Archive for the ‘Finding Balance’ Category

Weeds: Remove Aggressively or Wisely

Pruning_ClientsWhenever the conversation turns to letting clients go I tend to think of weeding. It’s the gardener in me.

No one likes weeds in their garden, nor their business. Weeds consume us and take us away from the rewards of all our labor. Weeds feel like they suck the life out of us when we’re in their presence – they are time and energy drains. Weeds crowd out thriving, growing things instead of making space for all that surrounds. And weeds seem to have only their own agenda in mind never any concern for others.

When it comes to weeding is it better to remove aggressively so that they are completely eradicated? Removing all traces as if they never existed. Removing the weeds to make more space and time for better replacements to fill this space. Or, can a weed be coaxed and modeled into something more pleasing with a little TLC.

Hmm, a point for consideration.

In gardening, some would be surprised to learn that Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) is considered a weed yet containers are sold in numerous garden centers. It’s actually the state flower for Maryland – my home state. It can be found growing in meadows, along roadsides, or in planned landscapes.

One man’s weed is another man’s treasure.

Before the snap decision of removing a client from your client base prepare a checklist for your business to be sure that certain steps have been taken to reconsider this client. What should be on such a checklist? Things like On a scale of 1 to 10, how well does the client-type questions. By rating these responses on a scale you will quickly plot the answers and give a snapshot of what’s what.

Never base the decision solely on emotion because emotions are fickle. Much like anything else that is big shouldn’t be decided while emotions are raging, or plummeting. Releasing a client should be saved for a neutral, calm time.

Be certain the decision is sound. Ask a trusted colleague if they would read the situation the same way if you’re doubtful. Remember to consider things from the client’s side to reassess that communication wasn’t misunderstood. If the information was presented to a jury of your peers would they judge everything the same?

In the end only you can determine if it’s a weed or not. And mostly importantly, if it adds or takes away from the harmony and balance of your garden.

Don’t Dampen My Pixie Dust

pixie dustWhenever I get a client message that asks me to hold a slot in my work schedule for a project that is coming “soon” but isn’t finished yet I cringe. How does one accept projects, coordinate working with all of your many clients, and be nimble for a project that may arrive in 5 minutes, 5 hours, or 2 days from now?

I understand the client is trying to give me a heads-up that their project is coming with the hopes that I can give it top priority compared to what’s already scheduled and has my attention. What the client doesn’t always understand is the work already in my inbox is my work. I will do what I can but frequently tell clients I am not the VA for them if they want same-day-next-day turnaround.

Does this statement suggest I’m slow? Not at all and often times the client does get same-day-next-day completion but that truly depends on what is requested. How much time is needed to complete it? How much editing or fact-checking or polishing is needed? It also depends on how many projects are ahead of theirs. (Something few consider or care about. I get it. My total clients and work load are not of interest to them. In fairness, I rarely ask them about their projects or personal demands when I send an email asking for information to complete their work. I do try to work ahead and have enough overview of the project to give them lead time, whenever possible.)

I can’t work with a client that expects immediate turnaround. I have yet to meet a client who is willing to put me on retainer for a full day, every day of the week – being on stand-by for their projects – because that’s the only way I can assure same-day-next-day service. (Yeah, it’s unrealistic and a carry-over of the employer-employee mentality.) I am happy to give a turnaround time projection when I accept a project.

A Funny Thing Happen On The Way To The Project

My bread-and-butter line work is made up of long-term on-going retainer clients. We work together seamlessly and frequently in a single week (or day). These are the clients I work with closely, know their business operations well, and these are the clients that value what my business does for them. I take on a select number of on-going retainer work so that I don’t get overloaded and weighed down under projects.

My fill-in work is project-based which I love because projects have a set start and stop date. I can determine the volume of project work I take on based on what’s happening with my on-going retainer work. A fine example of project work is an ebook-to-Kindle book conversion. A usual book conversion turnaround ranges from 7 days to 2 weeks; depending on my availability.

One occasion that dampened my pixie dust on a conversion project was the author that wanted the work done but midway through lost their desire and interest to actually promote the book or add it to Amazon’s storefront. My conversion process doesn’t dictate or change when a person markets their book. My process gets the book ready so when the author wants to kick off their book launch the book format is completed. So what happened? A project that should have wrapped up in 2 weeks dragged on for 5 months while the client pulled and scraped together their marketing plans around holding a book launch.

It was inconsiderate of my time and had nothing to do with my conversion work. Having a completely formatted book in-hand wouldn’t have made them launch sooner than they wanted. So when they came back to have their second book formatted I explained that I couldn’t work with them. Their responsiveness on book one dampened my pixie dust. It hampered my creativity. It didn’t make me enjoy working with them. We did not work together on more conversion projects.

Their unresponsiveness to my emails took up time that I hadn’t account for in their initial quote. Therefore, I lost gross profit. When their project surpasses my timeline for project work it effects projects with my on-going retainer clients.

Empower to Maximize the Pixie Magic

The greatest gift a client can give to their VA is all the available information at once with an overview of the project. Keep the VA in the loop as changes or hiccups in the project development. Open communication is key.

I have some stellar clients that are amazing communicators so together we can plan and work together to keep the project moving forward. Our team work is what makes these types of working relationships magical and makes my clients think I do reach into my skills and knowledge bag to add a little pixie dust. I like when my clients set me up to successfully complete and maneuver around their projects. It’s a win-win for us both. I feel great working with them and on their projects. They feel great knowing their projects are in capable hands. (Psst – Not all of my clients know at our first meeting that I was named Most Dependable by my high school graduating class nor that a high work ethic was instilled in me all my growing up years. As we work together these traits come out. When I give my word, I do my best to stick to it and honor what I say I’m going to do.)

I adore that I am trusted enough to run with a project, knowing their preferences and work styles, so when I get an email that says “Do your magic,” I’m off. Clients empowering their VAs to work successfully on projects, having the access to information and log-ins wherever that may be, is really the ideal way to go.

Taming the Focus Busters

focus bustersRegardless of where you work interruptions will occur and have the capacity to zap, or dampen, your focus. How quickly after an interruption can you regroup and get back to what you were working on? Much depends on the type of focus buster you just experienced. Would you be surprised to learn that we interrupt ourselves as much as we get interrupted by external sources? It’s true.

A study conducted by Mark, Gonzalez, Harris summarized that an average task would be worked on for 11 minutes before an interruption kicks in. Often 25 minutes passed before the original task was continued. Back working on the original task, 8 minutes would pass until the same level of focus was regained before the initial interruption; leaving only 3 minutes until the next anticipated interruption. It takes effort to re-orient to the task. There’s a cognitive cost.

Identifying the Interruptions

Things that tap into our focus and take us away from work come in all shapes and sizes. After reading this list which one(s) frequently derail your focus in a single business day?

  • Phone calls
  • Emails
  • Not having a daily to-do list
  • Having no organization to how you work
  • Social media
  • TV
  • Your surroundings

I’m guessing you could identify at least two from this list, if not more.

Regaining Focus

  1. Work in chunks. Group similar tasks together and work on these during a set time of the day. For example, say 4 clients need the same type of service completed. Begin with client A’s project then repeat working in this area for clients B, C, and D even if client A has other projects to be completed. By working in this area you won’t need to stop and come back later when you’re ready for client B. You’ll be maximizing your momentum and most likely working with the same software and applications continuously.
  2. Reward your efforts. Take breaks throughout the day to step away from your desk, keep hydrated, and refresh your mind. A break of 5-10 minutes can make a noticeable difference. Even stepping outside for a few minutes of fresh air will be a great reward. Perhaps take a 10 minute break to connect with friends on social media or pick up your Kindle. Afraid you’ll extend your break too long? Set a timer and enjoy your reward.
  3. Music. Choose your genre and indulge. Studies suggest that working to music activates brain waves, lowers blood pressure, and boosts productivity.
  4. Under the radar.  If the surrounding noises and conversations are distracting reach for your ear buds or headsets. Temporarily shut off instant messaging and Skype while you work through the morning.

Improving Your Focus Stamina

If you find your focus waning and the distractions increasing then it’s time to practice strengthening your stamina. Like working out? Not exactly but it does come with some exercises that will aid you in sticking with a task and promotes feeling great about getting more accomplished daily.

  1. Begin with reading more. If you enjoy reading but don’t always make the time, this step will speak to you. Studies suggest that daily continuous reading of 30-60 minutes in length will strengthen your mind’s ability to focus solely on one task. Think of it as exercise for your mind. This exercise can be pleasure reading of a fictional story or business reading to sharpen a skill you’ve wanted to learn. The topic isn’t as important as reading for a specific amount of time.
  2. Commit to working uninterrupted for a set amount of time. Start off with 30 minutes of uninterrupted time and do this for a week. At the end of the week you should see measurably more accomplished. Then increase the time by 5-10 minutes until you’re working in 1 hour (minimum) intervals.
  3. Notice lazy work rhythms. We have natural recurring segments in our day that we are working at our peak and at our lows. Avoid scheduling tedious, detail oriented tasks during your natural low, draggy time of the day. For some that may be working hardest in the mornings. Others lag in the morning and find their mojo by mid-afternoon.

Listening Via Email

communicationI rarely have the privilege of meeting my clients face-to-face. Not all of my clients have ever heard my voice since we’ve only communicated via email. While some chuckle and wonder if I’m real or simply a more sophisticated version of Siri, I try to assure them I do exist. (Flashback to the 1970s Memorex cassette tape commercials with Ella Fitzgerald singing a glass shattering note and the announcer asking, “Is it live or is it Memorex?” The quality was so good, with the glass actually shattering, that no one could tell if Ella’s voice was live or recorded.)

I am a virtual assistant. I don’t need to work down the hall from my clients to be effective in my work. Distance is irrelevant. I am the right-hand partner to their projects. I am their go-to person to keep their office running smoothly and keep projects on track and on time.

One of the more unusual aspects of working as a virtual assistant (VA) for clients across the nation and around the world is that we seldom get an opportunity to shake hands or meet in-person. So, how does communication take place and secondly, how do we learn to understand each other when the visual cues of conversation (and sometimes the audio cues as well) aren’t part of our day-to-day interactions? We rely on intuitions and trusting and honing our instincts. We rely on taking time to get to know one another. We genuinely desire to understand one another. We want to work together.

For my part, I listen to the words chosen, to how instructions are given, and ideas are presented. When the individual writes their email to me, does their writing style reflect “short-and-sweet” responses or do they go into great detail and explanation? Each style speaks to how this person is most comfortable in sharing and exchanging information.

I’ve found matching styles helps to meet that person in their communication style. For clients that use lists, whether bulleted or numbered, I try to use a similar, familiar style in my responses to them. List writers are most interested in the main points and not the intricate details or processes that support these main elements. Get to the point and just give the facts please.

For those who delve into great detail I respond with a deeper level of what’s to take place within their projects so they quickly grasp that I understand and respect the intricacies of each step of their project.

By adapting my communication styles to complement and be most connective to each individual client I am being true to my own varying styles and strengthening our respective working relationships. So what are my own preferences? Honestly, it varies by the client and the project…I’m good in doing short-and-sweet, casual and fun, and detailed. Many times our communication styles seem to happen organically and naturally, and in my book, that’s the best. For a few clients we seem to have our own language and keywords unique to how we work together.

Until you discover your communication style with your clients, ask questions and listen. While technology can be wonderful in many ways it can hamper understanding by removing facial and audio cues. Whenever in doubt about correspondence pick up the phone and schedule a quick call. Hearing a smile during a conversation can quickly diffuse a brief email that may have been read as being terse and angry. Email correspondence isn’t perfect so find your communication rhythms.

My Productivity Secret Can Be Yours

productivity secretI work most efficiently when I bundle like tasks. But what if that client needs only a newsletter prepared monthly; nothing more? How can that be bundled? The bundling comes in how I move through projects in my schedule and throughout my day.

Taking newsletters, for example, I know that my clients typically send out their respective newsletters the beginning of the month, around the 15th and some during the final week of the month. There are three main times that I work on newsletters so I schedule a day or two during these times of the month to work on newsletter projects back-to-back. If someone has a newsletter come in during another time it’s taken care of. Bundling the same types of tasks while I work saves me from switching gears to think about doing research for a copywriting project, 75 minutes later getting into the technical side of newsletter creation then 60 minutes after that writing social media posts or working as a client’s project manager for their business.

The requests that come in can vary widely from admin support to marketing and writing projects to consulting or project management. Switching my focus so frequently throughout the day can be exhausting so my system is to work on similar tasks as I progress through my to-do list. I keep a running list, by client, on my whiteboard. It’s easy to see at a glance which projects are similar and plan accordingly.

One question I am often asked is, “Do you have time to work with me?” Usually this comes from someone who’s visited my website and is inquiring about services. It’s a fair question. The question comes while we’re having our assessment call to see if we’d be a good match to work together and if my services will meet the level of support they are seeking. No one wants to start out with a company only to learn later on that the VA is overcommitted.

What this person doesn’t know is that prior to our appointment I have reviewed my schedule and assessed the needs they have initially expressed – making a decision in my mind about how much time will be needed. Knowing what’s on the calendar for the month allows me to take on clients confidently knowing that productivity and efficiency won’t dip for any of my clients.

Now, you may be wondering if I additionally bundle my email management. For me, I do not. I applaud those who set specific times to review and answer emails but that doesn’t work for me. I keep my email open during office hours and have an audio alert for incoming emails – my little man…he announces “You have mail!”

When the little man makes his announcement I may glance at what’s come in and from who but that doesn’t mean I reply immediately. There are times that a reply must come immediately but often I can finish the work at hand and then address the email. Rarely is something on fire; requiring I drop everything. For those who answer emails at set times of the day I’ve often wondered what they do for those urgent emails that do require an immediate response. And I’ve wondered how they would handle interruptions that happen frequently in traditional offices such as answering phones and greeting office guests.

To me, email is like phone calls coming into the office or guests/clients who cross the threshold of your business. A receptionist wouldn’t ignore a ringing phone to finish an entire project nor would that person ignore someone standing in front of them who came to do business. But that’s a topic for another day…

Being a Mommy Professional

Does your professionalism ebb and flow with the changing seasons and school breaks? Find it harder to keep that crisp edge with a house full of energetic kids (plus an added playmate or two) or with preschoolers 24/7 year round? I’m here to tell you that regardless of the time of year it IS possible. What’s the secret? A bit of pre-planning.

Pre-planning from snacks prepared ahead in the right grab-n-go size, to having a supply of rainy day projects in a special box – pulled out for those moments you need to really focus for 20 minutes of uninterrupted bliss, to covering the desktop in shaving cream for a little lime scented finger-painting. Taking the time to line up some activities can be such a stress reducer and an empowerment tool that enables you to do what you do best without worries. No one knows your child and his attention span like you do so plan accordingly (and individually).

One of the biggest stealers of professionalism surrounds phone calls with child noises in the background so let’s review some solutions:

Pre-planned phone time: Most teleseminars are 60 minutes with phone consults being 30-60 minutes and isn’t it perfect that children’s videos come in those same time frames. There’s no guilt in allowing your child to enjoy his favorite movie for this snippet of time while you teach a seminar or participate in one. Remember to keep the sound down or better yet use the tv in the adjoining room. Rather not do the video thing? The art/craft box, Play Doh, Legos, and books are equally quiet alternatives. A favorite here, when my son was young, was to line up clothesbaskets in a straight line and let him toss sponges or sock balls into each one. Take a step back and try again. Each turn he’d take another step back and continue tossing. If your child still takes a nap try to schedule calls around sleep times.

Remind the youngsters that when they see Mom on the phone or with the headsets on it’s time to use their quiet inside voice and wait to ask questions or to show you something. Kids are very visual so go ahead and set the kitchen timer for the call’s length. They’ll see the time decreasing knowing it won’t be long till you’re totally there’s again. The timer works well if you’re pressed to finish up a project and need another 20 minutes. The key is to keep the time bites small and shower the child with praise and attention when the time is up.

And what if your child does make noise that’s heard? It’s okay, really. No need to panic, just explain that your child happens to be in the office today and then continue with your conversation. In today’s working office it’s understood that there will be days that a child will need to be in the office for whatever reason. It’s not necessary to explain you work from a home office if this isn’t something you haven’t previously shared.

Pre-planning helps you say good-bye to the stresses that rob you of being the constant professional that you are – keeping that image intact.