Setting Up Your Virtual Office
Team Double-Click clients often ask just how to go about setting up a virtual office. In other words, how does a small growing business owner avoid renting bricks-and-mortar office space? Even the tiniest offices “in town” can run several hundred dollars a month. Add to that commuting, furniture, equipment costs -– not to mention expenditures for a full-time assistant whom you still pay even when you do not have work to keep them busy.
Setting up a virtual office can seem a bit overwhelming at first, but once you embrace the idea and get a feel for the logistics, it is really quite easy. With today’s technologies and the use of a virtual staffing agency, such as Team Double-Click, there really are no boundaries. Just think. With a virtual office you can spend more time with your family, work from almost anywhere, and your clients never need know you do not have an office downtown, if you prefer them not to. We know many small business owners who proudly tout the fact they are 100% virtual -– it’s a bragging right after all. How many people do you know who have that kind of flexibility and low overhead? The numbers are growing, but we are still an envied few in the grand scheme of the workplace.
Overcoming Commonly-Perceived Hurdles
There are several tasks and items most often viewed as hurdles to working virtually, utilizing a virtual assistant and maintaining a virtual office. Let’s explore those hurdles, how to overcome them, and have you on your way to setting up a 100% virtual office. Fortunately, all of the commonly perceived hurdles to working virtually and working with a virtual assistant (VA) can be overcome with relative ease.
Getting the Phones Answered (By Someone Who Is Not You!)
Your VA can answer and direct calls for you quite simply. We recommend a system called Ring Central. A virtual phone system allows your virtual assistant to answer calls regardless of where he or she is in the country. Through the phone system, they can answer in your company name (because it alerts them that the call is coming from your business), handle those calls that they are able to handle, and transfer calls to you or other staff members as necessary.
Team Double-Click employs this very phone system with great success, as have many of our clients. Even though we are located in places such as Wisconsin, California, North Carolina, California, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, and Florida, the Ring Central system makes it all seem like we’re sitting in the same central office.
Your assistant can set the system up so that it only rings to your (or his or her) office during the hours you choose. If your office hours are 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, you do not have to hear the phone ringing during off hours –- those calls will go to voice mail where your assistant can retrieve them in the morning. The system can also “hunt” for you if you are on the road a lot. Again, your assistant simply programs in all phone numbers on which you want to be located. The system will first try, for example, your home office number; if it does not find you there, it will try your cell phone, and so on until it runs out of numbers. If it does run out of numbers to try, it will transfer the caller into voice mail so you never miss a call.
Faxing – Most Importantly Having Your Assistant Fax For You
A virtual fax is essential so you do not have to be the only one who can send and receive faxes. We recommend using these two companies simultaneously for your virtual office.
- Packetel - Through Packetel, you can receive unlimited incoming faxes for just $3.95 per month. The faxes all come in via email as a picture (.tiff) file. This can be set up so that you AND your VA receive a copy of each incoming fax. Since it comes in as a picture file, your VA can easily upload those documents into your virtual filing system.
- eFax - With eFax you can SEND X number of faxed pages per month for a flat fee (starting at $19.95/month).
You should set up your letterhead and signatures, etc. so your published fax number is the Packetel number because of the unlimited inbound capability. Packetel, however, does not allow for outgoing faxes. That is why we recommend eFax. Since both fax systems are virtual, your VA can fax anything you need and you can fax files to him or her for processing very easily since they come in electronically. Hang on to your hard-line fax machine and you can fax to your Packetel fax number and your VA will receive that information as a picture file in an email. She can process this paperwork or send it on to someone else just as if you simply passed the paperwork across your desk to them.
Order fulfillment is perhaps one of the most often commonly encountered perceived hurdles to working virtually, yet one of the easiest to overcome. A real estate mentor client of Team Double-ClickSM handles his order fulfillment for mentoring materials, workbooks, manuals and CD’s by having his virtual assistant handle them for him.
His virtual assistant orders his printed and audio materials for him from his print shop and CD duplication company. When the VA orders, the VA has all of the finished products shipped to his/her own home office, where the VA assembles them into the appropriate packets. As orders come in, the VA boxes them up and sends them off to the mentor’s students via UPS.
Through UPS online, your company can maintain an account, which the virtual assistant can use to have your orders shipped to your clients. If you have not checked out UPS online lately, please do so. Their rates are very reasonable. They will come right to your virtual assistant’s door to pick up those packages (thus saving you the cost of having your VA run to the post office), all your ship-to addresses are stored in the system for future retrieval, and best of all, your assistant can print shipping labels right from the website. They can even choose to have the receiver notified via email when the package is shipped, and choose to receive notification them self when the package is delivered. This makes for great tracking ability!
Order fulfillment for your company may also mean sending out paper-packets of information to clients or potential clients. This is actually simpler than sending packages of books and CDs. All you need to do is forward your electronic copies of those documents to your virtual assistant. Your VA can print them off, put them in an envelope, and mail them to whomever you wish. The VA will ask you for reimbursement for the supplies, and of course, charge you for the time, but it is complete and you did not have to handle a single piece of paperwork.
If you want to take order fulfillment one step further and eliminate the need for you to personally touch any of the orders, have your ordering system notify your virtual assistant when the order comes in. Your VA will take care of the entire process and you do not have to manage or touch any of it. Your virtual assistant can also send these items via fax to your clients, if needed.
Transferring Large Files
Do you have a file that your VA needs to work on, but it is too big to send through email? There are two services we recommend for very easy file upload and subsequent download by your virtual assistant or a business associate. Both offer free accounts and both work very well. They are:
Your virtual assistant really can do your filing for you! It is all a matter of remaining paperless. If you keep everything as an electronic file or picture file you can easily be 100% paperless -– no more papers piling up on your desk, no more buying case upon case of copy paper!
For your virtual assistant to actually do the filing, you will need an online or virtual filing system. Team Double-Click recommends is through Xdrive. For just $10 per month, you can store up to 5GB of files! You and your virtual assistant can both access your files similar to accessing a common file cabinet in the office or a shared hard drive.
You can simply forward your electronic files to her as needed, and she can file them away into the appropriate folders on Xdrive. Viola! Your filing is virtually complete. This also accomplishes off-site storage and provides for easy retrieval in the event of a fire, computer crash or natural disaster.
Sending Gifts and Cards
How often do you send cards and gifts to clients for special occasions -- birthdays, holidays, births, get well wishes, etc.? There are many new and innovative services out there these days that make sending gifts and cards to clients and potential clients a breeze.
One of our favorites for sending flowers is www.1800flowers.com.You can go to the website, look over the options and instruct your VA to send XYZ arrangement to Jane Client -– quick and easy.
To send greeting cards to clients we like Send Out Cards (use id number 9482 to receive any special promotions). The cards look fabulous and very professional. Here is how it works: you ask your VA to send a get well card to John Client, your VA goes to www.sendoutcards.com, chooses an appropriate card, enters the receiver’s address, types in the message you want to see on the card, and completes the order. The folks at Send Out Cards print and personalize the card, put it in an envelope, address it, stamp it, and send it off to the receiver. Cards are available for as little as about $1 apiece – a third of the cost of picking up a greeting card at the card shops. Again, you did not have to take the time to go to the store, write on the card, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and walk it to the mailbox. Send Out Cards does it for you!
There is no limit to the kinds of gifts available online. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Vermont Teddy Bear Company (www.vermontteddybear.com)
- Longaberger Baskets (www.longaberger.com)
- Yankee Candles (www.yankeecandle.com)
- Ghirardelli Chocolates (www.ghirardelli.com)
- California Wine Country Gift Baskets (www.californiagourmetbaskets.com)
- Gift Tree (www.gifttree.com)
- Bed Bath and Beyond (www.bedbathandbeyond.com)
- Pier 1 Imports (www.pier1.com)
- Gift Certificates (www.giftcertificates.com)
- A Southern Season (www.southernseason.com)
With any of these services you can either opt to maintain an account of your own and ask your VA to login with your account info or you can ask your VA to set up their own account, do the ordering, and charge you back for the costs.
Technology comes to the rescue. It is very easy, these days, to work on the same document along with your virtual assistant. For smaller documents simply emailing the document to the virtual assistant so they can make updates and such works well. Be sure to use MS Word’s “track changes” function (“tools”, “track changes”) so each of you knows what changes the other has made.
For larger documents or those in which you need more than two people collaborating, we recommend two great services.
- LapLink ShareDirect -- LapLink ShareDirect is a great tool for going paperless. It allows instant sharing of any folder on your PC with one or thousands of users, without ever having to change or manage your Internet, firewall or router configurations. It is 256-bit encrypted!
- Groove Networks -- Groove will be available with MS Office 2007.
Calendar and Outlook Contact Sharing
A great company has designed a software program that allows you to share your Outlook contacts and calendar with your virtual assistant and vice versa. The program plugs right into your Outlook so when your VA adds a new contact for you, you will automatically receive that contact’s info. Your VA can make changes to your calendar and schedule appointments and they will appear in your calendar. Check out www.4Team.biz.
Meeting With Clients and Virtual Staff
In some cases, of course, you will need to visit the client or a business prospect in person to seal a deal. For the most part, many of your meetings with staff and clients are conductible from a distance. Try these services:
- Conference Calls - With FreeConferenceCall, you can have as many as 99 people on the line at once. Everyone dials into the main conference call line where you can hold meetings, conduct teleseminars, coach, train, or teach. (www.freeconferencecall.com).
- Online meetings -For a few dollars a month you can make use of Go To Meeting, which allows you to simultaneously “meet” with clients or associates via the web. When you set up a meeting, Go To Meeting will give you a conference call line for all attendees to dial in and hear you speak, along with being able to allow them to see your computer screen while you talk. This lets you demonstrate or train on software or show a PowerPoint presentation from the comfort of your own desk and without the travel costs. (www.gotomeeting.com)
Contact Relationship Management (CRM)
Of course, if you wish to have your virtual assistant enter leads into your database, or help with contact relationship management, you will need something that is accessible to both of you. We recommend:
- Sales Force (www.salesforce.com)
- cBiz - This system, designed for staffing, is fully customizable and has many possible applications. (www.cbizsoft.com) -
- SalesNexus – This CRM’s fee is one year at a time but it works out to about $40 per month per user. (www.salesnexus.com)
- Top Producer - For real estate. (www.topproducer.com)
- Constant Contact www.constantcontact.com
Bookkeeping/ Paying Bills
So many people don not know exactly how to have someone work virtually on bookkeeping. Several options make this task so much easier.
The first option we recommend is keeping your QuickBooks program on your own desktop. Then allow your virtual bookkeeper to dial in and view your desktop and perform the bookkeeping remotely. For this we recommend LapLink Everywhere which includes remote desktop search from any Web-enabled device (powered by Google Desktop Search) LapLink Everywhere lets you choose how you want to work and which device with internet access you want to use to access your PC. It is easy and fast to set up and simple to use. QuickBooks also offers an online bookkeeping package, which works wonderfully.
You can use your virtual fax, email or snail mail to send receipts and such to your virtual bookkeeper for processing. If you choose fax or e-mail, your VA will simply destroy those copies after processing. If you mail them to your VA, they will mail them back for safekeeping after being processed.
Transaction Management (For Real Estate)
Team Double-Click recently partnered with a fantastic company. They are an online transaction management system called RELAY Team Double-Click has a partnership with the company and as long as you are using Team Double-Click’s VA services, we can give you free access to the platform. If you would like to learn more in-depth about RELAY, please visit www.rebt.com or any of our sales associates would be happy to give you a private demo.
RELAY was designed for real estate agents but works equally well for real estate investors. It is a secure, online area where all documents involved in the transaction (so all of your purchase papers, inspections, literally everything) are stored. You and your VA would have access, via secure login, to view, manipulate and send those documents to whomever necessary.
What we would suggest to make your life easier is to have your VA receive all documents. Your VA receives them via fax and uploads them to your RELAY system. You can go in at any time and view those documents, print them, etc. When the time comes to send those docs somewhere (to a lender, broker, etc.) the VA can send them directly from the RELAY system either via fax or email – eliminating the need for you to ever touch them.
The one time you may need to touch the documents would be to print something to sign it. You can simply fax it to your assistant (via your Packetel account) and they will upload it. Through RELAY you can (or the VA can) choose who is able to view what. Let us say you have a loan application that you want only the lender and not the broker to see. That is no problem – the VA marks that person as allowed to see the document (you and your VA can see everything by default). Your VA also sets up a temporary user account (also free) for the lender. Lender receives their own unique login; able to view only that particular transaction and only the documents the VA provides access. The lender can then print their own documents if need be.
Keeping track of every transaction is exactly the kind of thing RELAY handles. One thing we like is its ability to keep track of multiple revisions to documents. Let’s say you have a document called “Offer to Purchase” that is connected to one property. That document later is revised to modify contingencies, etc. The VA uploads the document again and RELAY automatically assigns it a version number so you always know which version is the most recent. In addition, you can still look back at earlier versions as reference, if needed.
Armed And Ready To Be Virtual
These are our most commonly encountered perceived-hurdles to working virtually. Now that you are know how to overcome these, most anything else is certainly possible. Of course, there are a few added monthly expenses. Weighed against office rental and other overhead costs, working virtually can save you at least hundreds of dollars a month! Do not forget to hire your virtual assistant. They can help you get all of these virtual office components set up!
(Gayle Buske is the founder, president and CEO of Team Double-Click, a virtual staffing agency with over 16,000 professionals in its pool, Gayle is uniquely qualified to aid her clients’ growth through virtual outsourcing.)
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