Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Twenty Years In Business: Some Observations

After spending two months earnestly dating all of the locally available women who would have me I realized I wasn't really interested in finding another long term partner. What I was really doing was networking, meeting new people in new circles of interest I would otherwise not discover. And if I could put this much energy into just talking to people I might as well look for work for clients. I had not worked for an entire month. The situation was dire. I looked up from my desk and said it out loud "I need clients". As if in approval of my change of direction two e-mails came a few hours later asking for my organizing services. Wow, that must have been a lot of energy I put out into the universe I thought to myself. Both were referrals from colleagues.

From Organizer to Human Catalyst

At which point I realized I had been fortunate enough to be in business for 20 years since my anniversary was this month. It was an impressive milestone and perhaps I would allow myself to say something about the profession. I did, after all this time, finally feel that I knew something about people and how they lived their lives.

When I started out as a professional organizer I was filled with my own cleverness for being able to organize anything anywhere. I would put rooms in order in a flash, find boxes in the recycle bin to make into drawer organizers, install a hook in just the exact spot it was needed, arrange appliances and kitchen tools for optimum time motion efficiency and clear a path through a cluttered four car garage in short order. As this was long before cable home improvement programs and hoarding reality TV, clients were not quite sure what professional organizers did. I spent my first three years learning to describe what I could do and how it would help them. I talked more than necessary trying hard to impress clients with how smart I was. 

It didn't take long to realize that they didn't care how smart I was if I could just solve the problem at hand. And so I learned to listen and ask questions to help me find out what it was they were hoping for. I had many skills from carpentry to spacial design so had many opportunities to talk to clients about different household problems. My colleagues also referred me to their clients for situations that called for my handyman-da skills. I happily installed closets and shelving, cat doors and curtain rods.

Over time I realized I had an affinity for the chronically disorganized, red flag clients who tried the patience of other organizers with their ambivalence. "They're not ready," some would say because organizers are results oriented and clients who are process oriented need more handholding. But as long as the client was asking me into their home I was willing to work with them and help them. 

Often the reason they couldn't achieve their goals I realized was because they were stuck at some bottleneck point. "My desks needs help" they would say and I would follow the trail of backed up clutter to the source of the block, which might not be in the office at all, but in the hall landing where a little shifting of furniture would move the clutter along and the client would be surprised at how much that helped.

During all this processing with clients I had a lot of time to study client motivation and how I could help them in that regard which led me to see my client situations as stuck energy not just in the Fung Shui sense, but on a psychological level. And the more I could engage the client in seeing where they were stuck the more I could help them by doing something that would increase their momentum and thus their energy for going further. 

Given my combination of skills I was able to use my design talents to pin point what small improvement would bring about the most reward. I could then implement the moderate household fix or shift of furniture that would solve a cascade of storage problems. This was very satisfying to both of us. If I got it right this momentum would inspire them to work on their own between appointments or talk to family members or office mates about their new found clarity for what needed to happen. 

As one client put it I was not so much an organizing consultant as a catalyst to get people thinking about where they were stuck and to prompt them to have the needed conversations that would facilitate doing something to get the whole eco system of the cluttered area to a more organized state and facilitate people creating their own systems that they could then maintain.

In a number of these eco-systems of clutter there were also big clues about what was going on in their inner lives as well. What their dreams were in the things that they were hanging onto. What hopelessness had been allowed to bog them down and hamper their perspective. I offered a willing ear because I was interested in people's stories. Many were about past trauma of some sort especially with hoarding clients. 

It was not my job to solve these psychological problems, of course. In fact as organizers we were constantly being warned not to step on the toes of the mental health profession for they guarded their territory jealously reminding us that we were not qualified. But there was no harm in listening without judgement and some emissaries from the psych professions (presenting to us at conference workshops) encouraged us to ask questions to gain insight into client perspectives. This would allow us to challenge their thinking by helping them to see what was a more realistic picture of time and space and what would better help them to increase the functionality of their space. (We used words like functionality because that pinpointed the end goal better than the more conventional aesthetics of having things look like a magazine spread.)

Such conversations of inquiry attuned me to the emotional life of clients. The tone of their voice would clue me in on what their emotional goals were even though they weren't telling me this was a priority. Often it was to relieve their anxiety about something they thought most people would think was minor. By the same token I also sensed what brought them pleasure in a much loved activity that had created the clutter. I was then able to focus my attention on leaving the client feeling emotionally relieved. Or feel they had received an unexpected gift. This I realized was where I stopped being an organizer. For I had put aside my desire to organize someone's space that would satisfy my own aesthetic sensibility in order to become the person to call to get things done.

Technology: Unintended Consequences

Despite advances in technology organizers of the human variety are not in any danger of becoming obsolete. If anything our technological advances had allowed disorganized people to become more disorganized by robbing them of time and diminishing their skill to actually do things. Clients were asking me to help them get off the computer because it had become such a center of social interaction and entertainment that they found it so distracting they forgot what they were supposed to be doing. 

Technology also made it more difficult for clients to find me. Marketing in the era of the telephone book was much simpler if expensive. People who saw my tiny two line ad in the yellow pages believed that I was a legitimate business and did not hesitate to call me when they read my business name "Don't Agonize, Organize!" and were in fact agonizing over not being able to find their stamps in order to mail their bills. Today marketing across social networking platforms has become a much more complex and time consuming endeavor. And in an age of texting people seem more reluctant to actually call and talk to someone. Old school service providers who once enjoyed regular business were getting lost.

I met other service providers who were excellent practitioners in their field who were equally impaired by the time and skill required to market their services (and if not time then copious amounts of money to pay others to write glib copy for social networking sites). This phenomena produced some observable trends. The most prominent being a high number of mediocre service providers who stay in business because they are seen on every networking platform and have managed to pull off the illusion that they are famous experts. This is offset by a smaller number of providers who are driven by their own interest to develop their knowledge and skill and who don't mind working with difficult situations and people because that just makes the work more interesting. These providers stay in business through referrals because they can reliably solve problems and produce results. I am pleased to count myself among them.

And then there are the superstars. Relentlessly ambitious, hard working colleagues who are inspired by a love of business (or need) to maximize their effort by taking on more risk, trying different business models, hiring staff, adding more services and credentials and who thrive on the challenge of lucrative large scale projects.

Such effort leads to becoming a specialist in order to maximize the effort needed to capture a market for a consistent stream of clients. One such specialty is relocation work—moving people from a 3,000 square foot house to a $5,000 square foot house say. Moving companies must be booked in advance and packing and unpacking scheduled with military precision. Plus a specialists hired to install closet shelving and another to hook up computers and TVs. I have happily worked for colleagues who take on these jobs. It is labor intensive work with long hours, but it is also exciting to work with a crew in these upscale houses much like putting on a theatrical production.

High end clients pay high fees, but come with high end liability issues. Discussions ensue on our professional forums on whether an organizer should drill into walls or swing a hammer (to install an organizing product) because it might cause a liability issue if something went awry. And because we have professional boundaries now, even more discussion about whether an organizer should accept client discards for their own use because it would create an exchange with the client that might erode our authority as a consultant (so some don't take things to Goodwill at all). 

Superstar organizers strive to become the organizing expert in a particular niche with specialized filing systems and day planners created for their brand. Ordinary things are stylized beyond client's expectations as signature methods are implemented. This fits in perfectly with a consumer driven culture. Much like shopping today where you are compelled to study the multiple features of a product across several websites, learn technical jargon for things you didn't know existed and read online reviews from strangers who may or may not share your lifestyle to determine whether this service will fit your needs. So too can you shop for an organizer. (Or cut to the chase and just call the president of your local chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers for a referral).

Clients are now telling me that when they look for an organizer for a job, the job that organizer is willing to do is so specialized that it creates more work for them or they have to find yet another service provider to do the bits left over.

"I found an organizer who does everything," a client gleefully exclaimed recently when I told her I could take things to Goodwill, move heavy boxes and organize. For her modest two bedroom move-in job I was able to do everything. And it was also an opportunity for me to create shelving for her office closet from boards and lumber I had on hand and could nail together in my home workshop. The result wouldn't make anyone's Pinterest list of 50 Clever Storage Solutions nor was it attached to the wall as required by earthquake standards, but the client thought it was brilliant and perfectly suited her needs in a temporary apartment living situation.

And yet I am harder to find. Challenged by the marketing skills required for this highly specialized consumer culture of escalating technology organizers are now writing, directing and staring in their own YouTube channel as the expert on all things organizing. This is what marketing means today with its five platforms of delivery from LinkedIn to Youtube. (Twiitter, Facebook and Pinterest being the other three in case you were wondering.)

And despite having all the skills necessary to write, direct and make my own YouTube videos of top-of-the-line organizing tips I can't think of a worse buzz kill for my creative spirit than to create for the sake of marketing. Because in the end being organized is not my end goal any more than it is my clients. The whole point being to increase our quality of life so that we can get to the non-organizing goals, the main event, the life's work, the family, the community, the being the change you want to see in the world.

But when they do manage to find me I get clients who bond with me almost immediately because they have stumbled on my photos on flickr of the shoes I made, downloaded and read my memoir (because that was the only available information they could find on me), watched my movie about reusing discarded doors, read revealing personal details on my blog or enjoyed one of my pithy politically slanted book reviews. As a result I have a work life that is rich in authentic exchanges with a great variety of people. And these exchanges somehow further both our goals to enrich our lives in an interaction of human collaboration.

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At 8:58 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Very good Amanda, very good indeed. Congrats on your 20 years in the biz. You seem very accessible and trustworthy and talented.


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