Personally Virtual Blog

26th September, 2018

Picture this – you’ve just rolled up to your favourite Chinese Takeaway, desperately in need of Prawn Toast, and as you reach the doorway your heart sinks… ‘Closed for Refurbishment’.  It’s a little disappointing, but it’s understandable; so many businesses with physical premises (rather than virtual ‘work from anywhere’ businesses) have to close their doors for a few days every couple of years for a super-clean or complete refurbishment, and we understand why; if we want them to continue to be comfortable and welcoming spaces to visit, or if we want their staff to be using the latest equipment so that they can carry out their jobs as efficiently as possible, they need a little time to do this.

The idea of being ‘Closed for Refurbishment’ is an interesting one. It’s not like a business owner is away on holiday (though this is perfectly reasonable too!), or simply can’t be bothered to open up.  As customers, we understand that a business owner is investing in their business if they are re-vamping their premises, and despite any minor inconvenience that this might cause us, we have to agree that it is a sensible business move.  For the vast majority of freelancers that I know, shutting down shop for a few days for a physical refurbishment of their working environment is unlikely to be accepted as a legitimate reason for restricting their billable hours for a couple of days! But why is this the case?

Everybody knows the feeling of working consistently long hours in an unappealing working environment… you can’t find anything, you might be physically uncomfortable in the space, and it’s hard to feel motivated and inspired when your surroundings are cold/damp/unfinished/messy. From this perspective, taking a couple of days out for a physical refurbishment or deep clean and tidy could be a justifiable business expense, as if your productivity and motivation increase significantly post-refurbishment, then the ‘loss’ of a couple of days of billable hours could be absorbed by the increased income you are able to generate in your swanky new office, where everything is simple to find and use!

However, it doesn’t just have to be a physical refurbishment that demands a short-term business closure… what about if you were to invest in some new hardware or software to streamline your business processes?  If it takes your PC 90 minutes to warm up, and it is constantly crashing or causing problems, imagine how much time you could save with some new technology? Even if your computer or laptop is working perfectly well, there are a huge range of productivity tools out there that promise to free up whole days’ worth of working time every week or month (for example, marketing and sales automation software, if that is an area that you currently spend a lot of time working in)… so if you were able to take a couple of days out of the office to set up the software, familiarise yourself with it and integrate it with your own business processes, in the long term it is highly likely that you would be able to recover the ‘lost earnings’ with income from your newly improved and super efficient business!

Whether or not you need to shut down for a physical refurbishment of your working space, or a revamp of the technology and tools you use to run your business, closing down for a few days and giving your customers plenty of notice of that closure should still be an option for remote freelance workers.  Yes, your customers might not benefit directly from a comfortable new office chair and desk, filing system or shiny new bit of tech, but they will indirectly benefit from your increased efficiency, productivity and motivation.

What could you ‘refurbish’ in your business?

Last Friday I was delighted to have a call from a client to tell me about an event he'd done that day and how having my support had made all the difference. I can't tell you how warm and fuzzy it made me feel that he had taken the time to call me and thank me. I was still smiling on Sunday.  

A Virtual Assistant can bring a huge number of benefits to a business, from freeing up valuable team hours to help improve your work/life balance, to giving you the time and space you need to focus on the tasks that you excel at and that bring in revenue to your business.

 If your virtual assistant was a traditional employee, it would become a natural part of your routine to say ‘thank you’ and provide valuable and constructive feedback on a regular basis; however, when a team member works remotely, it becomes far too easy to allow days and weeks to go by between verbal communication sessions, particularly if your team member is incredibly efficient and the tasks that they are carrying out require little or no input from you.  As a result, life for the UK’s freelance, remote workforce can be isolating and quiet at times, so if you are able to check in occasionally to say thank you or provide feedback, I can guarantee that it will be positively received!

The vast majority of freelancers don’t expect you to hire a plane and write ‘THANKS, YOU ARE AMAZING!!!!’ in the sky above their house; there are a number of quick and simple actions that can really help your virtual assistant and show them that you are grateful for the work they carry out on your behalf (especially if they regularly go ‘above and beyond’!).

 1.) Write a testimonial. Worth its weight in gold, a testimonial or review will always be positively received by ANY small business owner! If they have a single, preferred review site (i.e. Trustist, Feefo, etc.), pop your review on there, otherwise, leave it on their business Facebook page, LinkedIn profile and their Google My Business listing – it won’t take long for you to copy and paste it in, but could really help to support your freelancer’s business with some lovely and positive publicity!

2.) Recommend them to a friend/colleague/networking contact. It’s easy to want to keep your VA as ‘yours’, but it’s unlikely that the work they are doing for you is going to maintain their business long-term.  Most VAs and Freelancers have a handful of clients, helping to ensure that their business is sustainable even if a contract with one comes to an end.  As a result, if you find that a friend, business associate or member of a local business networking group is looking for a trusted, proficient and professional freelancer offering the services that your VA does, recommend them! I can guarantee that the quality of work provided by your VA will not suffer if they have multiple clients, as a professional and experienced Virtual Assistant will always ensure that they only take on new work if they have the capacity to do so

3.) Say ‘Thank you’ via email or a handwritten card.  This is always welcome! Think about your own daily post – primarily a mixture of bills, direct sales leaflets and correspondence from the HMRC (and your email inbox is probably the same!); how nice is it to receive something completely out of the ordinary, like a thank you card or a simple ‘well done’ email? Your virtual assistant feels the same, I’m sure!

The job of a professional, experienced and capable virtual assistant is to make your life easier, and they don’t expect to be thanked daily for work that you are paying them to complete.  However, if you do find that your working life has been significantly improved by the addition of a remote working virtual assistant on your team, feel free to let them know! We’re a conscientious bunch, and like to know that we are making a positive contribution to the businesses that we support!

Has someone made your business life a little easier this week/month? Why not say ‘thank you’ today – they’d definitely appreciate it.


There is a special triangle that I like to pull out when someone says “Ooh, I could get that much cheaper elsewhere” in relation to any product or service offered by a local small business:


The three corners on the triangle are labelled ‘Good Quality’, ‘Low Cost’ and ‘Fast Turnaround’, and from my extensive experience working as a small business and with a variety of other small businesses, it is virtually impossible to get all three when you are looking for a product or service.

Have you ever seen one of those articles about people who buy their wedding dress off eBay for £15, and it arrives from China and when the bride-to-be tries it on she resembles one of those retro toilet roll holders (or much, much worse)? That’s the analogy that I like to use when it comes to ‘cheap overseas labour’ – it might sound like THE answer to all of your prayers and mean you get a whole day’s worth of support for the price of a single hour of UK or EU based support, but in the vast majority of cases, you are relying on a completely unknown and untested entity to produce work of a good quality in a timely manner so that your business can be the ‘beautiful bride’ rather than a Halloween-esque monstrosity.  Particularly following the introduction of the GDPR, if you are asking someone to work with your data (or worse, the data of one or more of your customers), how can you be sure that the data is being handled and managed in a way that is compliant with the regulations?

Of course, the magical triangle above isn’t the only reason that I think people should look closer to home for a virtual support team for their business, there are lots of other reasons too:

Supporting your local economy – when you work with a small local business, you’re helping a local individual or family to support themselves in a flexible way.  The employed 9-5 is fast becoming a thing of the past as more and more people choose to work for themselves doing jobs that they are skilled at and passionate about.  If all of your customers chose to take up ‘cheap overseas labour’ rather than work with your business, how long would you be able to stay in business? It’s the same for all other freelancers. 

Recognisable qualifications, insurance and accreditations – If you need a freelancer to have a certain level of knowledge, experience or understanding about a specific topic, it’s likely that British/European qualifications (professional and academic) are going to be far more recognisable than some international awards.  Your business insurance and contracts can also be rendered invalid in certain cases if you choose to work with people outside of the UK or EU, so make sure you check the small print and seek advice from a legal professional if you are unsure.

Language barrier – Though the vast majority of the world’s population speak better English than some of their British counterparts, it’s worth making sure that a freelancer’s written and spoken communication skills are up to the standard you require, particularly if they are going to be in a customer facing role and dealing directly with your customers (even if it is only by email).  Grammatical and spelling errors on a website, in an email or in any of the documents that you produce for your business can have a negative impact on the perceived value of the work that you carry out for your clients. 

Issues with working hours – Do you need emails responding to within traditional working hours (9-5pm)? Do you need to be able to communicate promptly and efficiently with your freelance team? If so, an overseas worker may not be the right fit for you, particularly if they are online in the middle of the night UK time and your email system is going haywire when customers and suppliers are asleep!

Reasonable re-imbursement for your workforce – £5-10 per hour might sound like the ideal price point for a workforce, but could you live on that income with your business AND household expenses? Even if you had a relatively low cost of living, is that a fair price to pay someone for the work they are carrying out for you? If the work requires a skilled and experienced individual to complete it, then that individual deserves to be appropriately reimbursed for their skill and expertise.  What’s the lowest price you would work for? How do you feel if someone tells you that your product or service is overpriced and offers you significantly less for it? Before you exclaim ‘Oh, but I could get that much cheaper somewhere else!’, stop and think.  Even if you do think it is overpriced, why not ask why that is the hourly price-point, and whether there is a discount for a package of hours/retainer? During the discussion stage of a business relationship, you haven’t committed to working together so can walk away at any time if the product is not priced at a level that is economically feasible for your business at the present time. 

So when you are looking for a freelancer or team of remote staff to support your business, why not start by looking closer to home? Cheap, unskilled labour may seem like a good deal but can be a real false economy and have a negative impact on the perceived quality and value of your business in the long term. The UK has an incredible pool of talent who can help you deliver the quality and service that your business is renowned for, so why not contact them first when you are considering outsourcing aspects of your business to help you work more efficiently and effectively?

Outsourcing aspects of your business to an external business support professional can be hard, especially when so many business owners you speak to at networking events seem to have horror stories about unskilled, unreliable or unscrupulous freelancers causing problems for their business.

Here at Personally Virtual, we have first-hand experience of some of these issues – both when we’ve been looking for support with the running of our own business, and when we’ve been trialing new ‘associates’ to help deliver work for our clients.  Over the last five years, we’ve met a number of people who have been unable to provide reasonable quality work to appropriate deadlines (or at all!).  As a business that prides itself on our professionalism, quality of work and open, honest and timely communication, we want to ensure that the businesses we work with share our values and ideals so that we can work efficiently and productively together.  If we can’t trust the businesses we outsource work too, then we aren’t working efficiently – we may have to check and edit or correct the work they have completed, or we may find that the work is unusable, meaning that we are paying out for a service and not receiving anything in return…  not really a financially viable business model!

We have addressed this risk in our business by choosing to work with freelance business professionals who have been accredited by VIP VA – an organisation who champion and support virtual freelancers and remote business support professionals in the UK and internationally.  VIP VA recognise that professional and reliable freelancers invest in their businesses to protect both themselves and their customers, and that they do this by ensuring that they have appropriate insurance and contracts in place and are registered with appropriate governing bodies like HMRC (for Anti-Money Laundering Regulations, if they do any book-keeping or financial accounts management work) and the Information Commissioner’s Office (if they manage or handle data).  To help business owners confirm that potential freelancers have all of these essential business features in place, and to make sure that they are highly recommended by previous customers, VIP VA offers accreditation, and Personally Virtual are proud to be VIP VA Accredited and to work with other VIP VA Accredited freelance businesses.

Although VIP VA accreditation can really help to ensure that a business is a reasonable and appropriate ‘fit’ for your business outsourcing needs, it is a relatively new certification that we hope grows in momentum and popularity over the next few years!  There are other checks that you can make yourself to find out whether a business can offer you the level of service and support that you are looking for if they aren’t accredited by an organisation like VIP VA:

**Ask about their insurance - ask whether a business has Professional Indemnity Insurance in place, and what level of cover that they have.  The business may also require Public Liability Insurance and/or Cyber Insurance, depending on the work they are carrying out for you.  If a business doesn’t have insurance, I would ask them why they haven’t opted for this and be wary of working with them; insurance helps to financially protect both them and you in the event of an unforeseen negative situation arising and should be considered a ‘must have’ for any self-employed small business owner.

**Ask for references and/or to take a look at their portfolio of their work – Creative businesses may have a portfolio of sample work, or work that they have recently completed, to help illustrate their skills and experience, so it’s worth asking if they have one.  Some freelancers may be unable to collate this information because of the type of work that they complete, so it’s not unusual for businesses not to have examples/samples that you can review.  However, the majority of businesses should be able to provide testimonials/references from their customers, so make sure you ask to see them!  If a potential freelancer is unwilling or unable to provide this information, don’t be afraid to ask them why.

**Trust your network to give personal referrals - If you’re looking to outsource work, why not speak to your network of trusted peers to make honest recommendations? If you’re a member of a local networking group, ask them about their positive experiences with freelancers in a specific field.

**Speak to them! Although it is possible to meet and start working with a freelancer who you have only ever corresponded with via email, it’s usually best to speak to them directly via a Zoom/Skype call or on the telephone to get a better insight into the way that they work and their business ideals and values.

**Don’t expect them to work for free - It’s so tempting to ask a freelancer to carry out some ‘tester’ work for free for you, but please don’t! These are small business owners, like you, who have bills to pay and food to put on the table.  If you aren’t sure whether to commit to a number of hours per month with a specific freelancer, why not ask whether they’d be happy to complete a small paid-for trial (i.e. 1-2 hours) so that you can get an insight into their working style and make sure it fits with yours?

**Cheap doesn’t necessarily equate with quality - It’s tempting to accept the cheapest offer from a freelancer to complete work for you, but a low rate doesn’t necessarily mean a quality result! Experienced, qualified and trusted professionals are likely to charge a rate that reflects that experience, but at least you can rest assured that your business is in the safe hands of an experienced professional!

**Trust your gut - If something doesn’t feel right at any stage – trust your gut instinct! Even the most experienced and qualified individuals may not be the right personality fit for your business, so have the confidence to step back and review your options, as it will save you and the freelancer in question lots of wasted time and energy!

Although the list of potential questions above is fairly comprehensive, make sure that you take time to carefully consider whether outsourcing to a particular business or freelancer is the right action for your business.  Don’t rush into a business relationship with an unknown entity unless you have contracts in place to protect your business, but rest assured that when you have done the research and found the right candidate for your outsourcing needs, the benefits from outsourcing work can be significant and make a huge and positive difference to your professional life!

Happy Outsourcing!

 

23rd July, 2018

“What exactly is a VA?” – that’s a question I get asked repeatedly at networking events, by people in the supermarket, and occasionally by friends and family members I haven’t seen in a while.  It doesn’t help that voice-command operated AI technology has also adopted the ‘Virtual Assistant’ moniker… indeed, when I introduce myself as a virtual assistant, I have heard the response, “What? Like Alexa?!” more than once. Because yes, I really do sit in a booth somewhere and respond to mundane questions like “How many double decker buses would you need to stack on top of each other to reach the moon?” (The answer is about 87,762, just for your reference) and order toilet rolls when you’ve run out.

Here at Personally Virtual, we like to say that it is possible to ‘Outsource Everything but your Brilliance’.  For us, that’s central to what a VA is and does.  We’re a multi-talented industry, with a broad range of skills – from book-keeping and credit control, to marketing, diary and inbox management and HR support (though generally not all at once!).  If there are aspects of your day-to-day business life that you find time-consuming, frustrating or difficult, why not consider outsourcing them to free up time for the activities that you DO enjoy, and that bring money into your business.

So what can a VA do? Here are five examples of some different VA specialisms, to give you a flavour of the kind of support that you could invest in.

The Email Management Specialist – Do you have 54,000 unread emails languishing in your inbox? Do you lose important emails amongst irrelevant ‘Spam’? You need an email ninja to support you, prompting you to respond to important emails and filing ‘read later’ content for you to help make your email inbox a less terrifying place.

The Blogger - We’re all told that ‘content is king’, but some people are royally rubbish at putting pen to paper – their extensive skills lie elsewhere in their business.  So if it takes your hours to commit your thoughts concisely and coherently to paper, why not consider working with a copywriter to see your ideas come to life quickly and efficiently?

The Financial Wizard – Is your idea of financial record-keeping a plastic bag full of invoices, receipts and bank statements? Perhaps you hate invoicing, or can’t bear to follow up with customers for unpaid bills? There are freelance professionals who can help with this.  However, depending on the tasks that you need completing, your VA may need to be AML registered with the HMRC in order to assist with this – speak to your VA for more information.

The Appointment Guru – If you have client meetings left, right and centre, and struggle to keep on top of them all, a diary management expert could really help! Who wouldn’t want a diary full of events, smartly scheduled, to ensure you’ve got plenty of time to travel and prepare between one event and another.

The Social Media Support Team – Despite the many hours we many spend browsing social media channels every week, creating relevant and engaging business content is a task that few relish!  However, there are a whole host of social media content writers out there who could help you to fill your timeline with interesting posts.

Want to find out how a Virtual Assistant could help your business? Feel free to get in touch. However, if you’re looking for an Alexa-style virtual assistant who can help you dim your lights, adjust your heating and turn on your kettle, it might be worth heading over to Amazon…

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