Does Your Small Business Need Virtual Assistance?

Six months ago Ann Tillage was drowning in a sea of e-mails, customer orders and operational responsibilities. Her Baton Rouge-based company, Sharmooz, grew quickly--a little too quickly for Tillage and her two employees.

Burdened with mounting daily obligations to her three-year old business, Tillage turned to a virtual relationship for help.

"Virtual Work Team really saved me when I started to feel really overwhelmed, but wasn't ready to bring on another employee, " recalled Tillage, who manufactures Charmeuse-based pillowcases and headwear intended to preserve hairs’ natural moisture.

As the name implies, Virtual Work Team is a remote operation that provides overwhelmed small business owners an extra set of hands.  Virtual Work Team can help with everything from administrative tasks to customer service and marketing. The Chicago-based firm is one of many virtual executive firms that have popped up to assist entrepreneurs who don’t have the time to train a new employee or can’t afford to hire additional staff.

These remote teams are a popular option for entrepreneurs looking to grow in lean times, but they can also be costly and dangerous if business owners enter the relationships haphazardly.

According to business coach Brad Ness, entrepreneurs need to have a clear understanding of what they want from a virtual team and to clearly communicate their goals.

“With Sharmooz, Ann immediately let me know that she needed help getting her e-mail situated. She talked about not being organized and wanting to do more with social networking,” said Shilonda Downing, Virtual Work Team’s founder.

Ness also suggested entrepreneurs outline how they will measure expectations and how often they expect to hear from the team. Ness warned, “You are delegating a task to be done, but you still have accountability over that work so you don’t want to lose control.”

Despite the 915 miles that separate Tillage and Downing, communication does not falter.  "After the first week, I loved the way they handled the correspondence and their openness back to me,” said Tillage, “I receive constant updates of what tasks are accomplished and what are the results."

Entrepreneurs should also thoroughly investigate a virtual team’s background.

“Find out what are the skills and qualifications of the resources you are using. Ask for testimonials,” said Ness.

Downing warned that there are companies that will sign a client based on their credentials and then outsource to a cheaper company.

Payment terms can also be an indicator of the virtual team’s legitimacy. “ Stay away from long-term commitments and requests for money up front. Look for verbiage that guarantees performance,” suggested Ness.

Entrepreneurs should make flexible contracts with virtual companies that jive with the ebb and flow of business.

“My contract is on an as-needed basis,” Tillage explained, “Some weeks are busier than others.  I am not locked into having to pay for 20 hours a week when I don’t need to use all that time.

Ness also recommended dissolving underperforming virtual relationships. “If they are not meeting the expectations, you are not getting deliverables, or they are not communicating in the manner that you expected, you do not want to let that linger. Don’t hope for them to get better. Get out of the relationship quickly and move on,” he says.

For Tillage and Downing the virtual courting period is over, and despite having never met face-to-face, their relationship appears to be going strong.  And like any relationship, theirs grows with trust.

“As she began to see what we could do, approve us and trust us, she pretty much handed over her back office support to us,” said Downing. “Their work load increases and mine gets more efficient, added Tillage, “I can focus more on sales and product development.”