Tools of the Trade (I)

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It is impossible to be an effective assistant if you do not use the tools of the trade. The tools of the trade for an assistant go beyond simply printing, filing, and taking messages. You need to become familiar with machines, computer programs, and etiquette to become a successful assistant. If you are unsure about any job-related tools, you should take the time to educate yourself.

Email Protocol

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Today, email is a necessary form of communication. Emails allow people to respond when convenient, and it is easy to save emails to servers and prevent the loss of valuable information. Understanding basic email protocol is essential, considering that it is a main method of communication in the business world. An email is similar to a business letter, but it does not require a heading with a date and address. When sending or replying to emails, there are a few basic guidelines to follow. 

  • Double-check the address: Make sure that the wrong address was not accidentally used. Not double-checking could cause problems.
  • CC carefully: Do not carbon copy your entire address book. Only copy people on emails when the issue concerns them. You may also blind carbon copy to protect the privacy of your recipients.
  • Subject: Choose a subject heading that is professional and pertains to the topic.
  • Salutation: Use standard greetings, like a letter. Introduce yourself if you have not met the individual.
  • Body: Maintain a professional tone, and proofread for mistakes. Do not use all caps because that is considered yelling.
  • Formatting: Do not over think formatting. It is a message, not a webpage, and a basic paragraph format is typically all that is required. Additionally, you should avoid distracting fonts and emoticons.
  • Sign off: Sign off like you would a business letter.

Office Machinery

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Being an assistant requires a basic understanding of office machinery. The company that you work for determines the machinery that you will use. Each organization has different needs and purchases equipment accordingly. However, some devices are more common than others. Common office machinery includes faxes, scanners, copiers, printers, postage machines, shredders, and telephones. It is not enough to simply know how to use a piece of equipment; you should familiarize yourself with ways to troubleshoot problems. If you do not have the manuals for a faulty machine, you can always look up the item online.

Computer and Software Skills

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Every assistant needs to have basic computer and software skills. Do not expect anyone in your organization to teach you how to use a computer. The computer and software that you use will depend on the organization. You should be familiar with basic computer skills such as keyboard and mouse use, external devices, and retrieving files. Most companies require an understanding of Microsoft Office, which includes Word for documents, Excel for spreadsheets, and PowerPoint for presentations. You should be familiar with databases and the Internet. You may need to use financial software such as Quicken. Some positions also require a basic knowledge of graphic design. Online training, books, and classes are available in computer and software skills.

Communication Skills

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The ability to communicate is necessary for a successful career. You need to brush up on both your verbal and written communication skills if you want to make a good impression. 

While it is true that writing is not the main aspect of your job, you will have writing tasks. Remember that people will judge your abilities based on your writing style. Emails, reports, memos, and proofreading may fall under the assistant’s domain. 

Improve Writing:

  • Spell check: Run a spelling and grammar check on everything that you write. 
  • Proofread: Typos occur after a spell check. Proofread for grammar and spelling.
  • Be professional: Use a professional tone in your writing. Avoid slang and informal terms.
  • Use mistakes: Do not become offended if someone points out a mistake in your writing. Learn from the mistake and do not repeat it.

Writing is a skill that you can easily improve. Take a class from time to time to hone your writing and improve your communication technique.

Assistants also need excellent verbal skills. You will need to demonstrate proper phone etiquette, plan events, and inform your manager about important topics. You may also have opportunities for public speaking. 

Improve Verbal Communication:

  • Think: Consider everything you say. Do not simply respond.
  • Speak clearly: Annunciate and speak slowly to be understood. Do not rattle off as fast as you type.
  • Be confident: Make eye contact and monitor your body language.
  • Get to the point: Do not ramble; speak concisely.
  • Be sociable: Remain professional while making others feel at ease.
  • Share the conversation: Dominating the conversation will make people feel uncomfortable.
  • Listen: Practice active listening skills.

We are not always aware of how we communicate verbally. You can ask friends and family for feedback and model your verbal communication on others.

Case Study

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Renee had more emails to write and reply to than normal, and she was in a hurry. She sent out an email with employee reviews for the department attached to the head of HR, and she CC’d the managers involved. A few minutes later, an employee called and asked to talk about his review. Confused by his request, she checked the email and realized that she accidentally sent the email to her entire contact list rather than a single group. She sent another email asking everyone to disregard the previous communication, but the damage was already done.