Monday, April 5, 2010

Client discontent with VAs?

I recently read an overseas article about the possibility of our industry being on shaky ground. It made interesting reading, reporting amongst other things, that business owners at a conference had commented that they were not entirely happy with the service they received from their VAs. The lady who wrote the article was shocked to hear this, but also not surprised. This set me thinking because, after all, there are three sides to this that need to be considered - the client, the VA and the middle ground. As in everything in life there is good and bad on all sides, and it may be that some of the complaints were really genuine, whilst others stemmed from something that concerned an unvoiced expectation that was therefore not heard and acted upon.

Our business is really no different from any other service business, and frankly every business in the world is in service of a sort in that they all supply others with a widget and/or a service. And like every other business we do not always get it right for one reason or another. Sometimes these problems are our fault and sometimes they are the client’s fault, and sometimes they are down to external interference that we are not in control of.

Right up front I am going to say that it is a good idea to clarify what a client’s requirements and expectations are in writing. Create a standard guideline of hours etc., and hand to each new client along with a contract. This is useful for both you and your client, because if anything comes up at a later date it can be checked. It also lays out certain boundaries; your personal life being one of them.

The problem is that often clients tend to look at VAs as being available almost 24/7 – because they work from a home office. This is an expectation that you need to address right up front with any client, since this changes the whole perspective with regards to expectations being met. If you have no problem with being available 24/7 this is fine, but in reality we all have lives of our own and a client should not rule this side of your life, you should since it is your business. If you start out being available 24/7 with a client that client will expect this service all the time instead of this being a service that you might offer on a one off occasion that is mutually agreed upon. Be aware that once a client knows you will work outside normal hours they might be tempted to do this more and more.

Some of the complaints listed are that VAs do not:

• provide timely responses to their clients
• assist with the occasional request that requires quick turn around
• complete tasks before the agreed to deadline
• communicate appropriately or ask questions to clarify details
• pay attention to details - making sloppy errors regularly
• manage the priorities of all their clients well (leaving clients to feel their stuff is unimportant and at the bottom of the list)

I am sure every VA can equate with these. We are all human – not superhuman, and some of these things would for various reasons probably also happen in an office environment. If you have clients who have steadily encroached upon your own time outside of reasonable office hours the chances are that you will encounter most of these problems, thus affecting all your clients. One unreasonable or demanding client can ruin it for all your other clients as it means that you have to juggle your plates-on-sticks faster and faster to manage not just your working life but also your private life. If you have a client like this you really do need to make a decision about whether to suggest they find someone else, whether they should be considering hiring someone to work for them only, or whether to speak to them about the way their business demands have steadily but surely encroached upon your life and that of your other clients, and that you need to come to a different arrangement. Whatever you choose you need to ensure that this client understands the whys and wherefores of your decision so that you still maintain a good relationship and that they do not move on to someone else with the view that you were unreasonable.

This situation often arises from bullet point two, where you do assist with an occasional urgent turn around time, and the client takes advantage of this and starts expecting it more and more, purely because it was not set out at the start what both parties’ expectations were. Just because your client works odd hours, is an insomniac, and so on does not mean that you should be expected to as well. In turn your client has expectations that this be the norm and if you are not compliant or make mention of it you are then the one being unreasonable, since a) this has been the norm up to that point b) it was not laid out in an initial agreement as to what hours/days you were available and c) the client then becoming disgruntled and telling others that he/she is not happy with VAs. It is not reasonable to expect a contractor/VA to work all the hours under the sun. Worse still these types of clients will now have the expectation that any VA will work 24/7 and furthermore should be. You have created an expectation of the VA industry.

I think point one speaks for itself, but again you need to discuss with your client what their expectation of a timely response is. Some people check their emails all the time, others at set intervals or times, so you need to decide how this will work with your workloads, and be realistic when telling a client. If you are right on a deadline with a job and a client emails you, but you only check your emails every half hour or hour for example then you need to put this in your contract or business guideline – and stick to it. Many of us work alone and use a call answer service to pick up our incoming calls if we are working on something where we do not wish to be interrupted. This is normal practice but if you do this make sure that your clients understand, and get back to them as soon as possible.

I think that it would be peculiar if any client did not realise that he/she is sharing you with other clients, and take this into consideration in your business relationship with themselves; having said that each client obviously feels that their priorities should come first. Juggling several clients can be tricky, but if you build your client base carefully and ensure that each client knows the basics such as your hours, normal turn around times [always overestimate, never underestimate; if something can go wrong it will] and so on right at the start, then, barring a major catastrophe such as your equipment being stolen or your office burnt down or whatever, you should be able to ensure that all your clients are satisfied.

I will come back to the matter of normal working hours here, since this plays a big part in how you manage your clients. If you are continually being pushed by one or more of your clients to work outside of normal hours, over weekends, at night, on public holidays, you will inevitably find yourself battling to meet each of your clients’ deadlines and expectations. The reason? Because you have no ‘spare’ time in which to work, because you are already over extended with regards to the hours you work. This is very important because you are not only messing up your own work and private life but that of your clients too. By working all the hours under the sun you are not doing anyone any favours.

This brings me to another point that I do tend to belabour – fees. If you undercharge for your work/services you will find yourself working ridiculous hours to make ends meet. Take a step back and ask yourself, what is the point? You are living to work. You have no work/life balance. Ultimately you will be the loser, both financially and with your overall health. If you have a nervous breakdown, or lose your home, what matter is that to your clients? Your clients will move on to someone else, doubtless complaining that they did not get good service or you let them down.

Completing tasks before the agreed deadline; this comes down to agreeing deadlines. Always ensure that you get as long a deadline as possible. We do not live in a perfect world, and being a VA you should be very aware that the internet does not always play ball. Obviously some clients have extremely urgent deadliness but try and encourage your clients to let you have work early in order for you to be able to work on theirs timeously, or to resolve any problems with that work. Often clients will sit on work, maybe leaving it until the next day to give it to you or whatever. If you know one of your clients often does this then try to ask for the work; in other words chase your client. Short/shortened deadlines often mean problems in many other ways such as download times, the client giving you the wrong work and so on, and this in turn puts you behind with a deadline and also creates problems with your contractors, if you use others to assist you with larger jobs, AND your other clients. Clients do not take cognisance of this as a rule. It is a good idea to put some information regarding this in your work guideline for clients and any contract you draw up.

Having several clients can mean that you have to take cognisance of different parameters or ways of working that each of your clients like. This and working too many hours can lead to problems with making errors. There are several ways of doing your best to solve this problem. Aside from sticking to reasonable hours of work, on your computer have a file for each client and create an information document within this file that has pertinent information such as uses USA letter style, or likes follow-up hyphenated, prefers [inaudible] to [unclear] and so on. Some people keep a hard copy file too, and keep this next to them when they are doing work for that client. If the information document is clipped to the front cover or is the face page in the file it is there to hand to glance at. This is particularly important if you do not do regular or daily work for one of your clients. Always take out/open this information document and check it over before starting on that client’s work. As with most people we sometimes get a ‘blind’ mental block of odd words and can type them wrongly time after time without realising, for example.

Another reason for making sure you have agreed deadlines that are as long as possible is so that you can proofread your work. Clients do not realise this is important and that it is time consuming. Make sure always to point this out to clients in a client guideline. If they demand short turn around times you cannot guarantee the quality of your work.

If you work normal, regular hours with limited overtime, [as you would if you were working for a company], you will be more in control of your own life and your client’s work quality. You will have the time to make sure all your clients feel that they are important to you, that you care about their work. Having too many clients is detrimental all round. Again, this comes back to your fees. Make sure you are charging proper rates. I a client says it is too expensive point out that the bigger companies charge this and more and furthermore he/she is getting a more personal service. If you find that your workload is creeping up and taking over your life then maybe it is time to shorten your client list or take on someone to assist you.

Make sure you are doing the best for your client AND for YOURSELF, as well as the VA industry. At the end of the day they amount to the same thing.

© Copyright 2010 Corinna Turner. All rights reserved.
Cape Winds Virtual, /

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