Correspondence: How to Safeguard Your Valuable Time

Stuck in Time

How many times have I sat down to reply to a client’s or a future client’s email and ended up spending an hour carefully crafting a response, off the clock? Lots of times. So many times. Somehow, because of my own indiscretion, I’ve just spent a boatload of unbillable time giving my talent for free. There are strategies to safeguard that time though. Here are a few I’ve come to put into action.

The BIG GOAL: reduce the amount of “touches” (times you have to email someone) and the length of those compositions while increasing the amount of satisfaction or support your customer needs/wants.

Set autoresponders on your business email account, even when you’re not on vacation.

An automated response that clearly defines when someone should hear back from you and what you hope to see when you come back to your inbox is sometimes a breath of relief for your client. It also sets boundaries for your working relationship with them. Win win. Something like this:

“Hi there, thanks so much for reaching out. I get a lot of correspondence and always try to promptly answer emails within 24 hours. Please be sure to let me know what you need and how I can help.” Something like that. Maybe giving a couple of suggestions of how they can solve their own problems would be good, especially if you tend to get similar requests sometimes. (Canceled appointments, I can’t find this or that resource on your website, how can I pay you, that kind of thing.)

This is a fantastic option for people whose jobs aren’t to sit in front of a computer. If you’re an instructor, trainer, sea captain, landscaper, restauranteur… this will work wonders for you.

Want me to help you write and brand one? Email me.

Always relay terms of turnaround time first when responding to a request.

Perfect to avoid, “How’s it going?” type emails that can crowd your inbox in between committing to some work and the time when you’re going to finish a deliverable. Give yourself plenty of time. This is that grand old “under promise, over deliver” paradigm I really like to employ. Give yourself some time to get things done and explicitly relay what you plan to deliver and when you plan to deliver it.

Use gmail? Have “canned responses” ready for frequently asked questions.

Canned Responses is found under "Labs" in "Settings" on gmail.

Canned Responses is found under “Labs” in “Settings” on gmail.

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 9.59.13 AM

Enable “Canned Responses” in “Labs.”

What are your rates? What is your philosophy of teaching? What services do you offer? I need to cancel our appointment, how do I reschedule? If you find you’re writing the same thing over and over again, or want a template for something (student evaluation, rate quote, thank you note), create a canned response for it.

You can always drop the canned response in, add their name and an opening sentence that sounds more personal, but there’s no need for you to be lovingly composing your shop’s hours or your billing policies over and over again.

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 10.20.10 AM

Now when you compose an email, “Canned Responses” is an option in the menu on the lower right corner.

In gmail, go to “Settings” and click on “Labs.” Enable Canned Responses and be sure to click “Save Changes” up above the list of Labs. Now when you go to compose an email, click the down arrow menu button next to the delete button in the compose screen, and you’ve got the ability to set new Canned Responses.

There are lots of other great tools in the labs too. Check them out.



Use filters or segregate emails into different email accounts for work and pleasure. 

You know the scenario: you’re out for cocktails, waiting for a bus, or making some dinner and casually look at your phone, finding a work email that takes your attention from what you’re doing. That’s your time! Thus opens a slow leak of unbilled time accumulating in a few minutes here and a few minutes there. I know it feels like you’re being helpful and productive, especially when you’re first starting out as a business, but this has far-reaching, negative ripples. Normally, whatever you were doing doesn’t get done and the email you write is hurried. Then, there you are emailing during your vacation, your evening, or your fun times and the expectation of your clients and customers is going to shift to a dark place where you appear to be available any old time. See two suggestions down. We deal with this.

Set a 200 word limit on responses.

Brevity is the soul of wit, and it’s also the savior of time and sanity. You can say pretty much everything you need to say with fewer words. Give it a try. Compose your responses in a word processing program away from the browser that counts words for you.

Set an amount of time each day for dealing with correspondence.

One hour, two hours- some reasonably-set amount of time at whichever time of day is convenient for writing back to people via all your channels (email, facebook, etc). Resolve to check your email during that time and then maybe one other time later in the day to be sure everything is buttoned. Also, outside of that time, close your email when you’re not using it, especially if you’re job isn’t primarily to correspond with people.


Have some tips and tools you’ve tried that I don’t mention here? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Blogs Can Sell Your Stuff

Vintage Fisher Price cash register toy

I just read a great article on Flyte’s blog about a blog post nailing a business to business sale. It got me thinking about how, boy howdy, that’s just what I’m doing here! It’s also what a few of my clients end up asking me about from time to time. I tell them that heck yeah they should have a blog, a well written one, too- one that sells their stuff.

I’m going to be brutally honest. I write a blog post now and again so you can hear my voice and see my writing chops. I also get to share important information that I think will be useful to you as an admin or as a person who employs an admin, and I always hope I’m starting good conversations.

If you think of your website like a swiss army knife and like your business as the thing that tool can work to improve, one blade you pull out is your “contact us” page. Another is the landing page, on which someone can find how to contact you, what you do, and what to do next (invite to action). So what’s the blog in this Swiss army knife of ours?

I can tell you very quickly what it’s not: it’s not something to put a copywriter on who isn’t very familiar with your voice and branding. It’s not something to put the first post on and then ditch forever (please take it down). And it’s not something you “need.” You can get along without it if you can’t generate content for it.

More importantly, you should focus on what your blog can BE. Like I said- it can be helpful, sales-oriented, and informative about both your product and your customer service. All the while, you’re building this massive bank of words, industry-specific words that pump up your placement in search engine results. You thought you were just having fun, and it turns out you were turning into an SEO expert.

Want to bat around some blog article ideas with me or ask me how I can help? Comment here or send me an email.

The Challenge of SWAG, or alternatively, How To Really Treat Your Future Clients

my life's logos

I went to visit my parents this last week, and my mom and I were sharing some views about the fact that as admins, we find ourselves sourcing some things to give away at trade shows and conferences, and that the both of us aim to choose things that meet the trifecta of quality, consistency of brand, and usefulness.

You don’t want whatevertheheckitis you buy to end up in a trash bin, and this whole conversation was inspired by a slightly terrible umbrella she had come across. A cutesy idea, this thing was a plastic wine bottle, wherein the body of the bottle, when removed, was an umbrella and you can imagine that the handle of the umbrella was the neck of the bottle.

Immediately, as a lady who enjoys food and drink, I saw a problem here. Normally the roles are reversed. Especially during prohibition times, you’d be hiding the alcohol inside the umbrella, not the umbrella inside the alcohol. On top of all that, the quality was BUNK.

Back when I was working for a laboratory, our most popular piece of swag was a double-ended Sharpie. Not a knockoff marker, but a high-quality pen with the ink we all know and love to be permanent (important for environmental samples in the field). Our logo was in the middle, nice and legible with the phone number, and everyone was using them consistently. They asked for a new one if it was lost or ran out of ink. THAT’S a nice piece of swag.

My mom remembered one, too- she was working with a lot of software engineers  and hardware designers, and she found a pocket-friendly multi-tool that was a screwdriver/magnet/LED light/etc. It was so useful that people would come by the conference booth after seeing one of them, roped in by the siren song of usefulness.

There are lots of amazing items out there to pick from, and many aren’t even offered by the traditional “slap your logo on this piece of plastic junk” companies. My advice? Think of the object, the gift or sales item you would give to current and future clients, and then figure out how to get one that’s distinctly yours, rather than looking through random objects, trying to figure out how your logo would look on them.

And in the meanwhile, do check out Decomposition Books, and how you could send high-quality notebooks into the world with graphics on them or google up/pinterest search some neat ideas. I found some outside-o-the-box stuff here and here.

Take Time to Save, Protect, and Develop Passwords

Key To My Kingdom

I saw a funny joke about passwords today. Passwords are like underpants: you shouldn’t leave them out for everyone to see, you shouldn’t share them with friends, and you should change them frequently.  I do have most of mine memorized, but then again, I also have many that need frequent changing and that protect sensitive information. It’s important to have different passwords for all your accounts– good passwords that can’t be guessed. Here are two great tools I’ve found for managing the most important aspects of passwords.

Generate a Good Password

Print yourself one of these password cards and generate passwords from there. This site generates completely random combinations of symbols for these, and yours will be unique.

Keep Those Passwords Safe

LastPass acts as a gateway, allowing you to save those impossible to remember passwords and login with just one key password to all of your stuff.

What are you using to protect your passwords for home and business? What do you like about it?

Keeping your Head in the Game with Low Level Noise

Photo credit: George Eastman House, Creative Commons

Photo credit: George Eastman House, Creative Commons

Some people get their best work done in libraries, cafes, and other bustling places. It turns out that there’s been lots of research done about this, and in kind, some websites are out there with convenient, appropriate noisemakers for telecommuting or muting out your office mates.

Here are a few good ones for you to try out!

Rainy Cafe – Play the rain, play the cafe, play a custom mix of the two.

Noisli – Even has a distraction-free text editor, the ability to mix/match sounds, and a great palette of changing colors.

Rainy Mood  – Click on “Today’s Music” to hear the rain and a musical selection (entire album) at the same time.

Ambient Mixer – Tons and tons of sounds to choose from.

Search Up #vatip for Some Good Suggestions

A few tweets from the end of February, examples of #vatip posts.

A few tweets from the end of February, examples of #vatip posts.

Whether you’re swamped with your work and could use some administrative help or if you’ve ever just wondered what in the heck virtual administrative assistants even DO, Twitter has some answers for you.

Search for the hashtag #vatip, and virtual assistants all over the place are sharing what their skills are, what they’re doing for their current clients, ideas that have popped up while working on various projects, or things they wish they were doing more of.

When looking for a VA, you might want to consider a few important things.

Not all VAs are equal.

Sometimes the work that needs doing is something that also requires a bit of savvy or previous experience, something that needs some decision-making or creative problem solving. Maybe it’s a regular task you’d like streamlined while it’s done, and at the end you’d like a document that outlines a new standard operating procedure that any person could pick up and use to duplicate the process. Other tasks involve handling sensitive information, like company passwords, email addresses, or customer information. For these, of course you can get references and have your VA sign a non-disclosure agreement- but you should work with someone you really enjoy working with. Someone you can trust. I don’t totally want to dis cheap international VA firms, but having one person on some of these tasks is best for all those reasons you can imagine.

If you’re one of these people, you probably need a VA.

Creatives, sole proprietors, non-computer savvy people who work with their hands, artists… I’ve worked for all these sorts of people. In every case, they were amazing at what they were doing, but really needed someone to nail down systems or to help with their growth.

For example: an artist is great at painting. Then there are all these paintings. Assembling a statement with examples of recent works and sending that document along with a well-made press packet to a wishlist of galleries in other cities, thus landing new gallery shows and beefing up their resume, would be a great thing. The artist continues to paint, the VA takes on that press packet task. No struggling to find the time or to learn how to make a pretty press packet. Come up with a budget, hire a VA with previous experience who understands a bit about how galleries work. Done.

Know what you want, but be ready for advice, too.

Most times I’m working WITH rather than FOR my clients. As a person augmenting your passionate pursuits, virtual assistants have a unique perspective. I often have ideas for ways to expand, things to cut, and ways to streamline. I’ll have edits I want to make to documents or websites or I have things I think they don’t need to spend energy on anymore. I often find myself gently offering advice to my clients that saves them time, money, and hassle. In fact, beyond the tasks themselves, I see this as my chief mission as a consultant. I’m not here to be obedient. I’m here to make a positive impact.

Hiring a coach? Maybe you need a virtual admin.

This one is pretty self-explanatory, considering that last paragraph. If you’re feeling chaotic or like you’re running in circles, maybe you just need someone to take a look at HOW you’re working and actually do some of the legwork to make it better. Having a coach tell you what you maybe might need to do is all well and good. If you’re in the weeds or trying to get bigger, you need more hands. More brains would be awesome too, right?

How about you?

I have more thoughts about how admins could help you. Costs nothing to chat with me and discuss some ideas. An email back and forth with me could change how you think about your work and about the value another brain, another set of eyes, and another attitude along with you in your endeavors.

Taking Care of Your Electronics: Planned Obsolescence Be Damned

Oldschool mac buttons

“If you take care of your stuff, it will last a long time,” my dad has always said.

He’s right, because he still has his mac, just like the iconic one in the picture there, and he does a little part of his work on it. He also has a big iMac, too, but that little guy is still going strong.

There are some technical software things that you can do to lengthen the life of your technical gadgetry, but what about cleaning, handling, and protecting them so they physically last a long time? Having those things last for years is good for the bottom line and good for the environment.

Here are a couple of tips I’ve scrounged up and I’ve learned from experience. I hope you find them helpful!

1. Phone cases aren’t just jive turkey accessories.

Protect your investment with something that keeps gunk out of the crevices, buttons, microphone, and charging port. I suggest something that’s also, at least somewhat, waterproof and that would cushion a drop. It protects from much more than just accidents, but everyday that device is in your linty pocket, your dusty handbag, or your trusty-but-rarely-cleaned backpack. On that front, I’d suggest a lifeproof case. Treat that phone or tablet like what it is: an expensive little computer, deserving of your respect.

2. Cases for computers work pretty darn well.

I’ve had my incase sleeve for my macbook (13″, celebrating our 7th anniversary together) and it’s helped protect it from my linty backpack and even played a role, I’m sure, in protecting it from a near-catastrophic fall early on in my ownership.

3. Cords need love too.

Cords have all sorts of crevices that can get crap stuck in them, and then subsequently, get crap stuck in your computer ports. Also, bending or crushing them will land you in a spot where you need a new $30 cord. Now there aren’t any particular things you need for this, maybe just a little, clean, drawstring bag with all your charging cords in it, which is what I’ve done. I did that mostly to keep my little usb bricks and phone charger, headphones, and handsfree all in one place, neatly in my handbag. As it turns out, mine is just a re-purposed, soft bag meant for a pair of sunglasses, to give you an idea of size. You can make your own, too. Here are a bunch of tutorials.

4. Develop a cleaning regimen.

Depending on the device*, there are good resources all over the web that can help you develop a good practice of cleaning your devices. No need to buy weird little towelettes, either. There are many tutorials and simple materials that make it possible for you to affordably keep up with this sort of mundane task that will make a big difference to your little glowing rectangles. Don’t forget that little can of air to shoot dust out of ports and keyboards! And set a little monthly reminder on your computer to take a moment to tidy up your devices.

I hope you find this helpful. Did I forget something, do you have a good idea? Pay it forward! Pass this on to a coworker or client who you think it would help.

*Refer to the user manuals or do a search about your particular device and what the best materials are to clean it with.


Pick a Name and Stick With It

My PMQG Name Tag!

This post is about a tool called NameChk, a tool that helps you search across multiple platforms to see if a username is available. I really wanted to share that with you, and the rest of this is an anecdotal case where I wish I had known about it earlier.

I recently had the opportunity to provide coaching to a marine consignment shop in Oriental, NC. We did a little crash course in how they could use social media tools to stay in touch with people who visit their shop and to introduce themselves to people who would probably be coming by boat to Oriental in the coming season.

I sketched out some goals, prioritized the order of those goals, and made sure they knew that they could use these tools anyway they like. I gave them some ideas of posts to get them started- but I had the feeling they also needed some pieces of the bigger picture.

They’ve just bought the shop, and they’re new to branding. I started with a google search, and realized that even though I had been to the shop earlier that day, I didn’t know the name of the place. So I asked.

“It’s either Oriental Marine Consignment or Marine Consignment of Oriental,” she said. Oh poop.

No blame, no shame. Here’s where a good friend and good consultant steps in and advises. On a google search, both are going to come up, but you definitely don’t want to have this on your business card, that on your twitter account, this other logo over here that has it one way, and then your sign on the door says it another.

So I backed it way up. Instead of rushing into setting them up with a page, which feels really good to do at a consult like this, I made sure to drive home my points about having a logo, sticking with a voice, and definitely, deciding what your business name is so people remember it and know it’s you talking.

That’s kind of odd, and we don’t think about it a lot of times, but if someone were to freely and subtly move from one business name to another in the course of a conversation, it’d seem kind of sly and you wouldn’t be sure that you were talking about the same company. That uneasiness betrays the trust part of having a relationship with a brand.

So enter NameChk. Let’s say you’ve got everything else together. You know what your business is called, you have your logo and your branding- now you’re going to go out and set up some accounts with social media outlets. How sweet would it be to have the same username everywhere? This makes it easy for people to find you everywhere.

I don’t have the same name everywhere. My business used to be called Wicked Neat, and people know me as that on twitter. I could change my username on there, but I’m still not sure about it. What do you think? Should I be righthandanne on twitter? Does it matter?

Stretching, Moving, Being Human

Day 26: Even Hands Need Exercise Sometimes

A few years ago, my hands were a wreck. My wrists had painful burning shots of pain that drilled into the very center of my elbows. I just figured that’s what happens when you work at a desk. I made it cute. I described my hands as “hurty” and sometimes talked about it valiantly like a battle scar.

It’s not cool though. It’s lame and avoidable. I want my body to function well when I’m older, and I’m sure you do too. Occupational ergonomics isn’t a cloudy science- you’re actually supposed to be out growing your own food and walking to sources of water every day. You’re supposed to lift and carry weight and feel the sun on your face. Heck, everyone heard about the research that sitting is pretty bad for you.

Beside the bike ride to work, your time on a treadmill, or an appointment with a massage therapist, here are a few ideas for how to spark a desk practice that’s mindful of your body. These are just a couple kernels to build a good practice from:

1. OSHA’s Ergonomics Resources

I’m self-employed, so that means that OSHA doesn’t apply to me. OSHA also doesn’t apply to folks like city workers, but most cities adopt OSHA rules as best-practice guidelines to keep people safe and healthy. You can too! The resources are readily available and we all pay for their hard work, so check it out.

2. Yoga and Stretching Breaks

Videos on youtube and free yoga in the park during lunchtime- everywhere you look you can get good ideas for what to do during frequent breaks. All I had to do just now was search for “stretching exercises for office” on youtube and I got this and this and this and this. There’s so much. Maybe you could build a playlist for the day.

3. Slight Distractions

I have a couple of things I keep around me so I get up and move more often. I have a squeezy ball that I keep next to the computer. Instead of keeping my hand on the mouse all day, when my hand doesn’t need to be there, I find that I’m drawn to play with the squeezy ball. You could have all kinds of stuff- some sort of puzzle, a tiny set of weights, one of these weird things or this neat thing.

I also keep a 1000 mL bottle full of water next to me at all times. Again, it gets my hands away from the keyboard, but my goal of drinking 2 of those a day means that I must get up from my desk from time to time to use the loo.

4. Schedule Breaks and Set a Timer

Three minutes every half hour, that’s what my friend does, and needed to do when his body was nearly broken from years of abuse. He couldn’t grip anything because of his repetitive strain injury (he’s a software guy, coding all day). It shouldn’t get that far, and I think you can give 6 minutes out of the hour to moving about.

During those three minutes, getting up is key. My friend has a bar he hangs from, a great stretch for your shoulders and arms. Various weights are spread around his house, and when the timer goes off on his computer, the notification pops up in a window over everything else and won’t go away until he hits snooze or cancel. He makes hitting cancel a no-no.

If you can get up more often or with a different scheduling regimen than this, that’s great. The idea is to use your free time to be human. Maybe you do tasks through the day that when completed, a break would not only be aptly timed, but a good mental clearing for the next task at hand. A brisk 5 minute walk and you’re back at it.

Do you already have a regimen you use to keep your body healthy or a stretching guidelines you love? I’d like to know about it!