Have you ever been in a work situation where you felt like you were herding cats? I sure have.
Back in my younger days, I volunteered as an ice cream store manager at a summer camp. It seemed like it was going to be a pretty easy job. As far as systems go, I figured I had it covered:
Give ice cream.
But, wow, was I wrong! There were five of us working in the shop, and when it got really busy, it was all hands on deck. With all of us serving customers at the same time and taking turns with the ice cream machine, we had to perform a kind of elaborate dance to stay out of each other’s way.
We managed okay until a couple of us took a wrong step one day and collided. My co-worker and I had just enough of a height difference that when we ran into each other, my face landed right smack into the ice cream cone she was holding.
Back then we laughed about it, seeing it as part of the job, but in retrospect, it probably wouldn’t have happened if we had worked out a more efficient system for serving customers.
Why Systems are Important
One of the benefits of systems is that they allow greater productivity. At the ice cream shop, we lost valuable time trying to dodge each other as we moved around the equipment, and we lost a staff member during a busy time when I had to run out and wash ice cream off my face. If I could do things differently, I would have divided up the tasks so that we each had a more specific role that didn’t overlap with others.
This fact holds true in online businesses as well. As a Virtual Assistant, you are often wearing a number of hats as you manage your own business, and your clients are doing the same. By creating systems for different roles, you can avoid overlap and decide how much time needs to be devoted to each task.
Creating systems is also an in-demand skill for those clients who “fly by the seat of their pants.” Although such spontaneity is often part of a highly creative, courageous spirit, it can sometimes cause disorganization and inefficiency in a business. This is a case where you as a Virtual Assistant can prove valuable to your clients by systematizing their tasks. Then they can be free to fly while maintaining structure and efficiency.
Another benefit of systems is that they allow greater freedom for online business owners to take some time off. In a blog post titled “Creating Systems that Create Freedom,” Kate Erickson discusses how creating systems and building a team of Virtual Assistants allowed her and her partner to fully unplug for two weeks and go on vacation:
“Creating systems for your business takes time, and building a team who you can rely on doesn’t happen overnight either. But investing time in creating systems and a team who can help will change your business, and it’s the only thing that will afford you the freedom to unplug for two weeks, go to your son’s soccer game, or take your family out for the entire day – even if it is a Thursday.”
Types of Systems in Your VA Business
I’ve had the privilege of working with some great minds over the years, and one of those minds belongs to Kelly Cannings. When setting up systems, Kelly advises looking at your business as you would your home. She says, “Not putting in place proper systems feels like each room in the house is the ‘junk drawer’ – lots of good stuff hidden in there, but difficult to find and time-consuming.”
So with that in mind, I’ll use my apartment as an example to help us map out the types of systems we find in our VA Businesses.
1. The Office
This is the best place to start because if you are disorganized, your client relationships will suffer. So as you look around your office space, think about the types of systems that will help keep it organized:
Filing systems – I try to maintain a solid filing system both on and off my computer. In a physical file cabinet, I keep clearly labeled folders organized either topically or alphabetically, and I do the same with the files on my computer. When setting up a filing system, I often try to imagine whether someone coming into my office for the first time would be able to find things easily.
Proper file backup – To avoid the horror of losing files, I’ve set up an external hard drive that backs up everything at regular intervals, as well as a Dropbox account where I store files in clearly labeled folders. I also store my works in progress in Google Drive and Gmail drafts.
Clean, inviting workspace – Now, I’m not sure about you, but this one is a challenge for me. My office can sometimes look like someone took a whole bunch of office supplies and sprinkled them around the room like confetti. ☺ This chaos makes it tough to concentrate, so an important recommendation is to clear away unnecessary clutter and create a pleasant décor in your space. You might also want to evaluate whether you need a change of scenery once a week. Sometimes spending the day working on your laptop in a local coffee shop or library can be refreshing and give you a boost of productivity.
To-do lists – I find it easy to follow the siren call of email and Social Media, where I lose track of time. To avoid this problem, it helps to prioritize major and minor tasks before you begin each day. This includes batching emails and Social Media, and determining the urgency of tasks so that you perform them in the correct order and meet your deadlines.
Financial systems – I would be lost without systems to organize the financial aspects of my business. To handle timesheets, expenses, and invoicing, I use an all-in-one solution like FreshBooks, and I have a physical file folder where I store hard copies of invoices, receipts, and pay stubs. Depending on how you are paid or how you pay team members, you might also need to sign up for PayPal or another type of merchant account. I also have an accountant I hire to prepare my income tax returns each year. He knows how to navigate the complexities of a small business tax return and saves me a lot of time and stress.
Marketing systems – Here you will need to decide which marketing channels you use for your business and outline your marketing strategies for each. For example, in a post titled “5 Systems that will turn your freelance design business into a well-oiled machine,” http://millo.co/turn-your-freelance-design-business-into-a-well-oiled-machine Michael Ofei suggests answering the following questions to create a process for social media marketing:
– Have you created a list of content ideas for each social platform?
– Have you signed up for a social media management tool like Buffer or Hootsuite?
– Have you determined how often you want to post on each platform?
– Have you determined the best times to post on each platform?
– How often will you schedule posts in advance?
2. The Entryway
In my apartment complex, visitors must first press a button on a control panel at the main entrance of the building to contact me so that I can press a button and let them into the lobby. It should be a simple process, but often the intercom system at the front door isn’t working, so I can’t hear whoever’s arrived, and I end up shouting into the phone, “Hello? Hello? HELLO?” This makes for a very awkward encounter once the visitor arrives as I try to apologize for what just happened.
The entryway of your home can be equated with your initial first contact with a client. Having a good system in place will help you get off to a good start and avoid unnecessary awkwardness. When setting up this system, you’ll want to consider the following factors:
– How you will prepare for the meeting
– What process you will take each new client through to ensure they are a good fit for you and your business
– How you will follow up with that client
3. The Kitchen
In many homes, the kitchen is the communication hub. When I’m entertaining guests, they often stand near me and chat while I prepare coffee or food. This interaction can be related to the process of getting to know your client.
In this case, you’ll want to put communication systems or tools in place that will help you get a handle on who your clients are, how they work, and what their expectations are. You may want to speak to previous Virtual Assistants or team members they have worked with, or you may want to have them take a personality test. Gathering as much information on your clients as possible will help prevent any surprises from popping up in a time of crisis.
4. The Dining Room
This is the most formal space in my home where I decorate the table and keep precious things like my great-grandparents’ crystal. You can think of the dining room as the place where you will present something formal to potential clients. It’s the place where valuable client agreements are signed.
When designing this system, you’ll want to decide how to set boundaries and communicate them before you sign any agreements. You’ll also want to be sure your pricing packages are clearly outlined.
5. The Bedrooms
Now we can move on to the bedrooms in our homes. These rooms often reflect the individual personalities of the different people they belong to. In the same way, you can think of each room as representing a particular area of work you do for your client. Some examples are
Affiliate Program Management
Each of these rooms requires a specific system so that you can adequately meet the needs of your client while staying within his or her budget, maintaining your boundaries, and meeting any deadlines. VAClassroom’s Certification programs provide many resources that would be applicable for managing these rooms.
How to Put Systems in Place
When I asked Kelly Cannings for advice about setting up systems, she suggested that you always start with yourself. So your first task as a Virtual Assistant is to organize your own business systems. If you try to establish them while juggling a client load, you’ll definitely feel like you’re herding cats! Lots of cats.
Once you and your office are organized, you can then focus on your client and begin to set up one system at a time. Kelly stresses that it’s important not to make too many changes at once. The best strategy is to use the house analogy above and work on one room at a time. Establish and implement a system for one room, stick with that room for a week, and then move on to the next. This strategy will prevent you from becoming overwhelmed and drowning in details. As you become proficient at each system, one at a time, you’ll experience greater success, time efficiency, and a sense of accomplishment.
Now we’d love to hear from you! How have systems impacted your business or your clients?