Ashley Armstrong: “Communication can be a challenge at times”

Communication can be a challenge at times. With remote teams, many people may be working in different time zones or experience language barriers. Therefore, meetings, follow-ups, etc., must be scheduled ahead of time on a schedule that works for everyone. Communication can also be slow as you cannot turn to the person sitting in the […]

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Communication can be a challenge at times. With remote teams, many people may be working in different time zones or experience language barriers. Therefore, meetings, follow-ups, etc., must be scheduled ahead of time on a schedule that works for everyone. Communication can also be slow as you cannot turn to the person sitting in the desk beside you to ask a question so you often have to expect delays when waiting for an answer.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Armstrong.

Ashley Armstrong, E-Commerce Expert and Best Selling Author, helps sellers successfully navigate the in’s and out’s of Amazon to scale their businesses to 8-figures and beyond.

After building a 7-figure physical product business, Ashley went on to establish an eCommerce consulting firm that specialize in navigating Amazon’s ‘hidden rules’ of engagement. Her expertise has helped thousands of sellers properly position their product lines in order to increase sales, build a loyal customer base, and drive revenue. On average Ashley’s top clients see a 140% increase in sales in 30 days.

Ashley has partnered with Amazon and Marketing guru, Dan Hollings, as well as companies like Sustain Natural and Viome, who won awards like The Digital Health 150’s Most Innovative Digital Health Startups of 2019, Frost & Sullivan’s 2019 Company of the Year Award and the Top Nutrition Startup Award 2020.

She has also consulted for influencers like Naveen Jain and Jeffrey Hollender, and worked with experts including Joe Polish, Jason Fladlien, Philip Jepsen, Greg Mercer, Ori Firouz, Abdul Samad, and Chance Anthony. For her expertise, she has been featured in Medium, Authority Magazine, Thrive Global, The List TV, CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX NEWS.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

Anyone who knows me knows that my energy and my drive is extremely high, so with being a stay at home mom I had to find outlets in which to direct my energy. It began with writing books for my children, of which I earned a best seller, and through my online marketing I quickly learned there was so much more to Amazon and other selling platforms than meets the eye.

So many hidden secrets that no one seemed to be willing to share so I took it upon myself to learn everything there was about having a successful eCommerce business. This knowledge led my own products selling to a 7 figure success but with my energy…I had to do more!

I knew this information could stop so many other sellers from falling through the cracks leading to the establishment of my eCommerce consulting firm that specializes in navigating Amazon’s ‘hidden rules’ of engagement. I have had the honor of helping so many established businesses and upcoming entrepreneurs find huge success in the massive eCommerce world, growing many of them to 8 figures plus!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

There are several stories that come to mind, however, if I have to choose one I would have to say it would be when I learned that when you are excelling and exceeding all expectations you are a target for on-lookers to copy! I found quick success when I launched my eCommerce business. One product after another was a #1 best seller and my revenue went from 0 to 30K dollars in 30 days with many of the products I launched.

This success started to gain a large following and low and behold, I started getting “copy cats”. People stealing not only products but my intellectual property as well. Soon I had to fight these copy cats off by sending Cease and Desist letters, getting lawyers involved and it was a lot of time, energy, and effort to protect what I had built.

Luckily I was smart enough to trademark and copyright everything I was doing and because of that I was able to win every case we went after.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Often when creating your own business from scratch you are too close to the situation to notice an error and thank goodness I had mentors in my back pocket to help me through them.

When you are a manufacturer, it takes a great deal of time to do market research, competitor analysis, product development, sample test runs, and then final production. You have to estimate how much inventory to manufacture and you need to have the cash on hand to pull it all off.

Well, the problem was quickly realized when my sales were out of control! They doubled and then tripled to a point that I had to triple my sales prices to try and slow sales down just to give me enough time to get more inventory in stock. Low and behold — the drastic price increase did not slow my sales down! Instead it actually increased them forcing me to sell out of inventory sooner than I wanted. We still laugh about it to this day, it was a great problem to have!

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Burnout happens to the best of us. Poor planning, not knowing when to stop working, rushing to finish a project on time, and more. Thankfully, there are great ways to avoid burnout if we take the time to follow them which isn’t always easy when running your own company!

It begins with knowing when to delegate the workload. This is, at times, hard to do as only you can achieve the results you want right? Wrong! By placing trust in our teams, we have the opportunity to let some of the stress that leads to burnout go. Knowing a portion of the workload is being taken care of by capable hands allows you time to focus on other things…including yourself.

It is vital to take time for you! Hit the gym, visit a spa, go for a walk, enjoy time with family, and any other activity that allows you to put down the cell phone, close the laptop, and focus on something other than work for a moment. You will be surprised how even a short break to go outside and enjoy some fresh air revitalizes your mind and brings new ideas to the table!

Having dedicated work hours is also very important and even more so when working for yourself. It is much too easy to grab your phone and answer that quick email at 11 pm at night when in reality that time should be spent on you. Without dedicated work hours, you will find work becomes your entire life quickly leading to burnout where productivity comes to a standstill. It’s ok to set boundaries and it is highly recommended.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

First off, I must say without my team I would be lost! That is not to say it was easy finding a team that connected with my insane energy and commitment, however, after several misfires, I have been able to create a team of dedicated people who compliment my ‘craziness’ making for an excellent, and very productive working relationship!

Now how did I get here? With a ton of trial and error! From the start, I knew I needed someone to get me organized as I am the type of person who has a ton of ideas and wants to implement them all right now! I needed someone who could tell me “Ashley…slow down, let’s focus on ABC instead of jumping to XYZ.”

This for me had to be someone who could be my right-hand person and be able to organize the millions of ideas coming from my mind in a way that betters the business as a whole. For when I succeed, they succeed and that is the ultimate goal! My executive assistant keeps me grounded, organized and focused on the tasks at hand and I wouldn’t be here without her support!

I could not afford a structured business location to house my team when starting out, so remote team members were a great way to get qualified staff while saving money on office space. Over the last decade I have been able to work with a variety of people from locations around the world who I would have never had the opportunity to work with if I had chosen a more traditional business environment.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

There are so many benefits to having a remote team, but yes, there are also several challenges as well. All of which can be overcome with experience and knowledge as well as an understanding of your wants and needs and having the faith and trust in your team and yourself.

I would have to say one of the main challenges would be tracking your team’s productivity and work progress. There is no physical workstation for you to check on, no daily in-person contact to touch base and see where they are at so you must be diligent in setting up schedules, deadlines, and expectations right from the start. My executive assistant keeps my entire team in check…especially me! She has implemented great programs for file sharing and progress tracking that helps the entire team function at their peak performance!

Secondly, communication can be a challenge at times. With remote teams, many people may be working in different time zones or experience language barriers. Therefore, meetings, follow-ups, etc., must be scheduled ahead of time on a schedule that works for everyone. Communication can also be slow as you cannot turn to the person sitting in the desk beside you to ask a question so you often have to expect delays when waiting for an answer.

The third challenge, and often the most difficult, would have to be hiring. You do not have the opportunity to sit down over coffee and get to know the person on a more personal level. No handshake to judge their initial confidence, and no immediate clarification if this is someone you can work with on a daily basis. You are relying solely on what you read and hear instead of being able to use all your senses which can make it difficult to find the right fit for your team.

Fourthly, another challenge you face when working with a remote team is there is no company culture leading to social disconnect. No “water cooler talk”, no team-building outings. These types of team events create a bond between workers and without them, it can become difficult to form these relationships.

And fifth but definitely not the least important…building trust. When working with someone in-person on a day to day basis you form bonds of trust. This is more difficult in a remote setting as there is no physical person to connect with. Managers may not trust their workers are completing tasks as scheduled and workers may not trust they will be paid on time…if at all. Trust does not come overnight, but with consistent and transparent expectations, trust can also be formed remotely. For example, when I send work off to be edited by my content writer, I can trust she will complete the work on time and as expected. She in turn can trust consistent pay and recognition which has allowed us to form a bond of trust without ever meeting in person!

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

With each challenge comes its own form of unique handling. Tracking your team’s productivity and work progress is a vital part of your success and you must implement software like Asana, EasySuite CRM, Basecamp, Trello, etc. where work can be shared and progress can be tracked daily in order to know your team is doing the work as required. Always have milestones in place instead of just a full project deadline so that you are not blindsided by incomplete work on the due date. This will help you keep track of everyone’s progress and know which areas need support long before they become a problem.

Communication issues can and must be addressed from the beginning. This can, at times, be difficult to implement, but having a consistent schedule makes it much easier to get the team together remotely to discuss ideas, thoughts, problems, or concerns easily. You must also remember that everyone’s time is valuable, including yours. If you expect your freelancers and team members to attend mandatory meetings, be prepared to pay them for their time. This makes it much easier to have your team attend on time, every time, as they know that you respect their time as being important to both you and the company.

The best way to handle the difference in hiring procedures is to begin by clearly stating your expectations and needs. I often take up to a week to design a job posting as I want any potential hirees to know everything they can before applying. Have an in-depth application for job seekers to fill out but I don’t stop there!

I always ask for a screenshot of their internet connection, I ask them to rate themselves from 1 to 10 on each skill I require, I ask them a fun question to get to know if they like to laugh a lot and have an upbeat personality, I often ask my potential new hires to submit a quick video introducing themselves and I ALWAYS end each job posting with, reply starting with “I am the person for you”. This will tell me if they read everything and I can quickly delete anyone who doesn’t follow instructions saving me time interviewing incorrect applicants.

Avoid hiring a jack of all trades. Instead, hire specific members for each task because someone who is an expert in everything often means their performance will be simply average instead of excelling at one or two things.

Building a company culture to avoid social disconnect can be managed by adding a virtual watercooler for more casual conversations such as weekend family plans or employee weekly wins and gratitudes. Adding physical mail-outs of gifts and company merchandise to your team members and cash bonuses go a long way and they truly appreciate that more than anything. Weekly group calls to discuss more than just business is also a good method to promote your company culture. Remember that you are your company’s culture so be sure you are a living example of the culture you wish to form before trying to encourage others to do so!

Lastly, trust-building. Simply put, you must be transparent about your company goals, expectations, rules, and limitations. Do not expect your team to just know all the in and outs. By being fully transparent about everything from pay dates to deadlines, struggles you are dealing with etc, you will be able to form a trustful bond between your team members.

My company motto is, “When I rise — we all rise!” I like to support and lift my team members up individually and support them on their extra curricular work as well!

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

We live in a very technological world and with many people choosing email and texting over picking up a phone and calling someone, it can be difficult at times to read the ‘tone’ of the sender. They may be expressing concern in a light manner, but you may take it as they are angry and full of resentment. This often leads to many conversations between two people being ‘taken the wrong way’ by one party or the other.

The same goes for remote workers. You cannot simply assume your tone will come across as you meant it through an email or text. Some tips to help combat the misunderstandings through both non-verbal communication and visual communication while giving constructive criticism are:

  1. Video Call is Best — Whenever possible try to give constructive criticism through a video call. This is the best way to still be able to express yourself while having your remote worker be able to visually see you so there are no misunderstandings in your tone.
  2. Don’t Wait to Give Praise — They often say it takes 10 good things to level out 1 bad thing, so when your workers are doing great…tell them so! Consistent feedback, both the good and the bad is much better for both parties than choosing to only point out the negative once in a while. Positive feedback also boosts morale which, in turn, boosts productivity!
  3. Employ both Care and Empathy — When physically working with someone on a daily basis it is much easier to form bonds that allow you to genuinely show care and empathy to your workers. Remotely you do not have that daily interaction so you must show both without coming across as disingenuous. You can apply this by ensuring your feedback also helps your worker grow. A great tool for learning this is the Radical Candor approach which helps you give guidance and feedback that’s both kind and clear, specific, and sincere.
  4. Don’t Be to One-Sided — Constructive criticism should go both ways and as an owner, you should also expect to hear some feedback on yourself as well. Both giving and receiving feedback should help your team grow, produce new ideas, and develop your team towards an ultimate goal. So remember, you are human and are not perfect so always be ready to learn about yourself as an owner as well.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Feedback over email is a delicate balance that can be difficult to navigate without sounding harsh. If I had to choose an email over a video call, I would begin by asking questions. Your team is how you reach success so you must show an interest in their thoughts before jumping to criticism. By asking questions such as “How do you feel about the project you were assigned? Did you encounter any issues you would like to discuss?”, you open the door of communication allowing you to then provide constructive criticism both parties need to grow.

Be sure to not simply criticize, but also provide clear actionable direction for your worker to follow along with sincere empathy. Perhaps they were late with a required delivery for the second time, instead of saying “You were late yet again”, try saying “I have noticed you are having trouble meeting deadlines, how can we resolve this so that we can all meet our goals?”. By asking a question, it allows the worker to become involved in the process without the feeling of being attacked.

Without criticism, we cannot grow and it has been shown the people actually appreciate criticism when delivered correctly. My best advice would be to write the email…then rewrite it. Often we spew out too much within the first draft, so it is always great advice to reread and rewrite where needed to ensure you are being constructive, providing actionable direction while also listening to your worker.

Plus, you always want to point out what they are doing right! Give them that boost in confidence they need especially if you have to provide constructive feedback, it can really help minimize animosity.

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

I would say the biggest obstacle when getting used to remote working would have to be time management. When working from home, it becomes all too easy to be distracted by our surroundings such as kids playing in the next room, dogs barking, etc. which can lead to missed deadlines. However, working from home can also lead to burnout as you don’t have a set time to finish work. It is all about time management.

That comes easy when in a physical work building with scheduled breaks, lunches, and a dedicated end of the work day, but can begin to become difficult in a new remote setting. When switching to a remote setting, maintain the same work schedule every day just as you would if you had to get up and leave for work.

Set an alarm, shower, and get dressed for the office, even if your office is now your kitchen table. Keeping the routine allows your body and mind to switch to ‘work mode’ helping productivity and time management.

But sometimes you can’t follow your normal working hours when you have kids to educate at home too. To manage this, I do not micromanage my team.

We are ALL having to deal with the uncertainty of work life balance due to the pandemic. I set clear goals, we have daily check-ins at a specific time that everyone must arrive for, and we have end-of-day reports that must be submitted. Other than that my team can work on whatever schedule works best for them as long as the work gets done and you are online when I am to answer questions in real time. I do not care what hours my team works. We all have to be flexible in today’s world.

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

Your company culture always begins with you. Your values, your goals, and your energy. Ensure you clearly describe your values, and encourage others to communicate openly about ideas and thoughts.

Introduce new team members to the entire team. Do not assume they know there is a new person, take the time to fully introduce them, and encourage introductions from all parties. Have a dedicated ‘water cooler’ channel within your organization’s chat forums. This allows for more personal talk such as a great weekend, or a child’s birthday celebration. Simple tricks like this will help you build a community of team members who enjoy working and talking together, leading to better productivity as they feel welcomed and part of the whole team.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This might sound crazy but smile!

I want you to legitimately reduce your stress and heart rate on purpose by cracking a smile, yes, even fake it if you have to! Smiling supercharges your mood, builds your immunity, lowers stress, and helps to generate more positive emotions which allows you to be more productive at work and make more money.

Our bodies release cortisol and endorphins that provide numerous health benefits when we smile. Quickly shift your mood and stay more energized while avoiding burnout.

The brain doesn’t know the difference if you are smiling because something made you happy or not, it just notices the trigger from the muscles. For a faster effect, smile at yourself in the mirror because our mirror neurons enable us to copy the behaviour we see.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“When I rise, we all rise”

This is my company motto. I don’t take the people in my life for granted even if I am paying them. We all have something amazing to contribute to the world and I am not the only one to have dreams, aspirations, and goals. Every person on my team has them too and I honestly believe that when I grow and succeed, I can then lend a helping hand to my team members as well.

Thank you for these great insights!

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