Episode 43: Building Your Consulting Business Faster and Easier with Virtual Assistants—with Danielle McGinnis
Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to Episode 43 of the Craft of Consulting podcast. My guest today is Danielle McGinnis, and she is my virtual assistant. She has the company Clerical Edge, which provides virtual assistant services. I wanted her to come on because one of the things I said in my podcast at the end of the year was one of the best things I did was hire a virtual assistant because it made my life so much easier. I had her on so we could talk about what virtual assistants do and the types of ways it can help consultants to hire one.
I'm going to make a big case for this because it was such a profound difference. It enabled me to free myself up from things I shouldn't be spending my time doing, and someone could do better than me, so I could focus on serving my clients and generating revenue. A lot to talk about in this episode. Let's get started.
I want to welcome my guest today, Danielle McGinnis. Danielle, welcome to the show.
Danielle McGinnis: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Deb Zahn: Oh, definitely. Tell my listeners what type of work you do.
Danielle McGinnis: I own a virtual assistant company.
Deb Zahn: Wonderful, what's the name.
Danielle McGinnis: It is called Clerical Edge, LLC.
Deb Zahn: Right, and I know that, of course, because you are my virtual assistant. And I wanted to have you on the show because one of the things I said in my end of the year podcast, and truly, truly meant it, was I wish I had found you and hired you so far back in my journey as a consultant and as an entrepreneur.
I thought it would be great to have you on and give other consultants an idea of what virtual assistants do and how they might be able to help them so they can think about perhaps adding at least a virtual assistant to their team to make their lives easier.
Danielle McGinnis: Sure. I know the title is something that some people are familiar with. Many haven't heard of one, but I could describe a virtual assistant in many ways. I actually read something that sums it up really well. It said, "A virtual assistant is a remote and trusted asset for you and your business, accomplishing all the tasks untouched on your to-do list." That pretty much sums it up.
All the things that are sitting on that to-do list that are not checked off, a virtual assistant can pretty much assist with all of those items.
Deb Zahn: That's right. I feel like you read my diary and that's where that came from, but that's exactly right. That's what I felt because I always had things just lingering and relying on my memory for them to actually occur. It was sort of death by a thousand paper cuts, and so having you as my virtual assistant has just made all of that easier because now I'm freed up to do what only I can do, and you do a fantastic job of making sure that the engine is purring, as I would say.
What type of things have you been able to help your clients with?
Danielle McGinnis: It varies, actually. I help one client, a catering company, with digital filing, expense posting, some posting of their sales—like keeping all of that up to date. I help another client…I'm sort of like an online business manager for him. I help him with all of his back-end things, such as billing, invoicing, and paying his monthly bills that come through. Just a jack of all trades actually. I do a lot for him. So much that I don't even think I named everything.
Deb Zahn: Got it.
Danielle McGinnis: I help a certain podcaster with podcast posting and research and pretty much podcast management.
Deb Zahn: That's right. I know one of the other things you've done for me, which is really helpful, is if something's not working—like the online remote system I had—for some reason, it wasn't doing what I wanted it to do. I knew there was a solution, but I didn't really have the time to think through what it was, and I was just able to say, "Can you just research this, figure this out, and then tell me what to do?"
If I had done it, that would have taken probably longer than it took you to figure it out. But what that meant was it freed me up to do client work, which is related to my revenue. And you were able to quickly, quickly solve that problem for me so that I could also serve my clients better.
Danielle McGinnis: Exactly, and that's actually the intent of a virtual assistant. It's to help you so that you can focus on those income-generating tasks, and let us do all the back-end stuff that's still very necessary but things that you, as a business owner, may not have the time to get to.
Deb Zahn: That's right. If you're a consultant, let's say you're an independent consultant. To tell you the truth, I've been an independent consultant since June. Before that I was at a firm. As an independent, the things you named in terms of having to do invoicing, you make sure expenses are done, scheduling, things like that, are all things that consultants and other independent folks have to do all the time.
Danielle McGinnis: Exactly.
Deb Zahn: If you were talking to a consultant who is just sort of figuring out, all right, now I'm going to hang my shingle up and I'm going to do this. I listened to this great podcast; they told me to get a virtual assistant. You are talking to one, how would you sell them on this being a really good idea?
Danielle McGinnis: Well, I would tell them to sit down and assess their day, and then on a broader scale, maybe a week, and think of all the things—and they may even already have a list—think of all the things they did not get done. Or, if they did get those things done, how much time was spent on those things? Are they subject matter experts on some of these things?
Some things, as business owners, we are able to do them, but it might not be something that's our strong suit. Again, I read something, and I like the way it was worded. It just said, "Do your best, and outsource the rest."
Deb Zahn: I love that.
Danielle McGinnis: There are a lot of things that people are just not good at but, again, they are necessary to run a business. So if you look at all those items on a daily and then maybe on a weekly basis, start circling some things that perhaps you could get some help with, and I would start there.
Deb Zahn: That's a great suggestion. One of the things I did was—because I love my Excel spreadsheets, as many consultants do—I kept what I actually called a "Why Me?" spreadsheet. And over the course of a few months, I would just put things in there when I was doing a task or doing a whole bunch of tasks that I thought somebody else could do this better than me, or this doesn't make sense that I'm doing it, and I would just throw them in the Excel spreadsheet.
I actually did that for a few months before I hired a virtual assistant because my biggest concern—and I've had this sometimes when I've worked on teams with folks—is that what if I just need help, and somebody shows up, and they're going to help me, but I haven't thought through what I'm actually going to have them do. Then it's frustrating for them, it's frustrating for me, and I can't actually maximize the benefit I'm getting out of it.
Danielle McGinnis: That's actually a really great point. Specific tasks are so helpful. I've been on both ends of the spectrum. I've had clients who, they've come to me and they've had actual SOPs [standard operating procedures] for specific processes that they literally just want me to take over on their behalf. But I've also had clients who were like, sort of what you said, "I need help. I don't know how I need help. I just know I need help."
We've been able to work through it, but that particular process takes just a little bit longer because we have to get thinking on OK, let's figure out what it is you need first. Let's prioritize those things after we figure out what you actually need. Then let's develop some processes. It takes a little bit longer to get started for those who don't have specific tasks, but they can still benefit also, even if they want to just tag someone for help and figure it out along the way.
Deb Zahn: That's great, and you brought up I think a really good way to also work with a virtual assistant is to have SOPs—which is basically, I do this repetitive thing over and over again, like managing invoices—and one of the first things I had you do with my podcast is to develop a standard operating procedure that essentially says, here are all the steps from the moment I'm trying to schedule someone and research someone, all the way through to the actual completion and when it gets posted and what happens immediately afterward.
In consulting there are lots of repetitive tasks that we have to do all the time, so having those standard operating procedures—and they don't have to be fancy pants, they just have to say, “Here's how I do it.” You were great at helping me develop those, so when I took the time to stop and say, "OK, here's what the whole process is," you wrote it down, you captured it, you did it, and then we tweaked it because I missed a few things. And that's really helpful. Because what that means is, if for whatever reason you are suddenly not available or if your business grows and it needs to be assigned to someone else, there is a document that it shows exactly how to do it.
Danielle McGinnis: Absolutely. That is so important. I usually write them for those who don't have them for that reason. Even if I'm doing something on the back end for a client, I still like for them to know what I do because there have been times when I'm driving and someone calls me and says, "Hey, I need this emergency invoice," so I want them to know exactly where it is, and we share most things, either via Dropbox or Google so that everything's accessible to all of us at all times.
Deb Zahn: That's great. Say a little bit more about some of those systems you're talking about because there has to be some agreed upon standard ways that you actually communicate. How do you figure that out when you're working with someone?
Danielle McGinnis: I usually leave a lot of that up to them and what they're comfortable with. I have definitely different working relationships with each client. Some of them prefer text messaging. I had one client who preferred using a Slack channel. It's whatever makes their life easier. I'm very flexible. Not all VAs like to use, for instance, their personal cell phone, so they may use a Slack channel, which still comes to your phone via an app, but it's not your personal phone number.
I like to use things like Google Sheets because, again, I can access that from my phone. I can access everything on the drive, the email, the folders on the drive, and so it makes me be able to be more accessible at all times—if they ever send me a message and I'm away from my desk. I think that's pretty much it. It's whatever they prefer. I do give suggestions, but I let them pretty much choose. I've very flexible.
Deb Zahn: Yeah, I know with me, we do a lot through email. But if something is really critical and there's a certain timeframe attached to it, you text me because you know I'm going to pay attention to that. And you basically ding me and double tap me if I haven't actually paid attention to something, which again, has made my life so much easier because if we rely on my memory, we're in trouble.
That's great. I know you also, very wisely, registered as a minority and women-owned business in Pennsylvania, where you live. I want to call that out, particularly, and talk about why it was wise because it's something that I think could help consultants. I actually don't know if it's in every state, but in many states, if you're trying to get business with a state agency, they have a requirement. It's usually a percentage requirement of whatever total amount you're proposing for the engagement, for that work to go to either minority and/or women-owned businesses.
It's very, very common. And what I've seen a lot of consulting firms do is—there's sort of that, sadly, and there shouldn't be, a last-minute scramble to try and meet those requirements or, sadly, they don't meet those requirements, and they just say, "Well, here's why we couldn't." And they act as though it was impossible, and truly it's not impossible. I personally think it's a great requirement. And so you registered as that. So that's sort of a creative way that consultants can also think about the utility of having a virtual assistant—particularly one who is registered in the state that they want to get business in—as a way to meet that requirement, and then also make their lives better.
You sort of get two things at once. You get a better life, and you're able to be much more competitive if you're applying for something in a state, if you're able to do that. I thought that was a great idea to do that.
Danielle McGinnis: Exactly. And when you said it allows you to be more competitive, that's exactly what I was thinking. I just want to make myself available in every way that I can and get my name out there and really just get assisting people.
Deb Zahn: That's right. Because that's your calling. Let's talk about that. How did you become a virtual assistant? What got you there?
Danielle McGinnis: Well, I have always worked in jobs of a clerical nature. Straight from high school, my first job was an internship at a federal agency and, from there, I've just moved to different agencies. I worked for 12 years at a federal agency, doing a lot of the things I do as a virtual assistant, and I worked from home one day a week, on Wednesdays.
I loved it because I was working at home, and I was able to throw in some laundry on my break and get dinner done. And then I got to thinking, well, isn't there a way I could have this flexibility all the time?
Deb Zahn: That's right.
Danielle McGinnis: Then I started to think, “OK, well, what am I good at? I'm not a carpenter. I'm not a hair stylist or anything like that. What am I good at?” It dawned on me, well, you've worked in clerical jobs, administrative jobs, your whole entire life, so what can you do with what you're already doing?
I started to Google things and up popped the term virtual assistant. I did some research on it, and I thought, wow, this is perfect for me. So I just pursued it. While I was still working at my full-time job, I started my virtual assistant business and started to gradually gain clientele. After a year, I left my full-time employment and became self-employed full time.
Deb Zahn: That's just wonderful. Your desire for doing it sounds a lot like why a lot of people actually chose to be consultants—they want that flexibility and freedom. I don't actually know how I would get laundry done. I don't know how I did it when I worked in an office because there's only so much time in a day. But that desire for that independence and flexibility is why a lot of people are drawn to consulting. It's one of the reasons I was certainly drawn to it. And so what I would say to consultants is that if that's the lifestyle you were ultimately hoping to get, a virtual assistant is actually who is going to help you get that.
If you want that flexibility, you want that freedom, and you don't want to give your entire life over to just working constantly and doing things that really you don't need to do and you're not the best person to do them, then get a virtual assistant. That will be an easy way to do it. You're very flexible, so I'm sure it is with some, where it has to be so many hours of the day. It varies so that I know if there are certain really heavy periods of time, then I can count on you. If there's lighter times, that's OK too.
I imagine that piece can be tricky—just like a consultant sort of juggling multiple clients who have various demands at different times. So how does that work with your overall life? How do you manage that and still be able to have that balance in your life you want?
Danielle McGinnis: Well, I keep a schedule. And I had to be realistic initially. There were some evenings that I worked to get things accomplished, there were some weekends that I worked. But I set a goal for myself that I was going to try my best not to continue that because my family time is very important to me as well.
What I did was, I started a schedule, and I fit all of my clients into a schedule. Every day, that's basically what I do so I know what time I need to start every day, and I know what time I need to finish every day. Now, mind you, sometimes, things fall outside of that, or maybe I have a personal appointment or something of that nature that would cause me to stray from that schedule. But for the most part, scheduling has really helped me. And even myself, I try to automate as much as I can as well, and batch my work so that I am able to accomplish my tasks and serve all my clients as I need to.
Deb Zahn: And serve as a role model, then, for us, who are learning to do things like that. Talk a little bit about how you batch your work because that's related to all of us. What does that tend to look like? What are you trying to do?
Danielle McGinnis: That sort of means the type of task. If I do invoices for two clients, then I'm going to do all my invoices between these hours. I'm not going to jump and do these hours at 8 a.m. and then stop and do something else, and then flip back to it. Just batching light tasks. And it's funny because you kind of get a rhythm going when you do that. And so things get accomplished a lot easier that way, instead of quickly flipping to different subjects, different topics.
Deb Zahn: Yeah, because every time you flip…so it's just like multitasking, which isn't a real thing because we don't actually do it, we just switch a bunch. Every time you do that, you have to readjust your brain. You have to readjust what you're doing, and that's time lost.
Danielle McGinnis: Exactly.
Deb Zahn: It might not seem like a big deal—maybe it's a minute, maybe it's two minutes—but cumulatively, over a period of time, that adds up to hours.
Danielle McGinnis: Exactly.
Deb Zahn: I've been trying to discipline myself more and enjoy the experience of batching because otherwise I'm a distracted squirrel, and that's not a good thing. I do things like, these are the hours that I check my email.
Danielle McGinnis: Oh, yeah.
Deb Zahn: If there's something brewing and there's a crisis with a client or an issue that I know is really hot, I might divert from that. But I've been trying to get into the habit of doing that more because otherwise, it's just constant distraction, in which case, every time I'm distracted, every time I lose the time in between tasks because I'm not doing them well, that's lost revenue.
Danielle McGinnis: Exactly. And you're right, the time definitely does add up in between. You'd be surprised. Sometimes I stop and look at my Instagram account, and I was supposed to just engage the person that just liked my comment, and then 30 minutes have passed. So yeah, batching really helps me stay on schedule because I always look down, and I'm like, "OK, it's two o'clock. What should I be doing right now?"
Deb Zahn: That's right. The social media holes are so easy to fall down because just checking, especially if you get a bunch of likes, and then it's ridiculous—you’ve got to read them all, for goodness sake.
This is great. What do you think being a virtual assistant has done for your life? How would you describe that?
Danielle McGinnis: Well, honestly, like I said, it really allowed more time with my family. You mentioned something earlier. You said you didn't know how you got laundry done before. But for me, it's so many other things as a mom and as a wife that I am able to do now and not feel so overwhelmed. But at the same time, I still feel accomplished. I still am a businesswoman. I'm an entrepreneur. I own my own business. I'm successful professionally, and I'm still supermom sometimes I call myself.
Deb Zahn: There you go.
Danielle McGinnis: I really feel like being a virtual assistant has allowed me to do that. I've met some amazing people from all over, and I'm still learning so much, which I, in turn, flip to my clientele and offer more services. It's just been a great experience.
Deb Zahn: Again, what you just described, particularly as you learn more, you're able to offer more. That's exactly true for consulting. When I look back a decade ago—what I was doing at that time versus what I'm able to offer to my clients today—it’s exponentially increased over time, simply because I was in situations where I had to learn something new or I sought out situations where I had to learn something new.
Danielle McGinnis: Exactly.
Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. Well, thank you so much for being on. I'm going to just give a shout out to all the consultants and would-be consultants out there. If you are thinking of starting your business, or you've already got a business cooking—and I don't think it matters if you're in a firm or you're independent—a virtual assistant can make your life better. It can free you up to focus on those things that are about serving your clients, generating revenue, and having the life you want, as opposed to being drawn into things that really somebody else could do much better.
I'm going to tell everybody, if I give you one piece of advice—which I know I give lots of advice—it’s get a virtual assistant. Think about what you would have that person do. I love your idea of tracking it for a day and then tracking it for a week. Somebody can also steal my whiny “Why Me?” Excel spreadsheet idea, but I think it's a great thing for everybody to do.
I want to thank you publicly for how much easier you have made my life by being my virtual assistant.
Danielle McGinnis: You're quite welcome. It's been a pleasure working with you, and I'm looking forward to learning more as we go.
Deb Zahn: Sounds good. All right. Thank you so much.
Danielle McGinnis: You're welcome.
Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do three things. If you enjoyed this episode or any of my other podcasts, hit subscribe. I've got a lot of other great guests and content coming up, and I don't want you to miss anything. The other two things I'm asking you to do—one is, if you have any comments, suggestions, or other feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those in the comments section. And then the last thing is, if you've gotten something out of this, please share it. Share it with somebody you know who's a consultant or thinking about being a consultant, and make sure they also have access to all this great content and the other great content that's coming. As always, you can get more wonderful information and tools at craftofconsulting.com. Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.