Are You Ready to Increase Your Office Staff… Without Employees?

Posted on February 13, 2015 in Employee Issues

Are You Ready to Increase Your Office Staff… Without Employees?

I reached a point in my law practice a number of years ago where I was stuck. Like, La Brea Tar Pits stuck. I had reached my fullest capacity – by myself — of serving clients, handling the billing, and going out to get more clients to start the cycle all over again. The biggest part bogging me down was the administration of it all: sending out bills, retainer agreements, entering business card information . . . none of which contributed to my top line (income!). I needed someone to take the administrative and basic-level marketing tasks off my plate and free up my time. But my fears echoed that common plaintive cry of entrepreneurs who are burning out doing everything themselves: “I can’t afford it.” The cost of employee taxes, benefits, and other perks — not to mention the base salary and the costs of adding additional office space and equipment – was enough to make me choke.

So what did I do? I reconfigured my business, found some ways to work a little more efficiently, automated a few more procedures. Yet I soon find myself banging my head against the same capacity ceiling. I faced burnout. Visions of the Peace Corps in Outer Mongolia danced in my head.

This second time around, though, I had become receptive to the concept of virtual assistance. (Actually, I had heard about it several years earlier, but had trouble wrapping my mind around how I work with a member of “staff” who was not on-site and into whose office I couldn’t poke my nose to see what’s going on.) But necessity is the mother of invention . . . and I needed help. I was already comfortable outsourcing my website development, tech support, and accounting and bookkeeping functions by working with consultants. So why not farm out administrative tasks?

Administrative Help without the Employment Taxes

Like other consultants, virtual assistants (VAs) are generally considered independent contractors. “Assisting” is their business. Among other factors that the IRS looks at to ensure that someone really is an independent contractor (and not an employee in disguise), VAs set their own hours, provide their own office space and equipment, negotiate their own rates, and perform similar services for other clients. This lack of complete control over VAs and their work environment – coupled with their paying their own employment taxes — lends to their being considered independent contractors.

How Can You Figure Out What To Delegate to a VA?

Make a list of all of the tasks that don’t need your attention personally. These are insignificant time wasters that keep you from your more lucrative opportunities. For example, entering business card information from all of the people I meet at networking events is not a task that absolutely required my attention. My VA does that for me and then sends me a “sync” – a synchronized copy of my contact database file that I can upload to my computer.

Then, make a list of all of the tasks that you don’t like to do in your business. These sap your energy. Do you really need to spend your time with accounts payable and receivable? Your VA may or may not be able to help you with this (it depends on her background and experience), but she can certainly make the necessary calls to find a bookkeeper who’s right for you. For example, when my Wise Counsel Press site ran into repeated snags getting finished (see our WCP article, “Playing Ostrich is for the Birds: Face Those Contract Problems Right Away!”), my VA, Janet Anderton, was an invaluable resource in finding a web designer to complete the task.

Thanks to the Information (or Computer or Internet – whatever you want to call it) Age, you can delegate many of the administrative functions of your business. Telephone, email, video conferencing, intranets, web-collaboration software and synchronizable computer programs make it possible for you and your VA to collaborate as a team without being in each other’s physical presence.

How to Partner with a VA?

The keys to finding a good VA and developing a sound collaborative relationship is the same as for hiring a conventional employee. You need to be clear about the tasks you need done, the skills you want the person to have, your expectations for professionalism, and the time commitment you are willing to make to the relationship. Here are just a few of the questions you may want to ask of yourself (and your potential VA):

    * What are the skills, background, and experience you want the VA to have?

    * How proficient is the VA with the computer programs you use?

    * What kind of training has the VA had in functioning as a VA? How long has she (VAs tend to be women) been in business? How much administative experience does she have?

    * If the VA will be setting and confirming appointments for you, how does she handle herself on the telephone?

    * What is your first impression of the VA’s level of professionalism? Does her cover letter have typos or use language that’s too colloquial for your style? Does she have a website? If so, does that website give you a feeling of confidence about her abilities?

    * Do you have compatible work styles?

    * Are you willing to make the time commitment to the position (for at least a few months) to make sure you give it a fair chance to settle in? In our first couple of months, Janet and I encountered repeated computer glitches in getting our systems synchronized. It took a lot of patience and determination to get past this stage (that Janet has a great sense of humor was a real asset!). Once we did, we became a smooth- and long-running team.

    * How can your VA’s background benefit you? Does she have a solid network of contacts who might be able to help you, too? Does she have other clients in your industry?

    * Does your VA have a written agreement with her clients? Will she agree in writing to keep your information confidential?

    * Does she have a “contingency plan” – that is, backup help in the event that she runs into a problem, family emergency, etc.?

Once you have your requirements in place, you can post it to sites like AssistU.com (where I found Janet – see this month’s “Spotlight,” below). After I received the responses to my posting, I looked at the candidates’ cover letters and websites, and conducted extensive telephone interviews to uncover their backgrounds, how they ran their businesses, how they handled my questions, how they responded to the way I handled theirs, how curious they were about my business and eagerness to be of service – many of the questions that you would ask of an administrative assistant. 

I can’t begin to list all of the ways that my VA has been a help to me. Yes, she has taken some of the old stuff off of my plate; but she has also been the one to whom I can delegate new tasks – like sending out this ezine and handling the back-end administration for WCP sales. By handling the behind-the-scenes functions, Janet helps me to stay where I need to be: at the forefront, as the public face of my businesses. Now where would you rather be: the front line or the back office? And which will enhance your business growth more?

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