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How do you build trust in a working relationship with another professional that you do not meet in person?  The simple answer is that trust is like love: you have to give it to get it.  And that can be a little tricky over the Internet, can’t it?

1) Thanks to Facebook and the fun of re-connecting with friends online, I got over my own reluctance to share personal and public information.  Fortunately, I learned the lesson way back in 8th grade that you should never put anything in writing while passing notes in class that you don’t want everyone to read.  Same rules apply on the Internet.  But you probably already know that from using email in a professional capacity.   So comfort in sharing personal and public information online would be a good first step to building trust into an online working relationship.

2) Social media applications like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter seem to replicate the natural way people get to know one another offline by using word-of-mouth and referrals.  So I can meet friends of friends, the people I already know and trust, and get to know their friends too.  I can follow my own interests and curiosity to discover the people I find interesting, appealing, and trustworthy.  In doing so, I’ve noticed trust-turnoffs such as spamminess, too much direct sales effort, and sometimes, just too much whether it be personal information or number of postings.  It’s a lot like going to a party and meeting other people who are temperamentally similar.  I tend to meet one or two people that aren’t about being the center of attention and are content with longer conversations with fewer people.  You might call that reserved.  Because relationships may develop more slowly this way, I find that I trust people the longer I have known them (and the amount of time that passes in which they have done nothing untrustworthy).

3) “Trust, but verify” is good advice to follow.  In other words, I can assume that the people I meet to do business with online are trustworthy.  But I might check out their online presence, recommendations, profiles, etc. to see if it matches their representation of their services.  Yelp and online networking resources are a great way to verify someone in terms of trustworthiness.  Calling and checking references works too.  Phone consultations are a great opportunity for the client and the service provider both to verify that the person lives up to their online presence.

4) And I recommend starting out slowly, trusting someone enough to buy a small package of services, as a trial before committing to a longer term working relationship.  Many virtual assistants have developed protective policies proactively, such as payment in advance or a retainer for a fixed amount of hours.  I completely understand the need for these boundaries and clear policies in writing for both parties before engaging in the working relationship.  But as a consumer, I want to see an easy and clear exit door for me, just in case things don’t work out.  The best virtual assistants write their working agreements with the client in mind too so that both the client and the service provider feel that the terms have been clearly communicated for the benefit of both parties.

6) And finally, trust is a work in progress.  Both parties learn as they go how to best communicate, satisfy deadlines, and work requirements.  Underpromise and overdeliver is the advice you’ll hear over and over.  Enough said.  Trust in a working relationship is built on communication and doing what you said you would do when you said you would do it.  But do give it time.  Just as it takes awhile to really get to know someone, it will take 3-6 months of working together to build the foundation of a trusting relationship.

What have you found essential for building trust in your online professional relationships?


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.

Who has time to do add something new to the to-do list?  Artist, teacher, and entrepreneur Nancy Willis was understandably reluctant to start blogging or take on any social media beyond Facebook.  Her weeks are already full with her class schedule at Napa Valley Community College, workshops at Nimbus Arts, an active studio practice, and catering gigs to keep it all going.  Like many entrepreneurs, she is too busy doing the work and needs some help running the business, in this case, with marketing.  Of course, being her friend and an online office manager, I recommended hiring a Virtual Assistant!  Short of that option, I have been keeping an eye out for some DIY solutions that would not add anything to her workload but make what she’s already doing work a little harder for her.

My first thought was a blog as Nancy keeps her friends updated with tales of her studio progress, art residencies, and workshops by email already.  For example, just last month, she threw a dinner party for her friends which was professionally photographed for a future project.  Followers of Nancy’s work are familiar with this “dinner party” theme in her paintings and she continues to explore this idea in video paintings.  The photos were gorgeous and her telling of the evening enjoyable and had all the makings of a blog post.  But Nancy doesn’t have a blog.  She does have a website, a static page with some images of her paintings, but no time or know-how to keep it up to date with her offerings.  Most of us can relate that technology is tough to chase.  Nancy was not interested in taking on the task of blogging.

The next email from Nancy related her trip to Sundance as the featured artist and the bidding war that occurred over her painting.  Fascinating and fun stuff!  With her annual open studio sale coming up, this content needed to be out there on the web to stir up interest in her work beyond her already large circle of friends and admirers.  Her next email announcing her open studio and 2 simultaneous showings of her work at Napa wineries Mondavi and Hall came into my inbox and sat there.  Had it been a blog entry, it could have taken up residence on the web for browsers to find.  I wanted to tweet about it and announce to my Facebook friends that Nancy’s art was on display and would make a great weekend trip.  But none of this information was on her website so there was no place to send twitterers or my Facebook friends for more information or the details.  Does this sound familiar to any of my artist friends out there?

Meanwhile, I just learned about Posterous during a social media workshop here in the city.  Looks like all Nancy, or any artist or busy entrepreneur, needs to do is email photos and text which the site posts for an instant blog effect.  You can check it out for yourself at (for the casual blogger).  This may be a great solution for someone like Nancy who has great things to say and the photos to back it up but no place to put it all on the Internet.  Our plan is to test-drive posterous this week with some photos from her first weekend of her open studio show.

Just about a year after I left a job to start my own business, I was stuck.  I could remember those first bright months when I was all potential and energy and had the confidence I needed to put up a website, print business cards, write a business plan, and expand my professional network.  I had plenty of ideas then and what I didn’t know, I knew how to learn.  It was exciting.

A year later, I was getting a little nervous that things weren’t turning out quite as planned.  I was working harder and harder and my plan had been to work smarter, not harder. As a virtual assistant, I offer that much to my clients. And here I was, putting in a full day with my son and staying up late to work on my business.   It was exhausting.

Something had to change.  I had to follow my own advice, to slow down and think about the business and to get some help doing that.  That’s when I started working with a mentor for Virtual Assistants.  My mentor’s own successful business was a great model and I was impressed by the way she laid out a program for our working together.  It was inspiring.

Honestly, I  didn’t think I would ever take her up on her offer of a 15-minute “burst” session but after a particularly trying week, I wondered “What am I waiting for?”  We sorted out what I was offering to clients, tasks, and what I really had to offer clients, more of a strategic partnership.  I also needed a little push past some procrastination on my part about buying a new computer before mine crashed.  What was I waiting for?  I dove in and took the time to get a new computer set-up, change my service offerings, and makeover my website.

I even reconsidered my pricing structure to better align with the new mindset proposed for me, that of a business owner rather than an employee.   Letting go of the old made more room for new ideas.  Now I am racing to keep up with them and making the changes that will bring me closer to success in my business!

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.

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.