that I myself shall have to heed as I am sometimes the helper in need of some help.

To use an example from my personal life, I’ve been considering how to help my mother.  All her life she has been focussed on taking care of others and I have often relied upon her steadfast support.  Recently she moved the family household and I jumped at the chance to offer some help to her.  Was there anything I could do from here?  After all, I was just starting my virtual assistance business and could do some work online for her as she does not own or use a computer.  She thought about it and did ask me to contact the magazines she subscribes to and notify them of her change in address.  That was easy to accomplish on her behalf so I started there.  I also researched lists of things to take care of when moving to a new state for her to consider.  I also created a simple change of address postcard for her to send out to her mailing list.  I would have gladly mailed them out for her but she preferred to send them out on her own at a later time, after she was settled in.  So I sent a stack to her with her new address and appropriate postage so that all she had to do was write a note to her friend and fill in the addressee’s information.

And then I listened…as she packed up the house herself and enlisted the aid of my brothers to move everything in several trips to her home six hours away.  At that point, I did suggest that movers are available to pack up and haul boxes but my family was determined that they could do it themselves.  I don’t think cost was the real issue although they might think they saved money by doing it themselves.  From what I heard, if they were to tally up the truck rentals, the time taken off work, the gas and mileage costs and all the labor my mother and brothers put into the move, it would have been a comparable cost.  The problem is that my mother did not consider the value of her own time.  So she spent her time to save some money.  The truth of the matter is that I think she enjoyed it and wanted to be in charge of the details and that is fine too as really it was her prerogative.

So the lessons I learned about helping a helper could be summarized as follows:

1.  Offer to help.  Ask if there any tasks that would alleviate the workload of the helper.

2.  Do these tasks promptly and efficiently for the helper.

3.  Suggest similar tasks that the helper hasn’t thought of yet that could be done just as easily.

4.  Do as many of these tasks as the helper will allow.

5. Listen to the helper.  It would be a mistake to do everything you can think of to help as the helper really might not need or want help with some tasks.

6. And then listen some more.  Sometimes the best support is just listening and showing appreciation for the work that the helper is doing without help.  It would be a mistake to continue to advise or perhaps even criticize once the helper has made a decision about what to do by him- or herself.

As I talk to potential clients, many of them helpers, and many of them women, not so coincidentally, I keep this path in mind as I offer my assistance.   What can I do to make their workload easier?  Usually there are a few tasks they just can’t seem to get to and that is a great place to start.  And then from my view on the inside, I can see and suggest additional assistance, often ways to simplify current practices.  Usually things that the owner is too busy to consider on his or her own.  Working together, we can sort out which of these things it makes sense to change and how to make those changes.  I can offer my experience and expertise in office management to enhance what has already been put in place by the owner.  Ultimately, our working relationship becomes a partnership as we figure out how to each do what we do and love best.  It worked for my mother and it works for my clients.  And I am sure that it will work for me too when it is my turn to ask for some help.