PICNICS ARE TIMES FOR STRETCHING

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Strange title for a blog post, but it’s true. Recently I attended the first-ever New England Virtual Assistants picnic at Myles Standish State Park in Massachusetts. For most people, a picnic is a chance to commune with nature, relax, and enjoy themselves.

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I especially enjoyed this picnic, because it was a group of my peers. There was no competition for business clients. Instead, we could relax and truly be ourselves. Networking can be stressful and sometimes very competitive. I always have to maintain professionalism and try to promote my business to every potential client in spite of the fact that I’m not familiar with their businesses and they don’t understand what a virtual assistant does or can do for them. This picnic provided me with an escape from the weekend chores and neighborhood noises. It gave me the chance to “get away close” and still feel like I’ve gone away for the day. All of the NEVA members received an email invitation. It wasn’t the format of the invitation that hooked me, it was the message. “Let’s get together.” One of the members even offered to bring kayaks and life vests.

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The other thing that I liked about the invitation is that members were told to bring their own food. I can’t tell  you what a relief this was, because so many times, people bring food to a gathering and you have no idea what’s it is or what’s in it. Sometimes, you can’t even tell what it is and face it; some people are not as hygienic as others are. The fact that we could bring our own food gave me the chance to indulge myself in some goodies that I normally wouldn’t eat.  I also didn’t relish the idea of cooking or preparing food for 20 – 50 people. I had no idea how many people would be there.

The organizers of this picnic thought it all through. They planned to bring a grill, desserts, and paper goods. They asked us to bring games and set no time limit on the event. The weather was perfect, but the chance to meet like-minded individuals was invaluable. It was a fun day and enticed me to attend some of the quarterly meetings held in restaurants around New England.

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So where does the title “PICNICS ARE TIMES FOR STRETCHING” come in?  Just as I stretch out to take a nap on the patio or stretch when I wake up in the morning, I stretched myself to go the distance and meet my peers. I stretched myself and allowed me to be ME and not the PROFESSIONAL ME. It was fun to just be ME for a day. As a virtual assistant, I am constantly focused on the mindset of my clients. I am also an author and when I write, I have to get inside every character’s head, so on picnic day, it was fun and a little strange to just be ME.

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I hope this event becomes an annual one and I also hope that we, as a group of VA professionals, can reach out to others and attract new members. This organization is growing and has so much to offer.

If you’d like to know about my business, click on Virtual Colleague, LLC.

If you’d like to learn more about the New England Virtual Assistant group. Click here.

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WEED, SEED, AND FEED

This sounds like a gardening commercial, but in reality, this is what you should be doing if you work as a virtual assistant. As owner of Virtual Colleague, LLC, I try to stay current with new technology.

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I’ve been working in my yard to get it ready for summer. I live in New England and the weather can be tricky. If we have hot weather in May, everything starts to grow including the weeds. If we have a lot of rain and then it turns hot, there are all kinds of green vegetation growing everywhere.

As I was weeding some of my flowerbeds, I realized that in order to grow new plants, I had to make room for them. As I was working to clear the debris, I started to analyze which plants had started to grow and which ones would not return. I thought about what I would put in the empty spaces. Do I want flowers, ferns, or foliage plants?

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I systematically worked on each garden bed until they were all weeded. Then I had to do some research to determine which plants do well in the sun or shade and how tall they would grow. It took a few days to gather this information and lay out what I wanted to do. I decided that starting the plants from seed would be a waste of time as the summer season is upon us.

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I decided to buy starter plants and simply put them into the ground at strategic locations. This would not only make the gardens look different, but would add a splash of color and definition to those areas.  After I finished planting, the gardens looked totally different from last year and I had a mix of perennials and annuals. Perennials come up every year, but annuals appear only one time.

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After sitting back and admiring my work, I had to develop a schedule for watering and caring for all of these plants. With a little more research, I created a spreadsheet with all of the pertinent information about each type of plant and then pinned it to the back of the door of my gardening shed. My “Weed, Seed, and Feed” was finished. All I have to do is stick to my schedule.

I thought about my virtual assistant business. I’ve offered the same services for quite a while. Maybe it’s time to “’weed, seed, and feed” my business. I looked at my list of services and decided that some of them will not appearance on my services list. I will still offer them, but I will not promote them.

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Instead, I need to sow some new seeds in my business. This means doing some research and finding out what services are in demand. There are some skills I am not capable of doing, but I’m sure that if I look at my existing skills, I can find some other services that I can offer to diversify my offerings. These are the “seeds” that I must plant in my business from time to time.

I did find a few other services I can offer and I know with a little practice, I will be as strong in them as I am with my current offerings. This is “feeding” my business. I will admit, I’ve become complacent with my services and that needs to change. By “feeding” my business on a regular basis, I will be able to adjust my services and skills to acquire and accommodate new clients.

Just as the new plants look fantastic in my gardens, my business will be refreshed and attract new clients. Never be afraid to change things up for the better!

Do you change your services from time to time?

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Getting Back to Basics

Every spring I plan my summer vacation. As a virtual assistant at Virtual Colleague, LLC, I have some flexibility in my schedule to plan my vacation around holidays and events. That’s one of the benefits of being a virtual assistant.

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One of the ways I de-stress is to go camping in a tent. I like the relief that comes from getting away from everything and being surrounded by peace and quiet. As I network, I get to know people and sometimes the conversation leads to personal interests and hobbies. I get a mixed reaction, when I tell people that I love to go camping.

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I guess they figure I must be so tech savvy that I couldn’t part with my phone, computer, and other devices. On the contrary, that’s exactly what I need to do. I enjoy all of the technology that out there, but there is such a thing as overload. That’s what happens, when I have a full client load on top of other commitments. This winter was long and cold here in Rhode Island and many times, I had to shovel out before starting my work.  It got a bit stressful at times, because it snowed every 3 days and I wanted to just sit there and work and not bother about other things. Shoveling out the driveway in care of fire or rescue was a priority. I vowed that when the snow finally melted, I would get outdoors and enjoy the peace and quiet of the woods and not the roar of the snowplows or sand-and-salt trucks. I’m keeping my promise. I have already planned a 4-day getaway.

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While camping does not appeal to everyone, it is an inexpensive way to get away from everything and relax. Putting up a tent, carrying water back to the campsite, and collecting firewood gives me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. There are times, when I’m working with a client, and I feel that I’ve done my best, but the client is not totally satisfied. When I go camping, I only have to please myself and I can do things according to my own plan. There is nothing better than waking up to birds chirping and the quiet whistle of the wind through the trees. Whatever I cook for breakfast seems to taste better when I’m camping. Even the coffee smells and tastes better.

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When hiking on the trails, I can go as fast or slow as I want and can stop to look at nature along the way. The sun is my clock for the entire trip, so I get away from watching my watch and timing certain things I do. I wake up by the sun and go to bed by the moon. It’s detox in its simplest form!

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Physically working to cook, clean the camp, walk to get water/shower are all things that help me relax and appreciate my surroundings. Of course, I can always read, if I just don’t want to do anything, but it can’t be work related. For me, camping is the best stress reliever and detox solution.

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I would encourage anyone looking for something natural and calming to do to try camping. It brings out your survival skills and teaches you to live with a lot less and appreciate more. It changes you, so you return to work refreshed, renewed, and mindful of all of your skills and abilities. You leave the campground with a strong sense of accomplishment.

 

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GIVE MORE AND GET PAID MORE

As a rule I try to give a little more to my clients than their contracts allow. I do this, because everyone likes to get his or her money’s worth and it’s great to get that something extra special along with it. I always complete my work on time without errors. I’ve always known that as a virtual assistant, I have to set myself apart from other virtual assistants. I don’t have much money for advertising, so I use my work ethic and I give a little more than expected to boost my business.

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This usually works well and I get additional projects from my clients, but recently, I had a client that expected more than the contract stipulated. I did her project as directed and gave her a little more in the way of several samples for brochures.  While I usually give my clients a few samples of what they ask for, because it gives them more to choose from, this client was a little different.

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Even with the extra work I gave her, she wanted me to re-work all of the samples I gave her. I tried to explain to her that the extra samples were just to give her some ideas. I had to explain to her that if she actually wanted to use all of the samples and have me re-work them, she would have to pay me extra for my time and work.

Sometimes, clients are so good at what they do that they have no idea how much time and work it takes to do other tasks. Just because I’m a professional, it doesn’t mean my time is free. I had to itemize in spreadsheet form, what the contract stated in one column and the extra things I actually did in the second column. Only after doing that did she realize that she got a lot more than she contracted for. After looking at the spreadsheet, she was more than willing to sign a new contract for the additional work and she understood the difference between giving a little more and expecting more work for free.

I learned a lesson from this situation. The lesson is: continue to provide more than the client asks for. It shows interest in their businesses and projects, but don’t go overboard. Explain at the initial interview that any additional work or projects are extra and need a new contract signed, dated, and payment received before any work can begin.

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Giving a little extra may cross a fine line, but I still feel it is the best way to build up my client base and demonstrate that I am a professional and I really do partner with clients to help them develop and grow.

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Do you know anyone who could use a virtual assistant?   Contact Virtual Colleague, LLC at JPlante@VirtualColleagueLLC.com

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YOUR FRIEND COULD BE YOUR NEXT CLIENT

Sometimes the answer is staring you in the face. How many times has this happened to you? You try so hard to do something and yet it was so simple. Lately, I’ve been so busy attending networking events and trying to advertise my virtual assistant business, Virtual Colleague, LLC, that I’ve overlooked an important part of the networking process.

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I recently met with a group of my former co-workers. We get together about twice a year to catch up with each other and find out what’s going on in our lives. A few of them are still working at the company, but most of us have gone on to do other things.

When we first meet, we all seem to speak at once, but then, things settle down and we eat and talk about ourselves with each of us taking a turn to speak. We choose a restaurant, so we don’t have to cook or bring anything, and we can concentrate on spending time listening to each other.

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Some people in this group think I am so courageous to break out and start my own business. I’m really not. It was created out of necessity, but I still like to hear the praise. As each of us took turns talking about family, friends, jobs, vacations, etc.,  I got lost in all of the new information presented, whether it was happy or sad news. We all try to be supportive of each other and offer suggestions to help with others’ problems or issues.

About three days after our get-together, I received an email from one of women in the group. She is happily married with one daughter and wants to work, but the employment situation is not great in Rhode Island. She always keeps physically fit and wants to work as a personal trainer.

At the restaurant, she told us she is trying to start a business as a personal trainer. She went into detail about all the training and certification she had to go through and why she wanted to do that type of work.  She also told everyone how difficult it is to start and run a business. I can certainly relate to that.

 

 

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It was a subtle clue that she needed my expertise and I totally missed it. I was so busy socializing that I missed the opportunity to speak to her about all the services I had to offer. It wasn’t until I received her email asking for my help that I realized I missed a great opportunity to get new business.

She even told me she would pay whatever my fee was in exchange for help in several areas. She stated she was overwhelmed. She needs help with basic things as well as developing an ongoing plan to promote her business. I emailed her a detailed plan of what we could do for the next six months along with my contract and fee. I thanked her for thinking of me and my business and offered her my first time client discount.

She responded immediately and we are now working as a team. I will be going to one of her classes and taking photos for her Facebook business page and her personal page as well as photos to use on her brochures and marketing materials.

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As I look back on this, I can’t believe I was so blind to a new opportunity. I realized that marketing and networking are much more than showing up at events. It’s listening to the people around you, putting yourself in their situation, and being able to speak up and offer your services in a way that will help them and you to succeed. It’s listening on a regular basis and not just at specific times or places. This was an embarrassing lesson to learn and I have changed my mindset about networking and marketing.

Have you ever missed an opportunity to market your business?

 

Check out my website at Virtual Colleague, LLC  to see how I can help your business grow.

 

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Does the Weather affect your Work?

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Here in New England, we have a unique phenomenon. We not only have four distinct seasons, but we have several changes of weather within those seasons. As we crawl out from a long, arduous winter with more snow than we could have imagined; we look forward to open windows, springtime smells, and much warmer temperatures.

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As I sit here making my list of “springtime things to do”, I realize that my work habits change with the seasons. Incidentally, on my springtime list, I have an outdoor and indoor list of things to do.

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In winter, I focus on keeping warm, sleeping as long as I want to, spending time on my computer, reading, and eating comfort food. My outside chores include shoveling snow and bringing in wood for the fireplace, and scraping the snow and ice off my windshield. Winter is a simple time and a time for me to catch up on archiving emails, taking online courses, and listening to podcasts and webinars as well as working for my clients.

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Spring is a time of great expectation for me. Somehow I believe that all of the outdoor chores will be completed before it gets too hot and humid. The inside chores are a problem for me, because I don’t want to spend time indoors like I did during the winter. Instead, I want to open the windows, go outside, and do things in the sun. The new weather outside tempts me during the spring time. If I go outside, I can watch the grass turn green, check out the new weeds growing where they’re not supposed to grow, and just sit outside and relax. This is a season of conflict for me and it takes all spring season for me to develop a new schedule. I have my clients on the one hand that demand my attention and time, but the change in season makes me want to stretch myself and include both indoor and outdoor activities.

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By the time summer rolls around, I’ve got my schedule down. I wake up much earlier than in winter. I’m a morning person, so I work for 4 – 5 hours in the morning. It’s amazing how much work I can get done when I put my mind to it. I actually enjoy eating a salad for lunch, because the ingredients are so fresh. I don’t have to bother with a jacket or sweater, so I’m free to just go for a walk or cut the grass. In the afternoons, I run errands or do some gardening.

I get a lot of exercise in the summer months and I find that I network more. Because the weather is so mild, I want to stop and talk to people. It’s easy to strike up a conversation when the wind isn’t howling and the snow is hitting your face or the rain pelting you with hail. Farmer’s markets and yard sales are great places to meet and interact with people and who knows, you may get a new client from just talking to people.

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Fall is a sad time for me. The brilliance and warmth of the summer is gone and things start to shrivel and fade away. I find that the colors of things change, too. The shed looks so white and clean in the summer, but in the fall, it just look old and faded. I have a schedule change in the fall, too. Due to the change in the weather, I don’t always go for a walk. Instead of cutting the grass, I start to put things away for the season and prepare for the next season. I spend more time inside on my computer, so I catch up on things that I’ve been putting off all summer.

I’m happy with the change of seasons, because it adds balance in my life and in my work. My clients NEVER suffer, because I always put them first. The season changes keep me alert and focused on what’s at hand and what will come, so it’s a natural way to stay on track, get tasks completed and project what will happen in the future. It also provides me with exercise and a change of scenery.

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Since I started my virtual assistant business, Virtual Colleague LLC., I’ve had time to do more, learn more, and accomplish more, because I’m free to create and adhere to my own schedule, while still remaining accountable and responsible to my clients.

I like living in New England and I don’t think I would be happy anywhere else. I can’t imagine the fall without the leaves changing, the winter without the snow and cold, the spring season never really contrasting a snowy winter, and summer 365 days a year!

 

How do you feel about the changes in the seasons? Does it affect your work?

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HOW TO ADDRESS YOUR CLIENT?

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I always find it awkward, when addressing my client for the first time. While everyone seems to think that addressing someone by his or her first name is the norm, I’ve found that assuming that’s how the client wants to be addressed is not always true.

I’ve worked with several clients since I started my business Virtual Colleague, LLC in 2013. When I network or speak to a potential client on the phone, he or she lets me know how they want to be addressed by how they introduce themselves to me.  I always use both of my names and let the client decide how he/she wants to address me.

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For example, my company slogan is “partnering with the client”, so if we’re partners we should address each other by our first names. Right? Some of my clients do not feel comfortable doing this, especially because I do not work in their offices, so they feel we have an extended connection. Although they’re very satisfied with the work I do, they don’t feel a close connection or bond. Therefore, they address me as Ms. Plante.

I don’t really care how my clients address me. I am in partnership with them and I let them decide how they want to interact with me and how we address each other. I want them to be comfortable working with me and sharing ideas and information. As long as we connect on a business level, I let them dictate how we communicate (emails, phone calls, Skype, etc.) and how they want to be addressed.

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I’ve found that sometimes my clients’ titles call for a more formal tone. For example, some clients prefer to use their professional titles: Doctor, Vice-President, Director, etc. If they ask me to use those titles, it’s usually to distinguish themselves from the others in their fields and usually I’m asked to use these titles, when working with larger companies.

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One rule of thumb: I NEVER use nicknames. I believe they can be demeaning and show a lack of respect for the client. On the other hand, if my client’s name is Richard, I let him tell me how he wants to be addressed: Rich, Richie, Dick, or Rick. If he or she asks me to use a more familiar name like the ones I mentioned, then I would do it, but I would still refuse to use a nickname.

Even though I want to work with them, I also have my own business and reputation to think of. If I’m too casual with my clients, they may not see me as a true professional and my business would suffer. In addition, getting too close or familiar on a personal level with my clients would change our business relationship and the lines of communication may start to blur. It’s important to strike a balance between professional courtesy and personal involvement in business.

What are your thoughts on this topic?

 

Click on Virtual Colleague, LLC to find out how I can help your business grow.

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LEARNING NEW TECHNOLOGY FOR FUN OR NEED

I feel I’m proficient in the technology I use as a virtual assistant, but there’s so much out there that I don’t know about. For example, Infusionsoft. This is something that so far none of my clients use or need. Some of my clients have other systems they use.

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I’ve never used Infusionsoft, but I’m curious about it. I’ve got a busy schedule as a virtual assistant and I am also an author of Christian fiction. I’m working on my second book, so time is valuable and I have to use my time wisely.

I want to sign up for a course about Infusionsoft, but I don’t want to spend the time to learn something that I may not use and I could use that money for other things.  I’ve always said that no one should stop learning. Life is a lesson in learning, so this may be something I should do. I’ve heard so much about CRM and how it helps clients, but right now, my time is limited to doing work to meet my deadlines.

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On the plus side, I should continue to learn just to exercise my brain. If I learn this technology, I could offer it to my clients, enhancing what I have to offer. Maybe I could use it myself for my own business, Virtual Colleague, LLC.

On the minus side, the course is expensive and it is time consuming. It lasts for 6 weeks with homework and online classes. Even if I learn this technology, my client may use another type and I may have to spend money and time to learn that one.

I guess it boils down to priorities and needs. I need to complete the existing projects by their deadlines that I’ve committed to. That a priority. I need to schedule all my tasks, so I will accomplish that goal, but I also need to do something for myself. All work and no play is no good.

Perhaps I can contact the instructor to lock in the price, even though I may not start the online course for several weeks. I don’t need any more stress, so this seems like an option. In the meantime, I will poll my clients both past and present to see if any of them are interested in using this technology. That will help me decide to take this course or maybe look into something else that my clients will use.

In the meantime, I have to research this instructor and company to make sure they’re legitimate and see if I can find the same course for less money or a better schedule. As technology continues to develop, I need to keep searching for what’s out there and what I may need. I try to forecast what skills I need, but part of that assessment has to do with my clients’ needs.

For more information on Virtual Colleague, LLC and what I can do for your business, click on www.VirtualColleagueLLC.com.

 

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