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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Everyone’s Got a Coach. Do You Have a Mentor?

busyI see a lot of people coaching everyone. And I mean everyone: they’re really just hollaring sunshine into the ether and giving opinions within 140 characters. Stuff that’s like, “Let’s get goin’ guys, let’s punch this day in the FACE!”

Some people make money at it, and those people, at least some of them, have something probably very real and wonderful to offer their “audiences,” as we’ve come to call them. Honestly, I think they’re keeping themselves busy sometimes and they’d like to see you be busy, too. Not necessarily rich, just busy with clients and projects and whatnot.

I appreciate all the wonderful information- tips about organizing or time management, or maybe even finances- that’s available through Twitter, blogs, and such.

So here’s my thought: what about mentors? Nothing can replace the bond of a true mentor: someone who has followed your story, knows what you want and need, and who can really work with you, not just talk at you.

Don’t have one? Find one. Do you have a boss or maybe colleague of days gone by with whom you had a close relationship? Maybe there’s a teacher you could call, or an old friend who seems to have things together for themselves. Maybe you could get a beer with them or sit over a cup of coffee and talk without specific aim to get coaching or guidance. Just chat. You’ll find with these people that you’ll walk away with unbelievable perspective that beats advice.

I realize through this that I’m kind of giving advice. I’ll relay this one last thought, so maybe you’ll know where it’s coming from: I appreciate my mentor more than anything, and though we don’t talk everyday or even every month, and even though we have never really said in a formal way that she is my mentor, I don’t know where I’d be without her. I wish that for you, too.

And for all you positive day-punchers and high-reachers, I like you too. Keep shining, people.

What will you bring to this bright new age?

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On Friday, the odometer flipped. Nothing ended, it began over again.

I want to know what you’re doing. I don’t know about you, but the sort of strict resolutions people make with the new year kind of bring me down. They tend to be self-accusatory. They don’t embrace the good work of last year.

But big, breezy ideas like “be more peaceful,” “do more business locally,” or “drift toward happiness” seem like maybe the sort of resolutions that will lead to big solid things. And don’t forget to celebrate what went right last year to to focus on keeping up the Good Work!

Happy holidays to you, and a fantastic solstice, too!

 

Politics and Business- Should you be vocal?

AIGA Get Out the Vote Poster (Blue)

With election day right around the corner and with newspapers giving their official endorsements, it seems like it’s time to decide what side of the fence you’re on here.

Yup, you. You as a person, an individual, a business owner, an employee… you’re all these things and you’d better be voting. Apathy is not the stuff of business owners or people who succeed, so don’t be apathetic in any arena of your life, friend. Get to the voting booth.

You might also be the voice of your business, and it’s mighty tempting to use the audience you have to send a message that you feel is important. Here are a few things I’ve been thinking about lately as I’ve been cruising around Twitter and Facebook.

You know your audience better than anyone, and depending on what you’re selling, taking a vocal political position might benefit you. 

If you sell hammers for a living, you’ve got democrats, republicans, and everyone in between coming to buy your hammers. Maybe you’re not the one to take a stand politically in your social media or on your website. But heck, if you sell nature vacations or guns, you might really want to consider saying which candidates you’ve found to be the best to elect to ensure your crowd can get your product. Don’t be silent just because it seems like a good point of decorum, there are lots of cases where this would help rather than backfire for you.

There’s a lot of noise out there already. Avoid being just another yell in the cacophony. 

Have something new to say or have a personal story to add to the conversation at large? That’d be worth sending out there into the ether, because that really sounds like something we could all benefit from reading or seeing. There are already a lot of rants out there, and we’re wading in other people’s general opinions- we’re all tired out here. We’re looking for substance, we’re looking for calm, and we’re looking for intelligence at this point. Be that guy.

If you’re going to stick your nose out there, be a proponent for rational discourse.

It’s easy for all of us as voters, family members, customers and sales folk to want to blame one side or another for some of the tripe we’ve been subject to. Taking a side doesn’t mean you need to be angry or negatively impactful. Please, research your claims, say why more than you’re saying what, and give us some meaty bits to chew on.

At the end of the day, lead by example.

Tell your people to vote. Tell them to care. Respect their many and varied positions. Erase apathy, because apathy might be why they haven’t picked up your latest whatsit yet.

Do business with integrity and honesty. Dislike lots of packaging and have strong feelings about environmental issues? You have the power to eliminate as much packaging as possible from your products whether you’re clerk at a counter or a CEO. Admins- use vendors who share your views and your values and produce goods and services that do good in the world.

Still wondering if it’s a good idea for you to take a stand on something publicly? Comment here and let’s chat about it.

How Creativity Works

Imagine by Jonah LehrerI’d like to share this Commonwealth Club of California Radio Program I heard the other day on MPBN. In it, Jonah Lehrer talks about something very familiar to us- moments of insight, epiphanies- and breaks down the science of it. When you click through to the Commonwealth Club site, look for the Tuesday, April 10, 2012 episode.

I’m not going to tell you what it should mean to you, I just know it will mean something to you. I won’t even tell you what it means to me, because it reminds me of projects past, clients present, and goals future. Too much to convey.

In a nutshell, he says creativity can have its moment when we step away from our desks and relax, not necessarily when we “chug redbull” or “chain ourselves to our desks.”

“Creativity is the residue of time wasted,” said Albert Einstein.

But Lehrer also talks about another important element of creativity and creative people- GRIT. Grit is what makes writers, composers, and scientists grind through multiple versions of their work, unwavering in their quest for the perfect answer.

His analysis of what happens in organizations is extremely interesting- that creative problem solving within a town versus within a company/corporate environment booms in one and decreases in the other. Guess which, guess why.

Oh, and brainstorming is bullcrippity. A feel-good exercise of backpatting with very little workable outcome. I knew it!!

It’s a fascinating talk, and I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think, eh?

Goals and To-Do Lists from Uncanny Sources

A while back I found this great image of a New Years resolution list by Woody Guthrie.

 

 

 

 

 

While people have been spending time reading “Who Moved My Cheese” and other droll business books or relying heavily on crowd-sourced Twitter wisdom, I’ve been shy to do so. It seems like plenty of inspiration abounds for your work from the sources that have always mattered most: artists. You apply it to your life as you like, you take what you want and leave the rest, you eat it alive and run on the inspiration.

Here’s an example. A couple of months ago I picked up Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut for the first time. It was full of life-lesson-level gems of wisdom, galvanized by comedy and made more-than-fiction by its undying wit. Now THERE’S your business book right there. Here are some demonstrative quotes:

Recovering from hard times or mistakes? “You were sick, but now your well, and there’s work to do.”

Feel like you’re blogging or advertising into the ether? Many people need desperately to receive this message: “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.”

My favorite, my mantra I live by- “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'”

You can take your buzz words and meme themes like work-life balance, synergy, engagement- you know them all- and just distill better and more meaningful messages from art. I mean, these Vonnegut quotes are pretty bad ass, but you really do have to read the book to get what I got from it. It stoked a fire in my gut. It was a call to action and a call to relaxation. When you read Timequake (which now I’m sure you will, right?) you’ll see what I mean when you read these quotes in context.

At the very least, maybe you could listen to some really great music and start working out a list like Woody’s here. I’ve adopted a couple of his resolutions this year.

Work more and better.

Stay glad.

Wake up and fight.

So what do you think about all this? Can you think of a book that serves as an important tome in your life? I’d love to hear about it.