Travelling to Newfoundland – for 24 hours

Well, finally a reason to like my MacBook Air…it fits on the tray of an airplane seat – even when the seat in front of me is reclining as far back as it can go.

I am about a third of the way to St. John’s. The man beside me is sleeping, the man across the aisle from me has a terrible cough (great, eh?); Les Miserables is getting tedious because Victor Hugo is describing the Battle of Waterloo in great detail.   But at least I got an aisle seat so I can move around if I have to.

Apparently one of the requirements to work at Toronto International Airport is being a jerk (I would use a stronger word but it’s a family blog) and I wouldn’t want the Swear Police (Jaden) to put me in jail.

But at least Toronto International has joined the 21st century and the wifi is free. It wasn’t all that many years ago when travelling back and forth between St. John’s and Toronto when the wifi in St. John’s was free and in Toronto it was $9.95 plus tax. So, just before boarding I was able to check my email and send updates to a couple of clients before shutting down. When I arrive in Newfoundland, before getting my rental car, I will get back on the internet to check for updates – I’m expecting at least one important update from a client and will have to book an appointment for her at 11 a.m. EST.

That’s the beauty of being a Virtual Assistant. I can be anywhere as long as I have an internet connection. And these days they are everywhere (even Toronto International Airport). So, I will take 10 minutes at the airport to get on line, bring myself and my clients up to date, get my car and be off to Spaniard’s Bay. Maybe even upload this post.

A recent interview

Recently I was interviewed by Trudy Van Buskirk of Boomer Biz Builder about being a Virtual Assistant and how I got to where I am today.  It was a very interesting experience and I’m going to use it to do another “Interview” for Jim Pagiamtzis’ blog.

When I first decided to become a virtual assistant back in 2003, I applied for and got into the Self Employment Assistance Program (now called Self Employment Benefits Program, a government program then run by HRDC and now run by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, which assists budding entrepreneurs during their first year in business.  Included in the program is one year of mentorship by a Business Advisor.  Trudy was the Business Advisor assigned to me.  Although there were times when we butted heads over the direction I should take my business, Trudy competently steered me through the sometimes rough waters of early entrepreneurship.

So fast forward 9 years and Trudy asked me if I would be one of her interview subjects.  The interview itself was a very interesting experience, to say the least; the interview was held in a coffee shop, the Red Rocket Coffee, on the Danforth.  So aside from sitting within inches of another table, the occupants of which could hear everything we said, there was also all the attendant background noise of a busy coffee shop.  Although most of the interview is clear, at one point there must have been an influx of people, which I didn’t notice at the time, because the background noise almost takes over.

Thank goodness one of the things I’ve learned as a virtual assistant is to be prepared for anything, so I took my digital recorder with me and recorded the interview; good thing I did too as Trudy’s digital recorder didn’t work for some reason.  That’s me…just like a boy scout…always prepared.

In any event, you can hear the entire interview on Trudy’s blog at http://www.boomerbizbuilder.com/2012/05/14/meet-liz-saunders-mcmanus-a-virtual-assistant/

Watching My Clients’ backs

A somewhat unpleasant thing happened today that started me thinking about what a VA can do for her/his clients.

Many years ago, when I first went into business for myself, my brother who is an electrician was one of my clients.  All these years later, he is moving in a different direction and asked me for help figuring out how to use the computers at the Toronto Public Library to access his email.  So we met at the Pape and Danforth branch, figured it out together and decided to go to the local Starbucks for coffee.

As I had to put more money “in the meter”,  I suggested that I would do that, he could head straight to Starbucks and I would see him there.  As I retrieved my ticket from the machine, I looked up and he was walking across the parking lot towards me.  Somewhat confused, I questioned why he hadn’t gone directly to Starbucks.  To my horror, he told me that my ex-husband had passed me on the street within about 10 feet of me, seen me, recognized me and followed me up the road towards my car.  Then he stopped and watched me as I cut through the parking lot.   My brother has heard some of the awful stories about my ex-husband and the way he tormented my children so was worried that after witnessing this somewhat creepy behaviour, I might be in jeopardy…so he followed my ex-husband as my ex-husband followed me.  Fortunately, nothing happened and I was completely oblivious that this had transpired.

Wow, when he told me what had happened was I glad my brother had my back!    Later in the day, as the discomfort of what had happened passed, I started thinking about how, in many ways, this is exactly what a Virtual Assistant can do for her/his clients on a daily basis.  I do a lot of customer support, act as the point of contact, book the appointments and various other things that might otherwise distract, interrupt or waste the time of my clients…my clients don’t need to deal with sales calls for advertising, web design (especially to the web designers) or other generally annoying phone calls.   In most cases, my clients remain completely unaware of the phone calls because they don’t need to know – as long as their lives and businesses run smoothly, there’s no need for them to know.

So, much like my oblivion earlier today (and I think I’ll ask my brother to keep me oblivious if it happens again), my clients can continue to work on their businesses rather than in them, grow their customer bases and make money – while I watch their backs.  A very comforting feeling.

Honesty is the only policy

Recently some friends of mine came down from Bracebridge, where he’s a realtor, and we went to the Cottage Life Show together.  We had a wonderful time, looking at all kinds of great, but expensive ideas which we won’t be implementing at our cottage any time soon.

Towards the end of the day we were wandering fairly slowly (my arthritic feet, Wendie’s broken ankle) and what should I spy on the floor but a lonely iPhone.

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Fearing it would get stepped on, I snatched it up and spoke to the vendor immediately beside me giving her my name and cell phone number in case the owner came looking, meanwhile fully intending to turn the phone in at the Management Office at my first opportunity.  I also went through the contacts in the phone and found “home”, so I called and left a message with my name and cell – just in case someone at home could get a message to someone at the Cottage Show.

Shortly after that, I found a security guard and turned the phone in.

You might ask, why did I go to all that trouble?  Well, many years ago, my husband lost a brand new cell phone at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair while playing (rough housing really) with our grandson.  It was never recovered despite reporting it to the Management Office and calling them daily.  And at another time, I witnessed a purse snatching and managed to get the perpetrator’s license plate and the make and model of his car.  I found the woman who’s wallet had been taken and gave her the information.  When she asked me why I had gone to the trouble, and I told her “my 14 year old daughter is missing and she has mononucleosis;  her friends know where she is but no one will help us find her.”  Then I left without telling her who I was.

So, the incident at the Cottage Life Show was weeks ago.  Yesterday my cell rang from a phone number I didn’t recognize.  When I answered the phone a woman I had never talked to before said “Hi, this is Darlene, is this Liz?”  When I identified myself she said “Oh thank you SO much for returning my husband’s phone.  He was beside himself when he realized he had lost it; it was brand new”.  We chatted for a little while and she thanked me repeatedly.  Turns out they never expected to see the phone again.

It’s a sad commentary on this day and age when the expected is the wrong response:  That Darlene and her husband were more sure they would never see the phone again because someone would abscond with it as opposed to that they would see the phone again because someone would turn it in.

What have we turned into?

Can Political Correctness Actually be Dangerous?

A client of mine was recently approached, through her ticket desk (me), to speak at an event at St. Paul’s Church in Jarrow, UK.  The request allegedly came from Bishop Mark Jarrow.  I thought it odd so I did some research on the internet.  There is a St. Paul’s Church in Jarrow, UK (in fact, it’s the home of the Venerable Bede) and the local Bishop’s name is Mark Bryant aka Mark Jarrow.

This is where the political correctness comes in:  the language in the ticket and in subsequent emails wasn’t that of a native, English/British speaker.  My first reaction was scepticism but then I told myself, wait, maybe you’re being unnecessarily snobbish or prejudiced.  Britain is well known as a melting pot of many cultures – not all of whom speak English the way you or I do.  I remembered that at my Uncle’s funeral in a small town in northern Central Ontario, the Catholic priest was very Spanish.  Would he have been able to write an email in English that was completely grammatically correct?  Ditto a Catholic priest in a church in the Beaches area of Toronto a few years ago.   So, on with my political correctness hat and I let my client know about the ticket.

However, something never quite seemed right.  They sent a contract, which my client signed and returned (now they had her signature).  They needed her passport info, d.o.b. and full name to book her flight.  Then came the bombshell that she would need a work permit and would have to pay for it herself.

We both tried contacting the British Consulate here…they want $3.20 a minute to talk to a live human being.  After a tortuous search of the website we agreed to have the permit pulled in the UK – despite the fact that the British Consulate’s website said a Tier 5 permit would be 190GBP and the contact in Jarrow said it would be 430GBP.  I suggested they use part of the deposit they were going to send my client, but no…that was coming from a sponsor and not immediately available.  In any event, they said they were going to reimburse the cost so we were going to go ahead.

Still, something didn’t feel right at this point and when they asked me for the second time, when my client would like to travel, something clicked in me and, on my own time, I started really digging.  First I compared phone numbers and postal codes on the contract and the website (they were different).  Then I emailed the rector listed on the website and was put in touch with the real Bishop’s PA (who writes impeccable English).   Turns out it’s a scam that the local constabulary are well aware of but interestingly enough, the Toronto cops couldn’t care less about.

The real church in Jarrow has now added a disclaimer to their website about this scam under the “Jarrow Lecture” tab.

Thank goodness we figured out it was a scam before my client actually wired any money to them.  Oh, and for the record, my client looked up the IP addresses and they are in Nigeria.

So, when does political correctness become dangerous:  the minute we stop relying on our instinctive reactions and mask them with political correctness and the desire not to offend.

O’Connor Drive closed because of a gas leak

Today started out much as any other day…checked my email, went for my walk around the building, spent an hour on the phone trying to get my printer/scanner to work and then I got ready to make some phone calls for a client. Unfortunately, what I didn’t know was that across the street there was a gas leak at the Leisureworld.

My day got disrupted by this because I was waiting for a delivery of the gift baskets I had ordered for clients as Christmas presents. I received a call that the baskets would be delivered in minutes so I went down to the lobby. Three-quarters of an hour later I finally received the gift baskets after the deliverer got “close” to me. O’Connor Drive has now been closed for over 3 hours. The residents at Leisureworld were evacuated onto TTC buses to await the all clear to return to their rooms.

Amazing how a gas leak can shut down a business that’s virtual, but effectively that’s what it did. I couldn’t make phone calls knowing that I would be interrupted when the gift basket delivery got close…and I didn’t know when that would be.

What’s 10 Minutes a Day Worth to You? by Liz Saunders

Do you know how 10 minutes a day can change your life? Read on about the benefits of hiring a Virtual Assistant.

What is a Virtual Assistant (VA) you ask? A VA is someone who does various types of administrative work, but rather than going out to your office, VA’s stay in their own home office. There are many ways that an entrepreneur, organization or company can use a VA. VA’s perform many tasks that would otherwise be assigned to an executive assistant or an office manager. However, we offer more than just administrative assistance because we work more as a partner with our clients and can be used as sounding boards, research assistants, lead generators and project managers.

One reason to hire a VA is money: the money you’ll save by not having to hire someone for more hours than you need; the money you’ll save not having to pay rent for a place for an employee to sit; the money you’ll save on the equipment you won’t have to purchase for an employee to use and the money you’ll save not having to do payroll and pay employer’s portions of costs.

But it’s not just about saving money. It’s also about making money that is why you’re in business, isn’t it? A VA can free up your time so that you can build your business by taking the hours that are eaten up by your administration off your plate, giving you the opportunity to turn those wasted hours into profitable hours, whether through increasing your billable hours or through growing the business generally.

How do we do this? One thing we can do for the small entrepreneur is help create the illusion that his or her organization is a larger operation than it is, thereby investing it with more credibility. We can do this by simply answering the phone as your “receptionist, Assistant or Office Manager”. Similarly, if you’re on the road a great deal, or regularly in meetings, we can be the hub of the business: taking messages, sending out information packages to potential customers or even booking appointments using a web-based scheduler.

Some VA’s offer web-design and others offer bookkeeping. The range of services is extremely wide and no two VA’s are exactly alike. That also makes the relationship between VA and client a very close one. We aim to partner with our clients and in the process, anticipate our client’s needs before even being asked. We also act as a reminder service for our clients for personal and business events. A gentle reminder at the end of every month about doing the monthly invoices may be something that focuses the mind on the need to get it done…after all, you won’t get paid if you don’t send out the invoice. We can give you the reminder, then produce the invoices you require and, if you wish, keep track of payments. If necessary, we can send reminder notices to your forgetful customers.

When do you decide to make the leap from not having an assistant to having one? For some of you it will be when you’ve pulled the last strand of hair out of your head, or you’re spending so much time working that your partner and/or children have forgotten your name. Others will see the fire coming towards them in time to douse the flames before being engulfed.

This is where the value of 10 minutes a day comes in. Here’s a simple test that anyone with Internet access can take.

Go to http://www.spudcity.com and download a trial version of TraxTime. Then, using this marvelous little tool, start keeping track of everything you do during the day that is administrative and not billable. (It’s also an invaluable tool for keeping track of your time if you bill your client’s by the hour.) If you spend an average of 10 minutes a day on administration…that translates into one week per year (41.67 hours). One week! And two hours a week is the equivalent of one day a month or 12 days a year. Think what you could do with that time if you weren’t spending it on your administration? You could make some of those hours billable! You could use some of that time for prospecting, building your database and growing your business. You could spend the time with your family and enjoy a more balanced life.

Ten minutes a day. Once you’ve tried tracking your time with TraxTime, you’ll probably wish that you were only doing 10 minutes a day of administration. Think how much more profitable it would be to give those 10 minutes a day to a VA so that you could create more income producing time or maybe take that week off a year and spend it on a golf course or a beach or anywhere your fancy takes you.

Ten minutes. Gives us all something to think about doesn’t it?

Liz Saunders McManus

http://www.TheVirtualAlternative.com

Do You Need a Brain Dump? by Liz Saunders

I recently spoke to a former client who lamented the fact that he’s TOO busy to work with me, unless, that is, I could find a way to capture his mind and work with it while he went away on holiday. We agreed that he needed a Brain Dump.

A Brain Dump you say? Yes indeed. Sometimes, when an entrepreneur has so many irons in the fire, he just can’t get all the ideas in his head out of his head and onto paper. Either the brilliant ideas come to him while he’s driving the car, or on the golf course, or somehow not near paper or his computer. The solution? A small, digital recorder. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? I’ve used an Olympus Digital Voice Recorder WS-110 for years for recording meetings at which I’m doing the minutes…just in case I think I’ve missed something important. This is what it looks like:

But there are lots of them out there. There’s a site that does a comparison of some of the higher end models: About.com: Small Business Canada But you can get one at Best Buy for as little as $34.99.

Just think, if you could get some of those things off your mind, into a .wav file and off to your Virtual Assistant to transcribe how much more productive you could be. And of course, with today’s technology, you can send that .wav file from any computer, anywhere. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, unless you have the luxury of having a full time assistant at your beck and call to listen to and record your Brain Dump at your whim.

So, if you think you’re too overwhelmed to even think about hiring a Virtual Assistant, or are struggling to think what to give to your Virtual Assistant…consider a Brain Dump…it will be such a relief!

For more ideas to make your life simpler, visit me at TheVirtualAlternative.com

QR Codes, by Liz Saunders

Yesterday, while out doing my thing as a virtual assistant, I learned about something new and really cool…QR Codes.  What the…? you might ask.  Well here’s what one looks like:
I know, weird looking right? It was described as a screwed up Miss Pacman game. But they are really neat. Using your Smart Phone or iPhone, go to 2dscan.com and download ScanLife (which is free), then when you see a QR Code, take a picture of it and your phone will automatic go to the link embedded in the QR Code. The Code above is for a blog which is quite funny by Phil Barrett, the VP, Digital & Mobile at B Street. He’s how I heard about them. So take a picture and read Phil’s blog.

But they have all kinds of applications. They can be on the outside of a building and you can get a link to the history of the building or even an calendar of events planned for the building or anything that the building owner wants to program into the Code. In Japan, there are buildings where the entire side of the building is a huge QR Code. There are also magazines with no content…just QR Codes.

Wikipedia gives a more thorough idea of what they are.

Apparently this is the way of the future, so we’re going to have to get used to funny little Miss Pacman games everywhere!