10 Steps to a Great Support Team
Four years ago this month, Solo-E hired its first contractors: 3 fabulous VAs. Between them they handled the details of hundreds of items of content for the website, scores of newsletters and uncounted correspondence with subscribers and clients. Two of them still work for me (the third took time off with her third child and is now pursuing a career in financial planning!)
Having a long and successful working relationship with a team of contractors is somewhat of an anomaly among solo entrepreneurs. In many ways I've been very fortunate to have such talented and caring people working for me. But I also recognize some critical pieces of making it work that can be planned for - because it's not just luck!
Part I: Setting up the relationship
1. Hire people that are a good fit for you. Seems obvious, but sometimes our criteria can hinge too much on things like cost and not enough on "can I see myself working well with this person?" Establish upfront what is important to you - consider skills, work habits, communication style, friendliness, etc. - make a list and use it when interviewing and making your hiring decision.
2. Establish written expectations on both sides. Do you expect emails answered in 4 hours or 48? Want a weekly update? Not interested in chit-chat? You may have talked about these things in the interview, but getting them down on paper gives you both something to refer back to. And this should be a two-way street: what are their expectations? Do they need to hear from you when they are doing a good job? Is it ok to contact them on the weekend?
3. Keep the lines of communication open. Talk ahead of time about the best way to let each other know when things aren't working (even better, put it in writing so you don't forget). Think about how you best receive feedback - on the phone, via email, scheduled ahead of time or on the spur of the moment, etc.
4. Life happens. If you work with another solo entrepreneur for any length of time, it's likely that one of you will face at least one personal issue that takes you away from the business at hand for some period of time. These issues can be difficult to talk about.illness, depression, family issues, death. But not telling the other person will leave them frustrated because things aren't getting done and they don't know why. Most people are very understanding and willing to accommodate changes in deadlines, leaves of absence, etc., but you have to communicate first. Talking about "what would we do if" ahead of time may help.
5. Show me the money (plan). This is one place to be absolutely crystal-clear. How often are invoices sent, how much detail do you need to see, what are the payment terms, how do they want to be paid. Do they want a minimum monthly commitment? Do you want to set a monthly maximum? What about referral agreements, profit-sharing, etc.
Part II: Building and Strengthening the Relationship Over Time
6. Pay on time! If the terms say pay within 10 days - why not pay in five? Your support team is the lifeblood of your business - what better way to let them know you appreciate and value their contribution?
7. Put away the fine-tooth comb. If you've done a good job of hiring a team member, you don't need to fuss over how many hours for this or that. If you don't trust them, you shouldn't have hired them.
8. Always say please and thank you. One of my earliest lessons in business - treat everyone with respect. They may be contractors but they aren't your minions! I take time to go over every email before I send it to make sure I've said please, and I send a quick thank-you when the task is completed.
9. Let them know you appreciate them. Send a note when they've completed a big project for you, or a small gift on a special occasion. Celebrate company milestones by thanking them with a card. Be creative! Sometimes it's fun just to let them know you appreciate them, with no particular occasion attached.
10. Encourage team input. They know your business and clients perhaps better than you do! Ask them for input when you are considering a strategic change. Encourage them to offer unsolicited suggestions to improve processes, etc. - and implement them when they make sense! This also goes two ways - if you share with the team your vision for the business, your strategic goals, etc., they will be better equipped to execute the plan with you.
11. Bonus: Let my people grow! If you are like most solo entrepreneurs you are a life-long learner - and so probably are the members of your team. Give them opportunities to take on new tasks. Encourage them to make decisions and take action without asking your input (set the boundaries for this so they know when you do want to be
consulted.) Ask them what they'd like to learn, and teach them new skills. You may be surprised how much better they will be at certain things than you are!
Building a great support team takes time, effort, and caring - but you will be rewarded many times over!