Aderson Oliveira: I have spoken with Rachel Severns from Virtually Done by Rachel about Inbox Zero. What does that mean, what it is, and what it's not as well. We have talked about the email management service that she offers to her clients and how she uses Inbox Zero to make her clients more productive. A curiosity about Rachel: she lives in Alaska. Have a listen, and I hope that you enjoy the email management tips that Rachel has for you.
Hello, hello, Aderson Oliveira here. This is another interview for the OuchSourcing Podcast where I talk to specialists, to business owners, to people that know a lot about the outsourcing space and everything that goes around the topic of outsourcing, and today is no different. Today, I have with me, Rachel Severns. She is the owner of Virtually Done by Rachel, which can be found at VirtuallyDone.us. Rachel, thank you very much for being here, welcome.
Rachel Severns: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Aderson: Perfect. Rachel, let's start with a little bit of your backstory. How did you get to become a virtual assistant?
Rachel: Well, I am a stay-at-home mom. I still say I'm a stay-at-home mom because I work from home. I stopped working when we had our first child almost 12 years ago, and before that, I was mortgage processor, and a bank teller, and then eventually I worked in a financial advisors office. So, I've had more corporate jobs and professional experience. Then, like I said, I stayed home when we had our first child, and I knew I wanted to stay home at least until the kids went to school.
Eventually, we had the second and the third, and the third went to school in kindergarten a few years ago, and I thought, "Well, what should I do?" My husband's a nurse in the hospital, and so his schedule is somewhat unpredictable and he works really long hours, and so I thought, "Well, going back to corporate America is not really an option because I want to be available for our kids."
I sort of sat on it for a while, and my dad and I have an ongoing conversation about, "Wouldn't it be great if we could actually make a living working from home?" You hear of people that do that, but what are they actually doing? So, one day, he sent me a link from Gina Horkey's website, Horkey Handbook, and she has a course on how to become a virtual assistant in 30 days or less, and I thought, "Oh, isn't that interesting?"
However, at the time, we were preparing to move from Washington DC to Alaska, so I sort of saved that link and put it on hold in my mind, and we began our move across the continent to Alaska. During that move, I looked into the course and I decided it was something that I really wanted to do, and my husband was wholly supportive. So, I took that course and I realized that I had a lot of skills that I would be able to use as a virtual assistant, but they were pretty dated, and the way the online world works and the business world works in 2016, 2017 was really different than the way it worked in 2005.
I learned a lot of new tools and skills, and it just went away. It took me away, I couldn't believe how people really are looking for a virtual assistant, and before the end of the first month, I had my first client, and then about a month later, my second, and my business is almost a year old, and I have six or seven clients, and I just can't even believe it's happened that quickly, but people really are looking for and needing a virtual assistant for a whole gamut of tasks. That's kind of how Virtually Done by Rachel got started.
Aderson: Perfect. Okay, so great. Now, you mentioned there Alaska, and I cannot not ask how is the weather there? I cannot not ask that.
Rachel: The weather is great. We have wanted to move to Alaska for years, and my husband grew up in southeast Alaska. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and I was kind of expecting Seattle weather, to be honest, and it's really not like that. We do have gray, drizzly days like Seattle, but they are few and far between, and most of the time, the skies are clear and it's sunny. You know, in the winter, it's cold and we get some snow, but this summer is fantastic and I even love the fall. Fall is my favorite.
Aderson: Okay, great to know that Alaska is treating you well. Let me mention how I came across your name, and I was Googling about virtual assistants, about help with email management, and that's when I came across Rachel's article about Inbox Zero and how you were able to do that for your clients. I want to dive deep on that topic, but before that, can you explain to us what Inbox Zero is?
Rachel: Well, I really think that Inbox Zero is different for everyone. I would say that, of all of my email management clients, they would define it differently. I think, a lot of times, people think that Inbox Zero is having zero emails in your inbox, but we all work within our email and online, and so we all know that we might have Inbox Zero four or five minutes, but then we're going to have emails again.
I don't think it's literally having zero emails in your inbox. What I think of Inbox Zero, and again, it's very individual, but I think of not being overwhelmed when you log in to your inbox. So, what that might look like for one client is that they have a filing system, and I file everything into the filing system, how we have decided that to work. Then, really, they're working out of their files.
To another client, that might be that we have a filing system that works well for them, but their inbox proper, as I like to call it, what you see when you immediately log in is sort of their to-do list. I have filed the things that have been taken care of or are just FYI emails, and then they work out of their inbox proper, and whether it's a reply or invoice to be paid, or whatever, they take care of their emails that are in their to-do list, and then from there, I file the emails. I really do think the Inbox Zero is not a literal term, and I think it's very individual for each client.
Aderson: You said that each client, they all have their own preferences of how they want to handle email. Can you tell me one common aspect that all of them across the board, all your clients that you do email management for, I guess the problem that they are trying to solve is that they have too many emails, but is there any commonalities throughout aside from the fact that they want someone else to manage their email for them? What's common across them?
Rachel: The thing that's common across the board, I would say, is that emails constantly come in. We all know it. I have business email and personal email, and I can attest to it in both business and personal. Emails come in and we don't have time to look at them or actually take care of them, but we can't just delete them, or file them away and forget about them. So, it gets overwhelming very quickly.
Now, I also have found that a lot of entrepreneurs, and this is not a blanket statement, but a lot of entrepreneurs are more creative. They have a product, they do what they do well, but organization and, in this case, email management is not one of their strong suits, but even more than that, they don't like to deal with it.
It stacks up very quickly, and I would say that that is the common thread with all of my clients. They're overwhelmed by their emails because they need a response or something needs to be done with those emails, but they just don't have the time to do it, or frankly, do they really care about it? But, they know they need to. I think, as humans, that's what happens when we become overwhelmed, right?
Aderson: I get it, I see. So, again, they want to get rid of that one more task that they need to do. I don't know, depending on the individual, I guess that every 10 minutes, every half an hour, every hour. I mean, I have my own method of dealing with emails. For them, for some of your clients, actually, tell me a little bit about pick one of the clients and give me the nitty gritty workflow that you do for him. Pick one.
Rachel: Okay, I would say the email client -- alright, so I have a client who they have a website and they run the website, there's a lot of site traffic. Visitors to their website have the option to request to be a member of the site. They have the option to put in inquiries, whether technical or otherwise, and they join the newsletter, all those types of options.
What this client was finding was that this is only one aspect of their business, and so all these emails were coming in that were really site traffic, and all the emails from the other aspect of their business. Unfortunately, the site emails were being neglected because they just keep coming. So, what I do for this client, I log in every day, and I do manage the other emails, some, but my primary role and my priority is the site traffic from the website. Whether it's someone's having a problem logging in or they're having a problem with one of the links, or they want to request this or that, or they just want to tell us their stories. Sometimes, people want to tell their story, and one of the points of this website is that it's a community.
My job, primarily, is to respond to the site traffic, again, whether it's a request, or the stories, or the technical difficulties. The first thing I do is I go in and I weed out all of the site traffic in the inbox, and I put that in a folder that we've labeled "Rachel To-do's". So, I put all of them over in my folder to my to-do list, and then I go through, and then there's, invariably, the consumer emails, and then my client's not going to eat at Olive Garden, and Texas Roadhouse, and Panera all today, so we can usually get rid of those types of things.
Then, as the months have gone on, I know what are the emails that she is going to want to see right off the bat, and so I make sure that those stay front and center, and they're able to be viewed. As a rule of thumb, I generally don't deal with emails from today. Now, of course, the site traffic is an exception to that, but the other emails, anything today, I leave them right where they're at because my fear is always that my client will not see those emails.
Even in that sense, we don't ever get to Inbox Zero just because I keep today's emails in there and I'm really just working out of yesterday's emails. That's generally the process, then I go to the site, and I take care of all of this stuff from there.
Aderson: Let me interrupt you there, let me ask you a quick question. Actually, you are the one answering those emails on behalf of your client or are you just saying, "Hey, client, you have this, and this, and this email to address," what are you actually doing there?
Rachel: I am generally the one that's replying to them. Again, as we began this process and as time went on, there are so many emails that come in that really just need virtually the same response. Maybe not exactly, but we put together canned emails or canned responses, and I just tailor them for the specific email or the person's request or their story.
Every once in a while, because my client is a professional, there's certain professional topics that come up that I am not equipped to answer, and so those are the ones that I pop back over into their folder and say, "Okay, so this one, I feel like you need to answer because I'm not equipped to answer this or I don't know how you would want to answer it."
Aderson: On that note, if there is anything that you need to flag to the clients, how do you flag that? Do you just put under another folder and then she knows that she has to take care of that, or do you write a note somewhere? How do you actually communicate that they need to get attention of those emails?
Rachel: I am a big Trello user. I love Trello. I don't know if you're familiar with Trello.
Aderson: Of course, yes.
Rachel: I have at least one board for every single client, and they're shared, they're collaborative boards. But then, some of my clients, I have my own private board for them to keep track of details and to-do's. Usually, what I will do is I drop the email into Trello, because it's not that often. I can't even imagine that there would be two in one day that I would need for them to take care of. I drop it into Trello and I say, just a quick nutshell, this client is asking about such and such, I feel like that would be better answered by you.
Aderson: Then, for instance, what email client are they using? Is that Google Business? What type of email client is that?
Rachel: All of my clients use G Suite, so we have Gmail.
Aderson: Is that a prerequisite to be a client of yours or is that just a coincidence?
Rachel: It is not a prerequisite, although my most recent email management client was working on AOL, and AOL is so slow, and after being fairly fluent in Gmail, I'm thinking, "Oh my goodness, it's somewhat archaic as well." No offense, anybody. No judgment.
Aderson: I get it.
Rachel: I just recently switched her over. I worked for a while to get her inbox under control and when it got to the point where I was spending so much time just sitting and waiting for it to do the command that I gave it, or even just a search. I had sort of prepped her for it in our first or second Skype call. So then, recently, I said, "So, what do you think? Yes, it's my time, but you're paying for my time. It's your time and I'm spending a lot of it just sitting here tapping my fingers waiting for AOL to respond." Right then, she said, "Okay, right now, let's just switch," and so I got on Gmail and set her up, and so away we go on Gmail. After that experience, I would say I would like it to be a prerequisite, but we'll just see how it goes going forward.
Aderson: I know that, with Google Suite, G Suite, you can actually say that, "I want somebody else to share my account with," so you can actually designate some other users to have access to your inbox. Is that the way that you handle your client's inbox?
Rachel: Yes, I actually was going to say Google is so great for collaboration. So, whether it's Gmail or it's Google Drive, it's just so great for collaboration. So, yes, you can assign a delegate, and that is how we have had it set up with our client. Although, this most recent one, I just have her password because I'm the one who set it up for her. I've also noticed, with clients, that there's the clients that are very careful and want me to have my own credentials to log in, and then there are some clients that they could not care less and they're like, "Oh, here's my username and my password, and by the way, I use that password on everything, so if you need it..."
Aderson: Very secure, very secure. Actually, I don't think that you mentioned talking about rules and filters. Do you use rules and filters quite a lot for your clients to automatically route different emails from different people, different subjects?
Rachel: Yeah, I do, yes, and again, that is a very individual situation because some clients want to see the email in their inbox so that they know it was there, and some clients don't want their inbox to be clogged up. So, for example, one of my clients has a number of journals that come to her, and so she does not want the journals. Some come daily, and some come weekly, and some come monthly, and so you can imagine the inbox would get very full after a while if those journals just hung around waiting for my client to read. So, we have created filters for stuff like that where there is a folder for her journals and the journals just go straight into the folder, and when she has time to read them, she does.
Again, I have found that a lot of my clients want to see the email and know that it was there even if, for example, it's an invoice to be paid and we have a folder for paid invoices. Then, when they have time to pay the invoices, they go over to that folder, but it's very individual. I definitely use it when it's in the very beginning when we're filing and purging. I use the filters and the search option quite a bit.
Aderson: You mentioned many times that it's very individual, it's very unique for each client. How do you come to establish this process? Is that in the beginning? I mean, you have a lot of conversations with them. Describe a little bit about the beginning of a new client engagement, you know.
Rachel: I'm trying to think. I think every single one of my email clients, I went into what I thought was the interview and it ended up being more like, "Let's get started." The first thing I do is I set up a Trello board and I invite them to collaborate with me on the Trello board. Generally, if we're doing that in real-time on Skype, they are also creating a delegate, making me a delegate.
Right off the bat, we have Trello, I get into their email. At that point, I like to jump off Skype for a day or two and I like to go into their email and just look around. I've had clients that have had amazing - I don't know how else to describe it - folder systems. Like, those systems didn't work, they were not efficient, but folders, and subfolders, and sub-subfolders, and crazy, no wonder they couldn't find anything.
I've also had clients who just had like a hundred folders. No subfolders or anything complicated like that, but you scroll down the list of folders and I'm thinking, "There is no way I'm ever going to remember all of this."
That is the very, very beginning, and generally, right away, like a second or third day after I have perused the inbox, then we get on Skype again, and I ask questions like, "What can be purged?" because so many consumer emails just don't need to happen. Another one that I wouldn't exactly call consumer emails, but are also a culprit is things like PayPal receipts.
Now, I get some people want to keep their PayPal receipts, but to me, that's not very useful because you can just sign into PayPal, and all of your records are there. So, that's an example that I give, or anything that you have set up an account for that you can go and sign into that account, you don't really need to keep those emails because you just go and sign into that account and you see your records there, and they generally have invoices and receipts there.
I try to encourage my clients to unsubscribe to as much as possible because those things really stack up very quickly. So, we just make a list of purging, and files, and folders, and it's a little bit slow-going at times, and that's why, at the beginning of time, Trello is so great because I'll just make a card for this and say, "What do you want to do with this?" and then that card is there for me to reference and we can keep notes.
That's one thing I was going to say is notes, notes, notes. I love Trello because you can keep it all in one place. I used to be a sticky note girl, and I had sticky notes everywhere, and then they lose their sticky, and then they fall. I love my iPhone and my Trello because it has cleaned up the clutter in my life.
Aderson: Let me ask you this, Rachel. You said that, in the beginning, it's more hands-on, it's more intense. It may be a bit slow because, maybe, there's a lot to be cleared up. But, eventually, how frequently do you meet your clients like on Skype or one-on-one to go through things? Is that once a week? How frequent do you meet them for a voice conversation?
Rachel: Again, it's very individual. Some clients want to have a standing weekly appointment. So, for example, at 10 o'clock on Monday, I meet that client every single week. I just know that that appointment stands. Some clients, I don't want to say never because never isn't true, but it's rare. Again, I'll send a message and say, "Hey, I think it's time for us to meet."
There are some questions that I have with those clients. I will keep a list of questions because I know that it would be better for me to have their attention, and so we get on Skype, and I run through the list of questions, and in general, it brings up more topics that they have thought of, and oftentimes, we get into their email and we sort of tag-team and get some things done right there on Skype, and I find that that's really useful, especially for the clients that tend to put things off. I really need to get them on Skype, get their attention and say, "Okay, we need to take care of this list of things."
So, it's really very individual. Some clients are great on Trello. They respond within moments, and some clients, I think they forget that Trello is there.
Aderson: I'm very curious about your clients now. Can you run me through the different industries that they belong to? I mean, are they real estate people? Who are those people that you work, managing their emails?
Rachel: One client that I have is a medical professional, and one client is a marketing professional entrepreneur. I have one client that is a blogger. She is really busy and successful, and I would say she's probably the one that has the most out-of-control emails. She has two or three email accounts, and they're the most out-of-control, because, again, with something like a blog, site traffic comes in all day and night and it doesn't really stop. There's no predictable course.
Aderson: What is the volume of emails that this particular person deals with? Give us a rough number.
Rachel: On a daily basis, I would say, and this will be a ballpark because I'm thinking of the three different accounts. It's in the hundreds, I would say, on a daily basis. Again, one of the emails, I'm not in on a regular basis, and then the other two, I am more so. But, yeah, I would say, between 50 and 100 emails per account per day.
Aderson: That's a big number. So far, we have just discussed about the email management side of what you do for your client, but I would assume that what you do for them, those emails, they can unfold into other types of tasks. So, can you just brief us a little bit of what else beyond the email management you provide to those clients that you also do email managements?
Rachel: Absolutely. Emails, you open emails and they provide tasks. Just roughly, I would say I do some social media. To be honest, I don't love the social media. It's just a matter of gathering content and scheduling it. That is no big deal. I don't mind doing that. I have even created social media images for clients, and again, I like doing that.
When it gets to the getting out there and trolling social media and responding, I really refer to a social media expert or a social media manager because that's not my bag of tricks. So, social media, again, content, images, scheduling, that type of thing. I've also written a little bit of content. I am not a writer. I tell people right off the bat, I do not consider myself a writer. I do not have any sort of English or journalism education, but I have done some writing, and interestingly enough, I find that I enjoy it.
One of the biggest things that I do, I have one client that this is what I do predominantly for her is content management, and that's sort of a big term that a lot of things can fall under. The primary thing that I do is proofreading and editing because when a client is putting out a product, and this even goes for the social media or newsletters that they send out to their email list, it's so, so important that your content is professional, and typos, people notice those, and even consistency. Like, I started to say a second ago, when a person is putting out a product, I think consistency is so important. What did the format look last week on the product that you put out? Let's make sure that the format looks the same this week, that type of thing.
Another email client that I didn't mention is she runs a non-profit, and so I've helped her with travel arrangements and even just gathering presentation feedback. It's important for her to have feedback from the presentations that she does for her as a representative of her nonprofit. So, I often do stuff like that. And website-sprucing, again, I would not consider myself a web designer, but I am familiar with WordPress, and so I can go in and spruce things and update things. I'm trying to think if there's something else. Surely, there is.
Aderson: Rachel, what I'm getting at is that you are really focused on email management, is that right? I mean, is that your real forte, is that your real focus of what you do in your business?
Rachel: Well, a majority of my clients, four out of my six clients, I do predominantly do email management for them. Although, as you said, it really often leads to other things. So, once we get through the predominant mass of emails that are there when I sign on with a client, maintenance is I'll take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to maintenance emails on a daily basis.
If you think about that, I have four email management clients, and if I'm only spending 15 to 30 minutes a day on each one of them, that's really not that much work. The maintenance really is, as we know, super-important, but it doesn't take that much time. So, that's where the other tasks come in.
To answer your question specifically, yes, a bulk of my clients are email management, but I don't spend a bulk of my time on a daily basis doing email, because once it's in maintenance mode, it's just needing the maintenance.
Aderson: I like that. I like the fact that there's the big part of the setup is really the upfront effort to clean up, organize, establish rules, establish processes, and then it's about maintenance, correct?
Rachel: Yeah, it is, because we all know that, whether it's our health, or our business, or you name it, it's got to be maintained. We can work really hard on our budget to get our budget in line and get out of debt, but then we have to maintain that, otherwise, we find ourselves right back in debt.
Aderson: Makes sense. Let me ask you a question, Rachel. One of the ways that we learn as people, business owners, entrepreneurs is with our mistakes, with the problems that we face, with the roadblocks, with the horror stories, and that's what I would like to hear from you. I don't know if you have some of those. You may have. I don't know if you are open to share them with us, but any horror story, maybe with a client, maybe a client dealing with too many emails to clean up? Maybe a disconnect between client expectations in what you're providing, but anything that you can share with us and the lessons learned from that situation?
Rachel: Thankfully, I don't have any horror stories.
Aderson: A tough story, then.
Rachel: Although, I have learned a lot, of course, the first thing that comes to mind is the lesson that I've learned that one email management client is not necessarily going to be like the next. The very first email management client that I had which is the one I wrote the post about that you found, she's textbook, she's easy, she's laid-back, and basically, I spent 20 hours over the course of a couple of weeks just purging and filing, and she would generally say, "I don't know. What do you suggest?" and if I could give her a logical explanation, then she was like, "Okay, I agree." So, we couldn't move forward fairly quickly.
My second email management client was a very different personality, and she wanted things done a certain way and I am okay with that. I want my clients to feel like they get value from my work, but I also know that it needs to work for them. I can set up a filing system in their email, but if it's not going to work for them, then what's the point? She just really wanted to sit on her emails, and didn't want them to go anywhere. So, that was very difficult for me thinking, "Oh man, I've got this," and then I onboard a new client, and I'm like, "Wow, okay, so I'm dealing with a very different person here." That was a really big learning experience for me, and we got there, but it was not as smooth as the first one.
Then, the subsequent ones, again, I've learned from those experiences, and so I'm able to be able bit more proactive and ask the questions like, "Are you going to be okay with deleting emails because I feel that that's very important? If you don't need X, Y, Z email, then we need to delete them." So, that's pretty important.
Aderson: Talking about deleting, because with G Suite, you can actually just keep emails there. It's very easy to just keep them there. So, why not just archive them, keep them there, and that's it? Why going through actually deleting them?
Rachel: Well, there's the issue of space, like data space. I forget what that's called. If I log in for the first time to a client's email account and they have 100,000 emails, of course, that's not just in their inbox. That's in their folders as well, but sitting around there in the vicinity of 100,000 emails, it's really my feeling that we don't need to keep all of those.
Again, in my example of like, "Well, this Olive Garden email expired last year, so we can get rid of it, right?" It's just that some clients, they feel like they need me to ask them for every single thing. Some email clients are like, "Absolutely. If it's a consumer email, delete it." They don't need it, they don't want to see it. I agree with you, the archive system in Gmail is very nice. Again, it's sort of my personal stance that we don't need to keep them and use that space if they're an old consumer or somebody similar.
Aderson: I got it, and I also feel that it's something -- I mean, your email is something so private. If people are opening that up with you, they are opening their privacy with you as well. In each individual, you have a slightly different way of dealing with that, and what is important for someone is not important for the next one, and I guess that there is no hard rules, and I guess that it makes your job a little bit harder too. First, you have to get to know the individual and see what clicks with that individual and what's important for that person, isn't it?
Rachel: Yeah, I really agree with that statement, and if I were to have a mission statement, it would be something like, "It is super important for me to know that my clients are getting a value out of my service, and a lot of people can hire an assistant and throw tasks at them, but at the end of the day when I send that invoice to my client, I want them, instead of going, "Oh no, another invoice for Rachel," I would much rather them say, "Oh, I'm so thankful for her. She has done this, and this, and that, or she has helped me --" because, really hiring a virtual assistant is an investment in your business, and so if you're not feeling that you're getting any return on that investment, then maybe it's not the best fit. But, my goal is to make sure that I have a good fit with my clients, and then provide that value that they are investing in.
Aderson: Awesome. Rachel, we are coming towards the end here and I would like to circle back to our original topic here, which is Inbox Zero. So, if there is one thing that you want people to leave this conversation knowing, and most likely, knowing about Inbox Zero, what is that? What is the one thing that you want people to leave this conversation knowing?
Rachel: That it's okay to get help. A lot of people, I think they put it off because they're not sure. You know, as humans, we have the fear of the unknown, right? And we're comfortable in the place that we're in. So, kind of what I said a minute ago, invest in your business. If you have a business, and maybe you have a family as well, or maybe it's just you, still you have personal wellbeing that is probably taking a toll.
One of the sort of taglines or something that I have in my business is, "Don't let your success wear you down." Get a little help and move on so that you can do what you do best. So, that would be my thing is it's okay to get help, invest in your business. Email is actually a fairly easy thing that you can outsource.
Like you said, it's very personal. Everybody has their own ways and feeling on how their email should be dealt with. But, the cool thing about a virtual assistant is that you can let them know. It's a person, and so you can tell us, as VAs, how you want things to be handled, and really, I think in the end, it turns out as an investment in your business.
Aderson: Great. Rachel, once again, thank you very much for being here. I want, before I let you go, that you tell us how people can reach out to you, how they can connect with you, how they can contact you.
Rachel: My website is the best: VirtuallyDone.us, and on my website, I have a contact from and my email. So, that would be the best way for someone to get in touch with me.
Aderson: Perfect, awesome. Again, Rachel, thank you very much for being here. I wish that we can connect again in the future to see how you're doing with your business and what's new in terms of emails. Email is, in a way, such an old thing in our lives, but it's so important. It's still so important, isn't it?
Rachel: Yes, I agree. Thank you for having me, Aderson. I really enjoyed it.
Aderson: My pleasure, my pleasure. Have a good one. Bye now.
Rachel: Thank you. Buh-bye.