Open All Hours? Setting Client Expectations

Are you open all hours?  Have you set client expectations?

I have a friend who runs networking events in the evenings. He has a lovely VA – I know her personally and she is efficient and conscientious. At one of his events he was agitated and angry and complaining loudly about his VA.

“She always disappears in the hours before my networking events – just when people need to phone in and check directions, make last minute bookings, etc. How can she be so irresponsible?”

The next day I had a quiet word with his VA (whom I knew anyway) and asked her what hours she worked for him. She told me “I always stop work at 4pm to do the school run, sort out the kids’ dinner and get them to bed. I am back at work in the evening after 8pm if needed”.

VA Life - Virtual Assistant taking notes in a book
Align client expectations with the services you offer.

She had no idea that her client’s expectations were completely different to the hours she was available. How did two professional business people get themselves into such a tangle?

My networking friend had simply assumed that when he was buying 10 hours a week from a VA they were any 10 hours and he could call upon them as and when he needed them. My VA friend has assumed that he knew she was not available during what she regarded as non-working hours. She might even have put this in her terms and conditions somewhere.

Have the conversation

These two professional communicators had completely failed to have a proper conversation about when and how the support was needed. This starts at the research stage, and continues through the proposal and sales stage into on-boarding.

A real conversation is not where you know you told them something (and they swear later you didn’t) or even one where the conversation is followed up in writing – with an email, terms of trade or a contract.

A real conversation is not where you know you told them something Share on X

All of these are one sided – they are broadcasts of data. In our busy business lives we confuse making an announcement with having a real conversation that leads to agreement.

VA Life - Virtual Assistant discussing with client at table
Have a conversation to set client expectations, never assume.

A real conversation has several stages:

  • Question – I want to talk to you about the hours and I work and how your time might be allocated – do you know what my standard arrangements are?
  • Acknowledgement – yes I do, no I don’t
  • Moving on statement – I want to be sure that what I am thinking matches your normal working requirements. Are there key events, deadlines, or other moments that will mean I am needed at short notice or out of normal working hours (which are…)
  • Acknowledgement – I don’t think so, yes there are, or no
  • Narrowing statement – I’d like you to have a look at your diary over the last three months and give it some thought – just to be on the safe side. Can we just run through it quickly on the phone and see if anything comes to mind? Can we do it now or would Tuesday at 10am be a better time?
  • Acknowledgement – yes I will, no I don’t want to
  • Wrapping up statement – I’d like to review the working hours again at the end of the first month to see if you have any requirements they didn’t work out properly for you, and again regularly at 3 monthly intervals. Shall I put the review dates in the diary now?
  • Formalising statement – I am going to send you a booking form showing the hours I am normally available for you on the basis of the number of hours you are buying. If you see something coming up that is not going to fit, please let me know as soon as possible as I can’t guarantee I can move other clients work or deadlines, or other arrangements at no notice.
  • Send the form (put tracking on your email if you can so you know it is received and opened) with a note saying please review this and confirm this is what you are signing up for and I will open your account, send the initial invoice and start the process of setting up and getting started.

What difference would that make?

What would have happened if my lovely VA friend and networking friend had had this conversation? She would have discovered that one of his requirements was to have someone his guests could phone for directions, confirmations, support while he was on the way to the event – in the two hours immediately before the event.

He would have discovered that she was not normally or routinely available at these times.

They could have decided that this was so important that she needed to cover it (it was a monthly event, not a weekly or daily one) and she could have made arrangements to do so. If she could have decided that her family time was not alterable even for once a month and offered to get an associate to cover that time. Or they both could have walked away. She could have found another client and he could have found a VA.

All of those options were better than having a dissatisfied networker complaining about his VA. I wasn’t the only person in the room who knew who she was.

VA Life - heart broken robot
Don’t leave yourself or your company vulnerable to loss but not aligning client expectations.

How did it turn out?

By the time I talked to the VA the relationship had already soured. She knew he was cross, but couldn’t understand why. He felt she was irresponsible and was losing faith in her. They went their separate ways a month or so afterwards.

She lost an account worth £800 a month. If you assume the average client retention time for her was normally two years that would be just under £20,000. The damage to her reputation made it harder for her to replace the revenue, but even if she replaced it in 3 months that’s still £2,400 of loss.

The damage to her reputation made it harder for her to replace the revenue Share on X

My networking client lost out to. He tried a number of VAs who didn’t work out for him. Each one cost him time and money to teach how he wanted things. A couple of networking events ran less well than they should. He spent hours of time and quite a bit of money before deciding to pull out of the networking business – it was too much hassle to support it. He’d spent £3,500 on substitute VAs and venues before he made that decision.

I can’t help thinking that they were a great fit for each other in so many ways and that it is a real shame they didn’t have a proper conversation with each other before they got started.

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