Small business owners today don’t need to pay a receptionist to answer phones or an accountant to balance the books.
Thanks to collaboration software, video conferencing, instant messaging and mobile telecommunications, entrepreneurs can hire virtual assistants for everyday tasks. These virtual assistants could be thousands of miles away, and in some instances may not be human at all.
“Going back to when virtual assistants started in the 1980s, it was phones and fax,” said Stacy Brice, president of AssistU, which trains virtual assistants. “Fast forward all the way to today and you find that virtual assistants forget the telephone exists.”
Virtual assistants conduct a variety of business tasks including booking trips, creating power-point presentations, bookkeeping, Web design and marketing. Virtual assistants charge by the hour, affording small businesses the ability to only pay for help when it’s needed.
While the telephone is one means of communications between a virtual assistant and a small business, many use Web-based tools to communicate and collaborate efficiently. With Web- based tools a virtual assistant can share a calendar with the small business, access files and upload work without ever having to visit the business he or she is working for.
Heavy hitters like Microsoft (MSFT) to start-ups like Huddle offer online collaboration tools for small businesses and virtual assistants. Huddle.net, based in the UK, has a Web-based product that gives a business a secure workspace online for collaboration. With the software a small business and virtual assistant can manage projects, share and store files, create and edit documents online and host group discussions. Huddle is free for one workspace and costs $75 a month for 20 workspaces.
BlueTie out of Rochester, New York also provides collaboration tools -- including a calendar that can be shared, and email -- for $4.99 a month. Genbook of San Francisco, California provides an online scheduling tool, while Freshbooks of Toronto lets a business send and manage invoices online.
“Basically it’s a virtual workspace where you can keep all the stuff they do together,” said Brice of the Web-based tools.
But collaboration software isn’t the only tech tool virtual assistants have in their arsenal. Instant messaging, e-mail and video conferencing with services like Skype are also common communication tools.
“Technology nowadays is so amazing,” said Kyle Sheldon Chandler, owner of KSC Virtual Administrative Services. “I’m in Colorado and have some clients on the East Coast. It [technology] enables us to work together very smoothly.”
Conducting day-to-day tasks isn’t the only thing that can be done virtually. Small businesses can also have their phone calls managed and at the same time appear bigger than they are thanks to a service from j2 Global Communications (JCOM), the Hollywood, Calif., telecommunications company. Called eVoice, the telephone service gives a small business a phone number that can ring at multiple locations and has a built in answering service that lets you read instead of listen to voicemail. Because the business owner can choose the location the phone number is in, it could appear as if a business is in California although its owner is really at home in Georgia.
“You can have our system answer with a professional greeting, play a menu and call down to your cell phone,” said Ken Truesdale, vice president of voice services at J2. “It’s an easier way for people to balance their work life and play life.” The service costs around $30 a month for 1,000 minutes and works with any phone.
For Sandy Abrams, author of “Your Idea Inc.,” using eVoice lets her separate her Moisture Jamzz business from her writing.
With eVoice it “gives me a professional façade,” said Abrams, who didn’t want calls about her book coming into her company that makes gloves and socks filled with moisturizer. “It looks like you have more people working for you than just yourself. It makes you seem more professional.”