The rise of the male PA

An interesting article in the Guardian today about the rise of the male PA.

It’s linked to graduate unemployment and whilst my creation of Admin Saint is not linked to immediate post graduate status, it did come about from a redundancy situation (in my late thirties).

The DOs of OOOs

Administration is as much about keeping people informed as it is about doing the tasks. One area that constantly surprises me is the cavalier use of OOOs; the email reply that is the Out Of Office.

Often, you’ll send an email to a colleague and, in return, receive an automatic message back that runs something along the lines of, “I’m out of the office; I will deal with your email on my return”, or “I’m now on annual leave for two weeks.”

Whilst it is important to signpost that you are not available, you will note there is no ‘can-do’ approach in the example replies given above. When precisely will you return? And will you be able to deal with my email then? Who can I contact while you are out of the office?

If you care about the person emailing you, if you want to present a professional image, then it isn’t difficult to give some thought to the out of office message. Be a FRIEND to your out of office recipients:

F – Forewarn – If possible, let your main colleagues/clients know beforehand if you are going to be away on holiday for any stretch of time. Courteous forewarning a few weeks in advance enables people to plan in advance for your absence.

R – Refer – Where possible, give an alternative named contact that can assist in your absence. Be sure to make sure their details are correct. There is little more embarrassing than missing that crucial underscore in an email in your haste to get out the office door on a Friday evening. If you happen to be available on the phone, but are just not in the office, then be explicit and ensure you give your contact details.

I – Intention – Detail when you intend to deal with the email, if it differs from your actual date of return. You ought to make your client and colleague feel like their email is the most important, so give a clear indication as to when you will be able to read and respond to it.

E – Expected return – Detail precisely your expected return to work date, even if you are only away for an afternoon and especially if this differs from when you would intend to reply.

N – Nobody else – If you are self-employed or have nobody else to refer the query on to, then specify this. In this case, make sure you are especially clear about when you intend to respond to the email. If you do not specify that there is nobody else to assist, it could send mixed messages to the emailer, who may be wondering if there is someone else to contact in your absence.

D – Deactivate – Remember to deactivate your out of office when you return.

As I like to say, ‘simple rules for simple fools’ and by following these simple rules, you’re less likely reveal the fool that you want to keep hidden inside of you.

How are you dealing with the extra bank holiday?

A BBC News report indicates that the ‘extra’ bank holiday for the Diamond Jubilee is not an entitlement for some workers and the wording of an employee’s contract will actually determine whether an employer can legally refuse permission for leave.

If a contract stipulates that employees are entitled to statutory paid leave plus all bank holidays, then the position is clear; the 5th June will be a lovely day off work for your employees, should they want it. If the contract states statutory paid leave and the usual bank holidays, or, perhaps, the 8 general bank holidays, then the legal interpretation of the wording is less clear.

Some legal experts argue this means that an employer has the right to refuse the time off work.

Also, part-time workers, who are legally protected by the Part-Time Workers, (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Act 2000, cannot be discriminated against and this could create a further headache for employers.

Clearly, an additional day off will cause operational problems for some companies, especially smaller companies, who would normally be trading on that day and whose trading partners might also be expecting them to.

The current economic climate is such that many business owners are finding it hard to survive at the moment, without the thought of whether they should enforce a helpful piece of wording on their employees’ contracts.

The problem isn’t aided by a situation in which many UK employees generally feel stressed and overworked by their  employment. According to a CIPD study in October 2011, reported by the International Stress Management Association UK, stress has become the most common cause of long-term sickness absence for both manual and non-manual employees. Is this fact any surprise, with 60% of employees putting in over 1.5 hours of overtime every day, and with nearly 80% of those hours being unpaid (Aviva Report, 2011)?

Add to this that the UK offers its employees the lowest number of holiday days per year, compared to other EU countries (28, compared to the EU average of 34), then it is not hard to see how employees may feel aggrieved and put upon again at what they may perceive to be an unfair and churlish decision by an employer to refuse them just one more day off.

A few volunteers may choose to happily work on the Diamond Jubilee, but, realistically, most employees will be expecting to have a jolly. But, how many employers are expecting to enforce a ruling in their employees’ contracts to make them work on 4 June because they feel they have to, and how many will do so just because they can?

How will Admin Saint Ltd approach this situation? We are fortunate enough to be a couple, so the only decision we have to take is for ourselves. As with most bank holidays, it will probably depend on the volume of work close to that day.

If you find you need some extra admin support over the bank holiday (perhaps diverting a phone, a transcriptionist who is off work,  some urgent typing to undertake) please do contact us. We’d be happy to assist you.



Keep them sweet

The essential customer service skills that business owners often forget….

(1) Time-speak – My worst customer nightmare is when someone is unavailable, or the receiver needs to investigate a matter, and they either don’t call you back, or they do not tell you when they will call you back. From banks and credit card companies to online stores and technical support, no company is exempt from this poor practice. It is invariably the customer who has to call back having waited patiently for the call that never comes.

The answer? Use time-speak. If you cannot give an answer straightaway, give the customer an idea of when you might be able to, and when you will call them back; not might, not possibly, but WILL. Don’t use vagaries like ‘by close of play’ or ‘by Thursday’ – that’s not good enough. Ask them when they will be available for a call back and, matching a time that you can, make a point of calling them at that time, on that day. Be specific. Put it in your calendar.

If you have not been able to resolve the query by that time, it is still an opportunity to maintain contact with the client and you still call them to update them. Believe me, they will be more grateful that you kept your promise to call at the pre-agreed time, than the fact you are unable to resolve their query at that precise time.

(2) Melodise, don’t stagnatise – Customers are more likely to come back to you if your voice has melody. I am not talking about singing, or unnatural intonation, but a voice with a pleasant tone and rhythm. Some people would say speaking with a smile. Never negatise or stagnatise your voice; it’s very off-putting if you speak in staccato or with monotony. It gives the impression you’re not interested.

Even for the most awkward customer, the quality business owner will maintain a positive sound to their voice at all times. That allows you to control the tone of the conversation and keeps open the possibility of a positive outcome, even when it seems doubtful.

(3) Can do, not can’t do – Is a customer asking for something that you consider unreasonable or impossible? Try to get out of the habit of saying, “I can’t do that for you” or “I’m sorry, that’s not possible”. It may be a polite way of saying no, but it still immediately puts a defensive barrier up and puts aggression into the customer. Instead you should be keeping the initiative and perhaps respond with something like, “Well, what I can do for you is…” It requires you to think on your feet to offer a reasonable alternative, but it is a response that does not use any negative language. It shows that you are listening and willing to co-operate towards a successful resolution, whilst retaining control of what you can and cannot do for them.

Those are my top three tips. What are yours?

What prompted me to put this?

I think some companies try too hard with gimmicks at the expense of the basics – especially unparalleled customer service. I’m not just talking about claims of excellent customer service but actually delivering excellent customer service. Nearly ALL businesses claim to offer to it, but a claim means nothing until the need arises to deliver it.

For example, my parents recently bought a set of furniture from a very well-known high street clothing and furniture retailer; let’s call them “PREVIOUS”. They noticed the feet on the settee didn’t match the feet on the two chairs. They called up – not to complain as such, but just to ask whether they could send replacement feet that matched – it wasn’t really an emergency and the feet were fine until the right colour arrived.

A person answered the phone immediately – no queue! They received an immediate apology on the phone, a promise of a re-delivery of new feet and a call back at a precise time on a precise date to make sure they had arrived, plus an enquiry as to what had happened. Of course, my parents came off the phone thinking ‘Yeah, we’ll be waiting forever and they won’t call us back”; that tends to be the normal reaction nowadays given companies’ strong ability to claim excellent customer service, but their usual inability to deliver it well – and I include SME’s just as much as larger companies in that. I, personally, have had a few poor experiences with SMEs who had very little idea of what excellent customer service actually entailed.

Anyhow, back to my parents. They came off the phone with that typical feeling.

But, how wrong could they be?

The correct feet did arrive – the very next day, AND they got their call on the precise day at the precise time to check they were happy. Not only that but two weeks later they received a letter from “PREVIOUS” detailing the result of their enquiry, a further apology and a £25 gift voucher. Customer service of the highest quality, just for four, cheap, screw-on furniture feet that were light brown instead of dark. Since then, my parents have bought several other pieces of furniture and have said that because of their experience they will use this store again and again and again. They couldn’t praise their experience highly enough.

How many business owners would do all of that – ensure a replacement was received within 24 hours, investigate the problem (however trivial) and give a full written response and apology, offer a compensatory gesture of goodwill (however minor the issue was), and actually call back to check with the customer at a pre-agreed time on a pre-agreed date? It’s a shame that this kind of customer service is no longer perceived as the norm.

No gimmicks, no flair, no spin – it was just excellent, unparalleled customer service that went over and above what is usual and made them feel like they were the most important customer in the country.

We often hear businesses claim to have excellent customer service, but when push comes to shove, it often tends to be average at best and leaves the customer feeling like one of many as they hang in a queue listening to “Thank you for holding; your call is very important to us.”

Nearly everyone reading this will say “I do that anyway,” thinking and, perhaps, even ‘believing’ that they do. But defining it isn’t what we think or believe. The truth of it is in remembering it, delivering it and whether a customer retains their loyalty to you.

Running a better business: a better business from running.

Plato once said “Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.”

So, does exercise form a part of your business strategy?

The stereotype is the over-stressed suit living off their morning cup of coffee and some air. If they’re lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) they might get a second coffee for lunch, and perhaps some kind of conveniently wrapped saturated fat in between two slices of human-sized baguette.

Others, who plan their working life a little more efficiently, may indulge in the art of business-lunching, or business breakfasting; plates of full-English or three-course calories shovelled in to expanding bellies, in the hope of securing that all-important hand-shake.

The first strategy is time=money.
The second one is people=money.

Both of them are potentially bad for our health and, whilst not necessarily being bad for business, in isolation they could be restricting your business potential.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the odd biscuit, glass of wine, or takeaway curry. Rubbish in moderation isn’t the be all and end all.

But how many people think that fitness=money?

I mean, most of us will remember the “Are you up for squash later?” concept – a 1980′s fitness-networking combo. Twenty years on, squash has been usurped by general gym-work and many business owners take time to carefully ensure a healthy work-life balance; a conscious choice to have a stable balance to their lives.

I’m not a gym-bunny though. I am a runner.

For me, I find relief and ideas from the time I spend pounding the streets and parks of Hastings, improving both my health and my business strategies; the freedom to think, unconstrained from the handcuffs of technology. I like to think of it as business-development time; a clear mind, a clear vision.

Not only that, but it also increases general energy levels, giving me added impetus through the working day.It raises dopamine levels, which is a hormone that helps our brain to learn. What better business-strategy is there than to be constantly learning and adapting to your learning?

Exercise produces more endorphins that give you a sense of well-being, and even euphoria. Runners will tell you about the ‘runner’s high’ we experience following exercise.

I was reading a piece of American research that showed for every dollar spent by businesses on improving the health of their employees, there was a return of up to six dollars. That’s a 600% return. Wouldn’t we all want a bit of that, even if we were the only employee in our business?

But what about a carb-fest? Doesn’t that make us feel good too? Perhaps, but not in a long-lasting beneficial way. The feel-good factor simply comes from being sated; that immediate sense of stomach satisfaction. But, before long, reality sets in and we slip into a kind of afternoon carb-coma, where business productivity and clarity of thought can be compromised.

So, next time you order your large cappafrappamochacino to go, or tuck into your giant torpedo baguette splitting at the seams with tuna mayo, will you let the sluggish effects affect your daily business, or when you finish your work, will you throw on some shorts and exercise your way towards tomorrow’s opportunities?

Economic worries? No problem, let’s do business.

Nobody can claim that they are not aware of the current economic crisis flooding the globe. I’m no economist and I’m not here to try to unravel the reasons behind it, but what I have seen is the affect it is having on British business. Whatever the moral and ethical arguments to BAE’s recent redundancy announcements, the effect on the people’s lives involved, the general manufacturing climate and the UK job market is abundantly clear. The effect stinks.

I am sure many of you reading this are feeling the effects in varying degrees.

I do not pretend to be a miracle worker, but surely a significant element of the art of business can be stripped back to something really simple? The more people you network with, the more likely you are to build a working relationship with someone, thereby benefiting both business. That is where something like Let’s Do Business can be very helpful, if not critical, to some SMEs and sole traders, in particular.

As a fledgling virtual assistance business, we decided to jump in with the big boys and were lucky enough to secure a stand at the Let’s Do Business Hastings conference on 29 September. I, personally, felt both privileged and excited at the prospect of networking on such a large scale.  Setting up, we could see large shells adorned with frighteningly complicated display units, kaleidoscopes of signage and decorative ‘accoutrements’. With our smaller shell and pop-up banners, we  opted for a simpler approach. Did I feel overawed?  Far from it. Admin Saint Ltd. may be small, yet developing at a snowballing rate, but this is our first experience of large-scale networking and I was not prepared to bite off more than we could chew.

I firmly believe our presence was a good thing for local businesses.  In straightened times, businesses need to streamline and save money. Virtual assistance is a helpful antibiotic to the poison of economic hardship. More and more business owners are looking at their administrative support and asking searching questions about their real needs. Do they really need someone on site 37 hours a week? Do they really need anyone on site at all? And many forward thinking business owners have discovered the wondrous benefits of virtual assistance; primarily the flexibility of service and slashed costs. It really is a no-brainer for some. They discover virtual assistance, they make savings, we get business. Everyone is a winner. In fact, I was surprised at how many people were not aware of what we do, or how we can help. Many left our stand enlightened, interested and keen to know more.

So, whether you attended the conference or not, if the economic cloud is hovering like a wraith of doom over your business, why not consider virtual assistance? Come on Britain, let’s do business.

Overcoming customer cynicism – BOGOF!

Can you really get something for nothing?

On face value, of course you can. Buy one get one free offers, (or BOGOFs as they are affectionately known), deliver what they promise, don’t they? Buy a packet of biscuits and you get a second packet without having to pay for it. Seems obvious.

But deep down, you know it’s not being done out of the goodness of the supermarket’s heart. It’s being done to obtain your loyalty and because they probably have too much stock. It’s also being done to hope you spend the money you saved on the biscuits on something else in the store. Often, we tend to set a subliminal upper budget in our minds and usually go to that budget limit when we shop. If we usually spend £150 week in week out, then the chances are we will spend £150 next time. It just means the 99p saved on biscuits will go towards the purchase of another item. We get a cheap extra packet of biscuits worth 99p for our money – the shop still gets our £150.

It’s a simple, but effective, hook and it works.

Most of us accept it for what it is and will take the plunge – even I can’t resist two packets of plain chocolate digestives occasionally!

But what about offers that use the words “No Risk, No Obligation”, or those offers you see in the newspapers: You too can make £££ and retire before you’re 50, without having to spend a penny. If it doesn’t work, I’ll even give you £50. You can’t lose”. You know the kind of advert – it’s usually accompanied by a professionally looking, mega-photo-shopped individual, sporting a set of teeth so white you’re almost blinded by the reflection.

Some vulnerable folk may be duped and that in itself is scandalous. The majority of us are likely to skim over it and wonder why on earth these companies/individuals would try to prey on the vulnerable and needy by offering, what we have already labelled in our minds, “a scam”. And that’s because the chances are it IS a scam.

It’s these kinds of claims that have contributed to what I see as a growing sense of ’potential customer’ cynicism; that feeling that something is too good to be true. I mean, we used to hear our grandpas say it, didn’t we? “You don’t get sommit for nowt!” And it does tend to stick in our minds.

Customers are human too, with those vulnerable emotions of greed and cynicism. If you believe in delivering an honest service and building a trusting customer relationship, then marketing it needs to be plausible and deliverable. It needs to be enough to entice the customer in, but not too much that it drives them away. It needs to work on a level that the customer can relate to; that the customer can rightly trust.

Admin Saint prides itself on honesty to its customers. For example, we are running a prize draw and an introductory discount. In a particular instance, in asking a customer why they had chosen us, the response was, “Some of the others just seemed too good to be true. Yours shouted honesty”. That made me feel incredibly proud; that we were not doing anything particularly outstanding on the offers/deals front, but that we just had a small, deliverable and plausible promotion.

I suppose the moral of all this is summed up in a saying I recalled from the back of my mind: ’If you promise the earth, don’t deliver a grain of sand’.

Launch, links and localism

We were aiming for a 1 September start.

But we are ahead of schedule in our planning and a start in late July/early August is very much on the cards.

Everything has gone smoothly so far and I keep looking out for the potholes in the road that will challenge our stable progress. We are under no illusion that once we are out in the open those potholes will open up more frequently than a UK main road in winter, but we are prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. We have been patient and methodical in our build-up.

Thoughts are now turning to post-launch promotion and visbility.

How to get us noticed? How to make us stand out from the competition? We already tweet @admsaint and we also have a Linked In account, which we will be looking to expand. A Facebook page will also be appearing in the next week or two. We are on that Social Media highway and exploring all those virtual opportunities.

On a practical level, we are delighted to have booked a stand at the Let’s Do Business Hastings Exhibition on 29 September. Having attended similar events for the public sector, we know that these are the kind of networking opportunities that are critical to getting your name noticed and drumming up some business. Of course, the obligatory promotional freebie needs to be thrown in as well. You can’t attend an exhibition nowadays without expecting to give away something for free, can you? We can’t wait for this event and genuinely look forward to meeting some of you there. Whilst I am Sussex born and bred, this venture will be a new kid in town and our sincere thanks go to the organisers for supporting start-up businesses in this way – a real opportunity to mingle with the big boys.

We are also excited about joining the First Friday Network for East Sussex and the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce in due course. I am sure there will be a wealth of knowledge with both. However, I have noticed that there is no First Friday Network meeting specifically scheduled in Hastings – so we might have to do something about that as the weeks progress!

We are also going to promote a launch competition and, in addition, an introductory offer to your first order. These details will be on the website very soon indeed.

But whilst a competition and an introductory offer might be welcome gestures, they are also slightly tired clichés and we want to do a little bit more for our clients.

We have noticed that many businesses, and sole traders in particular, require support outside normal business hours. How many times have you needed to type something over the weekend for Monday morning and had to waste your weekend having to do it yourself? How many times have you needed to book an appointment after 5:00pm? What if you’re busy with your core business during the normal working day and would find it easier to discuss administrative support with us later in the evening or on Saturday/Sunday? Yet most Virtual Assistant services generally work on the Monday-Friday, 9-5 schedule, or if additional services are offered, the client is expected to pay more for them.

Admin Saint will go further to help you. We understand that businesses need cost-effective support outside of core hours.

In discussion with each client, Admin Saint can support you in the evenings, at the weekend and on bank holidays for no additional cost. These services will be included within the cost of the chosen package. We are not in the business of ’spin’ or ‘catches’. This is simply about wanting to understand the needs of our clients and to be able to work to their business agenda, not our own.

Admin Saint is community-minded too. We are proud to champion local businesses, events and experiences. Whether it’s the Hastings Beer and Music Festival, the Old Town Carnival, the Electric Palace Cinema or the Stables Theatre, we will do our best to encourage the local community to make use of local shops and services. This isn’t on a quid pro quo basis. It’s just because localism is important to us.

So, whether it’s at the Let’s Do Business exhibition in September, a business lunch at The Ghurka Palace, a chance encounter at the Old Town Carnival or over a pint in the FILO, we look forward to meeting you soon and saying hello. But if you are not part of the local community, then fret not; you are equally welcome. Social Media is marvellous for making a big world very small, isn’t it? Or why not visit Hastings and see what this great little town has to offer?

In the meantime, please feel free to email if you have any questions about how we may be able to help you.

Creating a corporate identity

The phrase ‘corporate identity’ is certainly up there in the current hit-parade of business jargon. It might not be at number one; that accolade surely goes to ‘Cloud Computing’, but it is certainly nudging down nonsense-tracks like ‘blue-sky-thinking’ and ‘idea-showers’.

Nevertheless, I am fascinated by how people come up with their ideas. There is often a tale to be told as to what inspired the chosen identity.

For me Admin Saint, or Admin S@int if I’m being particular, was a mixture of thoughts. I wanted something snappy with not too many syllables. Three felt like the right amount. Clearly I needed a key word that identified the field in which we work. Administration, as a word, was far too long. We all know what ‘admin’ means and it is generally accepted as an alternative to its longer parent. The sense of sainthood represents our desire to be seen as altruistic in our approach – that our whole vision is centred around the desire to help other businesses. Quality administrative support is a vital cog in the delivery of a successful core business.

The ‘@’ sign was dropped in to represent the modernity of being able to communicate by email, skype, facebook, twitter etc and the very fabric of our ability to provide remote support.

The strap line, ‘Virtual Support for Real Business’, was designed to be a small play on words demonstrating that the virtual world is part of our every-day reality. Far from being polarised, reality and virtuality are wholly reliant on each other. Real businesses must make use of the virtual world in order to grow and a virtual office can be very much part of that.

I thought very carefully about the style of wording. The concept of Admin Saint is one of being smart in appearance, clean and crisp in execution and yet with a sense of modern freshness about it. The chosen font could have been one of several, but it deliberately avoids serifs, twirls and curls to give it that simplicity, sharpness and neatness.

It is said that the outdoors has therapeutic qualities – green spaces and bright blue skies can release positive endorphins in the brain. It certainly does for me. I like nothing more than seeing our rich green countryside on a warm summer’s day. I am passionate about our countryside and the feeling I get when I am outdoors in those bright conditions. Whilst the blue and green logo is not meant to look exactly like the sky and the grass – we are not a ‘nature’ business – the contrast of the colours is inspired by the outdoors and represents the fresh approach of the business.

Whilst I am not a big fan of the ‘such-and-such 4 U’ idea, I understand and respect its popularity. It is certainly a powerful marketing tool because it is instantly recognisable. However, I also understand when it is suggested by some that the ’4U’ branding represents cheapness and compromising in quality. For me, it has become too much of a populist bandwagon that there is now a danger a company could lose its sense of individuality. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Corporate branding is critical to the success of a business. I am intrigued to learn about how your logo and branding came about. What does your logo say about your business? How was it conceived? How do you make yours stand out from the rest?

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