I’ve heard some stories lately. Stories from newer clients who've had less-than-happy experiences with other people who came to help them organize. Unfortunately, not everyone handles their organizing business in a professional and ethical manner. This happens in all vocations, of course, but if you combine the lack of professionalism with the fact that many folks still don’t know much about organizing and productivity services, well…it frustrates me. I am also amazed at how few questions potential clients ask me beyond how much I charge. Fees are important, of course, but there is so much more to know about what a professional organizer can and should do.
With that idea in mind, I thought it might be time for a post about some questions to ask a professional organizer or productivity consultant before you hire them. Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine three random names you saw on Facebook or Craigslist - let’s go with Olivia the Organized, Productive Prudence, and Cliff Clutterbuster. Imagine picking one (“I think I’ll call Olivia because that’s my mom’s middle name”), chatting with her a few minutes, asking her how much she charges, and then saying, “Ok, come on over.” When Olivia arrives 20 minutes late with no explanation, you nervously open the door and invite her in to see, literally, everything you own and all about your life.
Folks, if I were going to welcome a total stranger to come into my space and see all of my stuff (including the dust bunnies), hear my stories, and maybe even watch me cry, I would want to know a little something about them. Please, before you pull the trigger with Olivia, get her to give you a little insight into her business. Here are some questions to start with:
1. How long have you been in business? Keep in mind, being new to organizing isn’t necessarily a bad thing (we all had to start somewhere). But if your organizer is new, maybe ask them what led them to start their business. Their prior experiences may very well make up for lack of longevity in the profession.
2. Have you taken any training for organizing or productivity consulting? Yes, there are courses - tons of them. And certifications (more on that later).
3. Do you have a specialty or ideal client? Organizers don’t just work in homes. Some of us specialize in businesses, entrepreneurs, seniors, moving, photos, digital and technology, hoarding, coaching, feng shui, students, and (like me) ADD/ADHD. Make sure the organizer can handle the type of work you need.
4. Are you licensed/insured? Real businesses have a business license and carry business insurance. If they don’t, they’re kind of like the neighborhood kid who feeds your goldfish when you go on vacation. Cool if you know them and have developed a level of trust, but not always who you want to handle a huge, personal, messy job. These things are also important if the organizer works with a team.
5. Do you maintain any professional memberships? Business owners that want to succeed want to be able to network, learn, and develop their professionalism with colleagues. The two primary organizations for my crowd are the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) and the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD). Being a member of the local chamber of commerce is a good thing too.
6. Do you have any certifications or special degrees? Like many professions, organizing and productivity has several types of certifications, each requiring education, experience, and adherence to a code of ethics (click the links to learn more about each): Certified Professional Organizer®, Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization®, and Certified Organizer Coach® are among the certifications we can obtain. Great organizers may also come from a variety of backgrounds and careers that contribute to their abilities.
7. What’s your cancellation policy? What happens if you’re sick? What happens if the organizer is sick? Is there a fee and does it seem reasonable?
8. Do you take my donation items away? Where to? Will you bring me a receipt? I have heard, although I don’t have direct knowledge of, organizers who offer to take your excess stuff to charity…and then sell it and keep the cash. I hope that’s a nasty rumor, and that it’s SO not true, but you should still ask.
9. What about organizing supplies? Do you shop for them, and is there a fee? Some organizers have certain products they keep on hand to keep the project going; some prefer to make a list as you go and have you shop after the fact. Some may be part of an affiliate program where they receive a commission for things they sell to clients. All are ok - but you need to know how it works.
10. Are our sessions confidential? You would think this should go without saying (and it’s a part of my client agreement), but if you can’t trust someone to keep mum about your stuff and business just move on down your list.
11. Can you provide references? In this age of instant online reviews (which you should check as well), references may or may not be helpful to you. But sometimes talking with or emailing someone who has direct knowledge can be insightful and informative.
I’ve also been asked the following great questions:
1. "The pictures on your website show a messy space before, and a clean space after. How do I know you didn’t just shove all of the clutter off to one side and stage the space so you could take your “after" picture?" (I explained a little bit about how I strategized and approached the project in question, without giving away personal details).
2. What is your favorite thing to organize? (I was hard pressed to pick just one thing. Paperwork, home offices, tools, and books all rank high).
I know you won’t forget to ask about pricing, so I’ll leave that alone. How much is appropriate? Check around in your area to see what the range is (and remember to factor in the costs the organizer has in running a truly professional business).
If you feel at all shy about asking these kinds of questions, an organizer’s online presence can give you a lot of great information too. I strive to make my website as easy to navigate as possible, with as much information as I can provide. See if your potential organizer has online reviews, or an engaging social media presence, or a blog that speaks to you. Maybe ask a friend for a referral, too. The more a potential client knows about the organizer before calling, the better the chance of a great fit.
OK, so after you’ve gotten a good feel for Olivia’s credentials and personality, call Cliff and Prudence and ask the same things. It takes time, yes. Keep in mind that organizing with a client, whether in a home or business, is intimate work - so trust your instincts and get educated. It can save you a lot of grief and money later on.
Sometimes we get all caught up in the creation or discovery of a new organizing system. We’ve worked through purging unnecessary stuff (or tasks, or issues), learned about what we truly love and need, discovered how we work through our spaces and our lives, maybe did a bang-up job of recycling, donating and shredding. Then we come to How It All Gets Put Back. Perhaps a friend or colleague suggests a system to us - a new app, a book, or some other method. Maybe this system has fascinating bells and whistles or is promoted by the latest productivity guru, or it has captivating levels of complexity that make it seem like the PERFECT solution to everything we’ve been doing wrong. Or, we rush out and get the cute baskets or bins we saw on Pinterest to set a system up ourselves. We just know it will work, and we’ll finally “get organized.”
But then something breaks down. In six weeks (or three, or one) the mess and the disarray and the confusion are back again, and we’re left feeling like failures. I recently had a new client lament, “I don’t know what happens. I’ve purged all kinds of stuff but my spaces are still jumbled, and I just don’t stick with anything.” What does happen that goofs up all of that hard work?
My theory? It can be several factors, but one problem is something I call Barriers to Maintenance. A Barrier to Maintenance could be a drawer that doesn’t slide smoothly or having to reach a slightly-too-high shelf. Sometimes it’s the tiniest of irritations that become Barriers, like a closet door that won’t close all the way or having to lift a lid on a bin. Sometimes it’s complication, like having to go through a huge collection of email folders and subfolders to find that one critical message. I encountered a Barrier the other day when I realized that I wasn’t putting cups back into a cabinet just because an errant vine on a houseplant kept getting in the way of closing the door. Silly, I know, but that’s the kind of obstacle that can snowball left unchecked (yes, I moved the plant).
If something isn’t ridiculously, intuitively, and stupidly easy to retrieve and return to its best home, it’s probably not going to stay organized.
One person’s Barrier to Maintenance might be totally different from another’s. For instance, I adore the slim profile velvet-covered hangers because to me they look uniform, clothes don’t slide off, and they don’t warp. Those hangers encourage me to keep the closet straight. But I know clients who absolutely won’t use them precisely because clothing won’t slide on and off easily (I even had someone tell me they just didn’t like seeing lint collect on the velvet), so everything eventually ends up in a pile or on the floor. It doesn’t matter whether the Barrier seems trivial or not, if it prevents you from sticking with something in any way shape or form it needs to be reevaluated and resolved.
Developing awareness is key. When your system doesn’t feel instinctive, or if you’re noticing that it’s taking several steps to keep stuff in place, stop and ponder. Ask yourself if the system could work more smoothly, if it's too complicated, if anything needs repair, or if you are feeling any resistance or irritation. And remember - just because someone else told you the solution was awesome doesn’t mean it is awesome for YOU.
What are some of your personal Barriers to Maintenance? How will you knock them down?
Sara Skillen - I'm a Certified Professional Organizer®, wife and mom, and serial list-maker. I'm also an Evernote Certified Consultant. I love to help people from all walks of life get organized and productive - and I'd love to help you, too:
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