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Desiree Ashton

doing the legwork, so you don't have to

For many of my clients, January is a month which is synonymous with meetings.  Having already completed their own planning sessions in November / December, the start of a new year sees them depart the confines of their office to hit the open road and engage in some serious face-to-face lead generation, meetings and networking.

Most of my clients have invested time and effort into nurturing a loyal and long-standing client base.  It’s likely that they will be the first port of call for new initiatives in 2012.   Nevertheless, far from being complacent, they still understand the role that face-to-face meetings can play in allowing them to remain close to their customers.  The conversations which they have are not simply about identifying what opportunities beckon on their clients’ horizons, but also what changes and developments may have taken place in their own business which allow them to offer existing clients even more.

My role, particularly during January, often centres on supporting my clients to attend such meetings.  Here are just 3 ways in which I currently do this:

Documentation / PresentationsWell-prepared documents and presentations which showcase some of my clients’ recent achievements will serve to remind their clients of the skills and experience available to them.  These can also be used to draw attention to new developments (such as new premises, or new members of staff) which enhance or extend the offer.  Personal and pre-formatted copies of all materials can be left with their client for further consideration.

Research – Being aware of new developments which have taken place within the end-client organisation engenders trust and may also allow my client to highlight areas where their service could prove particularly relevant.  Such developments may include restructures, a new CEO, a new venture or even closure of one arm of the business.  Understanding the context of their end-client will allow them to engage in a more informed and fruitful conversation.

Follow Up – Certain meetings may require timely or detailed follow-up.  A quick call or email to me will allow background tasks to be efficiently delegated so that my client can focus exclusively on preparing for and attending their next meeting.

These are 3 simple ways in which I assist my clients to hit the ground running in January…. The early bird does indeed catch the worm.

What are you doing to get ahead in January?

If you would like to find out more about what I do for my clients, please visit my website and feel free to get in touch:


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As the colder weather and darker evenings mark the end of another year, December is often a time when I meet with my clients to review what has been achieved in the last 12 months and draft an outline plan regarding where and how I will support them in the coming year.

Despite working across very different sectors, planning ahead and being prepared has always been an approach which is shared by all my clients.  Many have enjoyed very senior positions within the corporate sphere so know the value of investing time in identifying where and how they can continue to grow their business and plan resource and personnel to support that.

This annual process of forward-planning highlights my clients’ understanding of the importance of targeted delegation.   Their collective aim for 2012 is to free up their time, so that they can focus on activities which build their business and feed their bottom line.  What they delegate to me will vary, depending on the nature and stage of their business, but each task has been thought-through to ensure that it is ‘SMARTER’:

SPECIFIC –  Tasks and sub-tasks are clearly listed. Verbal instructions are supported by a written summary.

MEASURABLE – Markers for ‘completion’ are agreed, milestones for larger projects are identified and diarised.

ACHIEVABLE – Current, available resources are reviewed and additional expertise/personnel are sourced, if required.

REALISTIC – Turn-around times and handover dates are agreed.

TIME-BOUND – On-going / open-ended tasks are assigned ‘check-in’ points, to review progress.

ETHICAL – Tasks are sense-checked for compliance with industry ‘best-practice’ and regulation.

RECORDED – Tasks and progress are recorded by both parties for summary review at the end of the year.

By following a set formula for delegating to virtual support, my clients create a working arrangement which allows them to spend time on their business, rather than in it.  My task list for 2012 already promises a variety of projects, touching on customer communications, social media, marketing and business development.  An exciting year!

When you look ahead to 2012, how are you forward-planning for your all-star year?

If you’d like to know more about how I might help you achieve your plans for 2012, please visit my website or get in touch:

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This week marks an important week for business – Global Entreprenuership Week.  Running in over 104 countries world-wide, there are some 40,000 events planned which are designed to  bring businesses big and small together, connect people, share ideas and also offer support and inspiration to drive the next generation of business owners to achieve their goals.  Quite an undertaking, and two days in, there’s a veritable buzz in the air….and across social media.   #GEW is providing a vibrant Twitter feed of what’s happening, and where.

Among the many events that are running in my area, I took time out of my busy Monday schedule to attend an event at MENTA in Haverhill, Suffolk, run in conjunction with Enterprising Acorns.  Both organisations offer invaluable support to budding and growing businesses, and the Monday morning session was a perfect example of the great work they do.

After a brief meet and greet with coffee and biscuits, the group were treated to two short presentations by Claire Martinsen of Breckland Orchard – an inspirational ‘mumpreneur’ with a strong nose for opportunity – and Steven Flory of Hudson Signs – a former corporate ‘suit’ who is now carving out a new career as an entrepreneurial businessman in his own right.

While both speakers now operate in very different sectors, much of what they said carried a common theme.  Both, through sharing their own startup stories, highlighted how many successful businesses start out simply as an ‘idea’…. something you know can and will work, you just need to have the courage and commitment to lift it off the paper and turn it into reality.  Interestingly, both told tales of going with their gut instinct, often appearing to contradict the accepted way of doing things.  Looking back now, they could see where some decisions could be called into question – but, would they change anything?  The simple answer seemed to be ‘no’.  For Steven and Claire, it was all simply part of the journey that had made them the successful business owners they are today.  This point seemed to resonate strongly with the audience – you already know what is best for your business.  Have faith in your own judgement.

At the end of the session, Claire and Steven were asked what, if anything, would they throw money at if they were to start out in business again?  Both very firmly shared the same opinion – sales.  In their experience, no business could be a business without an orderbook and it was the one area that both had repeatedly focused on in their respective startups. In their own experience, they knew that money spent on websites, premises, branding and even personnel, was pointless unless you had the pipeline of firm sales to justify it.  Of course, this did mean that many decisions relating to the likes of branding and personnel had to be taken at the eleventh (sometimes twelfth!) hour, and both recounted some genuine laugh-out-loud anecdotes about the lengths they went to in order to deliver on a contract in super-quick time.  What this did mean, however, was that they quickly developed an ability to think laterally, to know who they could ask for help when they needed it and, most importantly, to focus wholeheartedly on honouring and closing that sale.

I, for one, found their honesty and willingness to share their experiences hugely refreshing.  Their tales of chasing down opportunities and (come what may) delivering on promises showed true entrepreneurial spirit.  It certainly kick-started my week with a  bang, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

If you want to find out more about what’s happening in your area, check out the GEW website.

And.. if you want to know what I do to help startups and entrepreneurs, please take a swing past my website, too.

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Networking is something which all good businesses do because they understand that it can provide a strategic, cost-effective route to market.  In today’s hyper-connected business world, it’s as much a case of what you know as who you know.  Being in the right place at the right time with the right people can open a multitude of otherwise apparently closed doors.

There is, however, a darker side to networking.  If not proactively managed this can be more detrimental to your business than not networking at all.  Attending events which ultimately do little for you or your business can equate to a complete and utter waste of time.   Time which could be best spent feeding your bottom line.

So, how do you ensure that your investment in networking delivers a boost to your business, as opposed to being a drain?

The answer is not rocket-science.  By simply investing some time in preparing for networking, you can ensure that the events you do attend bring real value to your business.  The choice is yours as to how you approach this.  As my experience is based on being the VA who does the legwork, here are some of the ways in which I have seen my clients get the most out of their networking.

1.  Identify and attend the right events for you:  The networking scene is positively buzzing with events and keeping track of what’s on, where and when, that might be of interest to you can be a task in itself.  Why not task your VA with researching and keeping a rolling list of up-coming events on particular themes?  You can then consult this summary list on a regular basis and decide which ones you wish to attend.  Save time by delegating the booking procedure to your VA, too.  Working with a rolling list, you can ensure that your networking allows you to attend a healthy ‘spread’ of events.  If one specific event proves particularly useful or interesting, your VA can be tasked with reminding you of when it recurs in the future.  If you miss an event which looked interesting, ask your VA to contact the organiser and request a copy of any slides, e-docs to be sent through to you.  

2.  Preparing for events:  It is quite common now for organisers to circulate the planned delegate list a few days prior to a networking event.  With some well-timed advance research your VA can furnish you with some additional details on those attending, allowing you to prioritise who you want to speak with.  In this way, you will ensure the conversations you have are relevant to you and your business.  Being able to demonstrate an insight or understanding of someone else’s business is a great way to introduce yourself and make a lasting impression. 

3.  Follow-up after events:  It is standard practice to exchange business cards at such events and it is important to make the best use of the information these contain.  When you receive a business card, suggest that you connect on social media and ask permission to register them in your database for your newsletter or blog.  The data entry can be done by your VA.  A nice touch will be to send out some company information, preferably in the form of a personal email.  All this can be prepared in advance by your VA so all you have to do following the event is decide who to send it to.  In your rolling list of networking events, ask your VA to keep a note of any important contacts against the event you met them at.  If you return to such an event in the future, you have the perfect excuse to get in touch again – and they will be impressed by both your memory and your attention to detail! 

4.  Know what’s hot:  New networking events are constantly being established and sometimes it’s good to freshen up your list.  Task your VA with researching specific areas which are of interest to you and finding out what other events are out there.  Social media is one way of doing this as many real-time groups also have online forums, too.   Browsing business directory websites can also prove fruitful.  Finally, if you’re away on business and know you will have some inevitable ‘dead time’, why not get your VA to look into and advise  networking events happening in that area?  You never know….

Regardless of which sector you operate in, by applying these tactics you can ensure that the events you attend deliver real value to your business.  Networking is not just about selling your wares, it’s about finding out more about what others sell, too.  Being prepared will allow you to circulate confidently at different events, helping raise your profile and leave a long and lasting impression with those you meet and speak with.

Happy networking!

One of the most common calls to action I receive is when a small business is looking to upscale.

For any business, being able to seize an opportunity to grow can provide a springboard for the next phase of business development.  The dilemma which presents itself, and which can cause smaller businesses to hold back at that critical life-changing moment, is sometimes centred on the simple matter of ‘resource’.  To take on a larger-than-normal project will possibly mean putting existing personnel and systems under increased strain.  Perhaps the procedures which are currently in place are not regarded as robust enough to deal with the sudden increase in ‘noise’ or ‘traffic’ that this potential project might generate.

So, how does the business which finds itself faced with such an opportunity react?

I recently worked with a client who took a very conscious decision to seize such an opportunity and upscale.  Having successfully tendered for and won a contract to deliver a high-profile project to a national organisation, there were several key areas which they knew would need added focus and targeted resource.

Working closely with my client, we agreed that there were 5 main areas where I would offer support:

  • Project plan – using project management software to keep track of progress and ensure that key milestones were met.
  • Team logistics – co-ordinating communications and travel plans across an extended team to ensure that personnel were in the right place at the right time with the right equipment and materials (and knew what to do with them!).
  • Document control – ensuring that all the appropriate templates, reports and presentations were drafted, formatted, uploaded, printed and delivered to where they needed to be, when they needed to be there.
  • Invoicing – tracking inbound and outbound payments to ensure there were no discrepancies, delays or anomalies which might interrupt the smooth-running of the programme.
  • Client communications – providing an additional contact-point for my client’s customers, ensuring that emails were processed and queries answered – because even in the midst of their busiest period, keeping in close contact with all their customers was still of utmost importance to them.

As the project gained momentum it became apparent that the support which I offered in one area could also extend to other smaller projects which were running concurrently with this one.  And so, I became involved in supporting those, too.  When the larger project came to an end, I spent some additional time with my client, tending to small house-keeping tasks such as securing testimonials and writing up case studies detailing the different outputs from the project concerned.

The time came for me to step back from my day-to-day involvement with the business and as I did so, my client and I took stock of our achievement.   Not only had my client been able to gain stretch and reach new potential in terms of competency and capability, every member of the team had, too.  Fuelled by the experience of operating at a new level, my client is now confidently chasing their next exciting opportunity.   They are, in every sense, moving on up.

So, the next time you sense a new opportunity on your horizon, what will you do?

More information on the various services I provide to my clients can be found on my website

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Earlier this week I was invited to attend and speak at a Social Media event alongside a colleague of mine, Richard Wishart.  I use the term ‘colleague’ because Richard is more than someone I met at a networking event (which I did), he is someone I have connected with across Social Media and gone on to meet again in my role as a Virtual PA.  The fact that he invited me to be part of this event is a case in point for the value that can be found in Social Media.  After our initial meeting, Twitter and LinkedIn both allowed us to ‘continue the conversation’ and it was the opportunity to engage in that exchange that took us to the next stage.

The event, hosted by Richard, was designed to demystify and explain some of the commonly queried aspects of social media and sign-post ways in which particularly small businesses can take advantage of what is effectively an ‘amplifier’ for what they do.  As both Ann Hawkins and Chris Thomas, my fellow speakers also highlighted, social media can be a very cost-effective way of getting yourself heard and, more importantly, connecting with the business world around you.   Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+ … to name just a few – can all help you to channel your message towards those who you want to hear it.  No one is suggesting that they will automatically substitute existing methods, but they will certainly complement them.

Richard also highlighted a key use he has for social media, which is to feed live information to him.  He described to the room how, in addition to taking advantage of some of the new segmentation offered by Google+ which allows him to communicate with different elements of his client base,  he has also channelled streams from all media to deliver a sector-specific newsfeed straight to his screen.  At this stage, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one to experience a momentary mental image of an all-powerful man with a fluffy white cat on his lap!  Jokes aside,  being in the audience at this point, I was interested to notice a marked shift in how the room was processing what he said.  While many had possibly chosen to attend the session to hear about ‘what they could or should say’, few had possibly stopped to think about social media in terms of ‘what they could hear’.

For me, and for the small businesses I work with, this is where the value of social media lies.  Yes, they use Social Media to ‘broadcast’ their services and ‘communicate’ with their client base.  But the clever ones also use it to actively listen.  Richard, Ann and Chris are the walking advertising banner for this.  They know and demonstrate that communication works both ways.

So, for me, it’s not simply a question of just waking up to Social Media, it’s a question of waking up to all that it can do – both for your business, and for you.    After all, if someone asked you to stop communicating, would you?

Both Ann and Chris have also blogged on this event and the links to these are listed below:

Ann Hawkins – What does it take to be successful on Social Media?

Chris Thomas –Making Social Media relevant to your business

GlovesGloves come in many shapes, styles and sizes.  As do hands.   Some of us may have a number of different gloves which we can pick and choose from, depending on whether we are going for a brisk winter’s walk in the country, or cutting a dash across town to an important meeting.   One thing is for certain, though – most of us don’t need gloves all year round.  Seasons change …. as does the climate in business.

There are many businesses who currently find themselves in the equivalent of a harsh winter.  Sensing the onslaught of a cold front, they do the equivalent of securing the windows and throwing draught excluders across the door.   All sensible measures to keep out the chill.  They will sit it out, and wait for the fair weather to return.  Meanwhile, as they would in real life, they resort to carefully planned rations to see them through.  In business terms, this translates into a tightening of belts which can impact on resource.

Over the last year, as I have spoken with different businesses, a common concern they invariably share is how, in light of tightening their belts, they can continue to operate as a healthy, functional business.   In ‘staying put’, they do not want to ‘stand still’.  Quite a dilemma.  Keenly aware of limited resource and a growing To Do list, they face the frustrating choice of either doing it themselves, or accepting that it will not be done.

In speaking with me, clients often become aware of a third option available to them – virtual support.  It’s a solution which they may have been aware of, but unless they have experienced the benefits of virtual support before, it can sound daunting.  So, for anyone who finds themselves in the dilemma noted above, here is a brief insight into what you might expect to experience when looking to draft in virtual support.

My first meeting with a prospective new client will always focus on discussing what types of problems they are experiencing.  What is it that is taking up their time?  What elements of that are they comfortable to delegate?  Is this an area that I can start to support?  The key at this stage is identifying the type of support they need – in other words the right glove.   It is very common for there to be a number of tasks and sub-tasks which seem initially unrelated but which can be loosely grouped together to form the semblance of an interim supporting role.  As I begin working through the tasks, new ones often crop up while old ones are done and dusted and so can be ticked off the To Do list.  In some cases, my supporting role ends with me handing back a list full of ticked checkboxes and my client has the reassurance that I am no more than a phonecall or email away should they ever need me to step in again.   In other cases we  arrive at the stage where we can see a regular pattern of  tasks emerging and can start to develop a job specification which will allow them to recruit more permanent staff.  Either way, the support – or glove – which I provide is comprised of whatever my clients need it to be.

Regardless of whether my clients are going for a jaunt across the fields or a dash across town, my role is always the same – to keep their hands warm.

If you are considering employing virtual support you may find it interesting to browse through some of my other posts.  Alternatively, if you have a specific question relating to what I might be able to do for you and your business, please visit my website and feel free to get in touch.