Client Type - Always on ‘Arry (and behaviourism in action)

One of the most challenging aspects of being a VA for me is managing client’s expectations on time. If you are paying me for 10 hours a month, you can’t realistically expect me to be at my desk waiting for your call for 40 hours a week. It’s not logical. You pay me for 10 hours, I’ll maybe check your emails twice a day and chunk time to do your work twice a week. I cannot drop everything to respond to each email within 10 minutes. I have meetings, other client work, onsite work and so on. If you want someone at your beck and call fulltime then there’s a word for that – employee. Fulltime employee in fact. And even they take lunch breaks, holidays and go and pee!

I often have this conversation with new clients and once you explain it, they totally get it. But they didn’t get it before it was spelt out, which was a learning for me – they need educating. And that is totally fine. I knew naff all about how being a VA works before I did it, why on earth should I expect anyone else to be psychic? I’ll explain in during an onboarding conversation and then everyone knows where they are at.

Your Always On ‘Arry types will fully expect you to be available to reply at all times because in their head you are their PA, nay, their slave, never mind the fact that they are only paying you for a fraction of that time. This is why I never ever do call handling – I don’t want to be trapped and waiting.

What they don’t realise is that checking emails, answering calls takes time. Checking for emails even when there aren’t any takes time, as does reading them. If you are only paying me for 10 hours a month, I do not sit at my desk waiting for something to come in for you so I can do it. I have to manage and plan my time to fit everyone in and you might get a slot every other day for me to check in and do what is needed. What I don’t do is work on your stuff all the time. Because I only have 10 hours a month to play with. If you send me (or CC me on) 100 emails a day, they are going to take time to read. It is entirely possible that I might spend 6 of those 10 hours reading a lot of emails. Leaving only 4 hours to do some actual work. And if these emails (or in some cases, emails, Whats Aps, Facebook messages, texts AND skype messages!) come at me at all hours I am pretty soon going to have no time left of your 10 hour block. And as a VA I am not checking emails all day every day. Even if I keep a glance on them, I may not be able to action them immediately (“can you cancel the meeting at 2? We’re engrossed in something” It now being 1PM and I am onsite with a different client – no, not do able. If you want that level of cover, you’ll be needing a full-time employee, that is hopefully not on a lunch break at this moment).

Some businesses work funny hours and some may even have multiple VAs to cover that (for example, having a USA VA to cover UK evenings) but clients have to respect that I don’t work 24 hours a day. I had a text (or an email, can’t remember) from a newish client at 7.45 on a Friday evening asking if I could book a car to pick him up the next morning. Not even a “I’m sorry it’s so late” Er, no! Have some respect. Either ask me earlier or do it yourself. Sure enough, he did it himself. It took no more time than emailing me? That’s prize-winning knob behaviour right there and alarm bells were ringing. And although it does irritate me, I am trying to educate by using behaviourism*.

So behaviourism - rewarding good behaviour and ignoring or punishing the bad (FYI electric shocking clients is most probably illegal). I know a woman who is a very high level PA and she has a sort of behaviourist system. Most people prioritise tasks by urgency, type, whatever. She prioritises by whether the person that gave it to her is an arsehole or not. Those people who are polite, respectful and generally pleasant to work with think she’s the best, most efficient PA in the universe and a total honey. Which she is… if you treat her right. If you have ever pissed this woman off, your task might well be so far down her metaphorical in-tray it won’t see the light of day until her retirement. This is exactly behaviourism in action. Also known as “Don’t piss the PA off, your life won’t be worth living”. Their jobs don’t get done, their meetings with her boss are always at shitty times and they probably have to beg for those shitty slots four times. Things may even be lost, or never done, messages mysteriously not passed on, emails disappeared. And she’ll be desperately pleasant about it and make it seem very reasonable whilst being totally unhelpful. I assume now that in the company induction there is some kind of introduction to this. But there shouldn’t need to be if everyone treated each other with respect.

So your man with his car on a Friday night, ignore. Everything out of hours, studiously ignore. I am not meant to be at my desk therefore I haven’t read it. In fact, although I do quite often do work out of hours, because I know it is very annoying to get emails at night, I will put a delay on my emails so they don’t appear until a reasonable time the next day.

The problem with us VAs and PAs is that we are by nature a helpful bunch. So we say yes a lot more than we should. Saying no is challenging but I am training myself to do it more.

Friday afternoon at 5PM “can this letter I am just sending go out today? Or tomorrow? Special delivery”

My instinct is to go “of course, I’ll do that”

My brain is saying “NOooooo! I’m 7 minutes away from a very large glass of wine and tomorrow is Saturday and I’m screwed if I’m doing it then in between having a life and mowing the lawn. The last thing I want to do is queue in the bloody post office for 30 minutes with the great unwashed.”

What I should say is “I can get that out for you Monday”. It’s not a no. It’s not unreasonable. What usually happens, because I am pathetic, is that I will make up a load of bollocks about how I am away all weekend "leaving in 10 minutes so sorry", and end up at some point hiding in Tesco when I run into said client down the frozen food aisle… It’s not grown up enough, it really isn’t. I must try harder.

And, on behaviourism, by the same token, when I get an email that says “next week / month, I have X on and will need some extra time, can you save me some” I am very effusive in my thanks for their impressive organisation and foresight because it makes my life easier. Rewarding good behaviour. Throw the dolphins some fish!

And I’m not a bitch (hard to tell I know). In a crisis, out of hours I will help if it’s a one-off thing. My wonderful clients very very rarely ask for things out of hours. So on the rare occasion there is a crisis, I will bust a gut to help them. As long as it’s not taken for granted, that’s fine. It’s the assumption that gets on my wick.

* Behaviourism. Actual proper psychology stuff. Sensible books are strongly advised before putting this into practice. Google Pavlov’s dog for a quick and dirty idea of the basics.