by Williesha Morris
Originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of OfficePro Magazine
About 6 years ago Alicia Jay had a wonderful job as a printing company manager and was really good at it. Then the economic downturn happened, and the printing company ended up closing its doors.
“I stayed there because I had job security,” Jay said. “I didn’t feel passionate about it, but at that time, I wasn’t looking to make any kind of switch or move. I had a steady paycheck, and insurance and benefits.”
She was also 7 months pregnant.
“Life doesn’t necessarily always go the way you think it should or how you decide to plan it out,” Jay said.
With a lot of research she eventually found virtual assistance.
She began as a general admin but eventually focused on transcription. She was great at it, enjoyed the clientele she worked with, and found there was always a need in the health and wellness industry, business coaches, or anyone who had recorded audio or video that needed to be transcribed. Jay understood that with her help, audiovisual content could be repurposed into written content and reach a larger audience.
Marketing and finding clients
“How do I find clients?” is a popular question for most people getting started, Jay said. In her case, there was a limited market on a local level.
“What’s most important is you need to know where your target market hangs out, whether that’s online or offline, and meet them there,” Jay said. She attends online networking events to attract new clients.
She also loves social media to get her name out there. But she cautions new virtual assistants (VAs) in this area of marketing.
“People new in starting their business tend to get really overwhelmed with all that there is out there,” Jay said. “You can be on so many platforms. There are new things popping up every day.” She recommends choosing two platforms that your ideal clients use. That means you won’t have to be on every social media network.
She recommends doing keyword searches used within your focused industry to get an idea of where potential clients are located. So if you want to be a VA in the real estate industry and use LinkedIn, join realty groups on that platform and learn the best ways to communicate with potential clients.
Jay also said to narrow down your areas of interest to one or two, find out where the people involved are and get in front of them.
“If they have a website or blog, you want to subscribe. Share it on social media,” Jay said. “Make sure they see that you’re sharing it. Tag them. Leave insightful comments on their blog posts if they blog. People like that. You’re getting on their radar.”
This also provides an opportunity to get to know the company or individual to figure out if they’re a good fit for you. Questions to ask, according to Jay:
What do they enjoy about their business?
What is it really made of?
“See if those are characteristics of someone you really want to work with,” Jay said. “See if you can find a way that what you provide in your business solves one of their pain points.”
Making first contact
Now that you’ve researched this potential client, it’s time to reach out, according to Jay. Be sure to mention how you know each other, such as being members of the same group.
Tell that person, “Here’s what I do and what I love about helping people in your industry. I’ve gotten results for people in this way and I’d love to talk with you more about it,” Jay said.
“You have to put yourself out there and that’s a scary thing,” she said. “But it’s just like any other business. If you put a sign on the door or make your website live, people are not just going to come running in to you. You need to put yourself out there.” Fear should subside if VAs have done their research and are good at what they’re doing.
The right price
Jay understands that opinions about pricing vary. She suggests looking at the cost of doing business, plus taxes and other bills like utilities, housing and food, along with the number of hours that will be worked. This way you can come up with an hourly pay estimate.
She said to factor in vacation and sick time, just like a regular job, when making these decisions. Using this rate, look at the services you offer, about how much time it will take to complete all of those tasks and see if they can be bundled together in packages to create prices. That gives the clients budget options, plus you won’t be stuck getting paid only by the hour.
Pricing can be tough because you’re evaluating your own work. If you’re not confident with what you’re offering, charging larger amounts for packages can be hard.
“That’s always one of the first things that we have to get past. A lot of times, we associate that number with what we’re worth,” she said.
She said when considering the popular statement, “Charge what you’re worth,” be realistic. Charge what you want to make, even if the fee seems high, without fear.
“Find the people who are willing to pay for your expertise,” Jay said.
On being a telecommuter
Sometimes, describing Christine Adams’ occupation can be a bit difficult. Her employer is GLO Networks, but she’s gone temp-to-perm with Cisco. Her two biggest clients? AT&T and Verizon.
“Yes, on occasion I do have a challenge,” Adams said about working with competing companies. “Both of my superiors understand that I’m working on both accounts. They’ve both told me, ‘If there’s a conflict, just let us know and we can assign a task to somebody else so that it’s not a conflict.’”
Most of her work involves setting up dozens of meetings for clients who are communicating across the world. Keeping track of up to 40 meetings a day can be stressful and busy, but Adams appreciates the flurry of activity. Her superiors know she’s getting her job done without having to look over her shoulder.
For admins who’d love to see their current positions change to telecommuting, Adams said to scrutinize and list every single task you do.
Once this is done, figure out the realistic parameters to set. “What are the cons?” Adams said. “What are the objects that are standing in my way that I couldn’t do it?” For instance, if you work from a desktop computer in the office, will you need a powerful laptop to work at home? This leads to the big question—does your company have the resources and tech for telecommuting?
“If the company doesn’t have enough software application licenses and they don’t have the ability to purchase the license to let that person do it, that’s also another obstacle,” Adams said. “You can’t work if you don’t have technology. You just can’t do it. If you can’t log into the system, and it’s a secure system, then there’s no sense in saying, ‘Can I work from home?’ They will automatically say no.”
If the tech hurdles can be overcome, Adams said to look at the activity of your supervisor. Are they in their office full time or do they travel frequently? These are additional factors to determine if telecommuting is an option.
“You have to say, ‘Where is the value?’” Adams said. “The value for me is to stay home with my computer and be able to have some quiet time, which I never get because I’m always getting interrupted, because there’s no door on my cube.”
Count how many times you are distracted by someone else in the office as part of your research to show your boss. For your supervisor, it comes down to numbers—more specifically, money. If you can show that the company will save money by allowing you to telecommute, then approach your boss.
Benefits of working from home
Even though VAs have to set their own goals and their income is directly tied to their output, there are financial benefits, like not commuting to work. Adams, as a telecommuter, enjoys those same benefits.
“There is no worrying about being stuck in traffic,” Jay said. “I can make appointments and go out and do things when everyone else it at work. I could run to the grocery store, for example. It’s not at the same time that everyone else is getting there.” They both noted less wear and tear on their vehicles is a positive aspect.
Other costs can go down as well, such as your clothing budget, Adams said.
Jay gets dressed, because it helps put her in “business mode,” and she feels more awake and alert. But working in your pajamas can be a reality.
Jay said time flexibility is a big positive about working from home.
“I’m able to really spend the time with my family on my terms, and not when someone else says I can have off or being at someone else’s place of business from 9 to 5 and having those remaining hours with my family,” Jay said. “We can do something in the middle of the day if we want. Now that my son is in school, if he’s off, I don’t have to worry about childcare.” Jay said childcare is extremely expensive, so that’s another cost benefit as well as an emotional benefit.
On being lonely
One of the drawbacks of working from home is the loneliness. This was the first “con” both Jay and Adams brought up.
“I don’t want to say it’s cabin fever, but I started going through withdrawal,” Adams said. For a month and a half, Adams was lonely and “bouncing off the walls.”
“I was looking at the four walls of my house. I don’t know if, at the other end, my boss knows that I’m working. There is a huge loneliness factor. (There’s a) regular office structure that we’re used to in the old days.”
“The biggest concern that you have is getting used to the fact that there aren’t people around you in the office atmosphere, 9 to 5,” she added.
Jay said lacking the “connection to other people” is a con. She made up for this by spending time with her family. She also suggested online groups and forums or live events with people in your industry.
In the case of both Adams and Jay, they share similar drawbacks of working from home. Since Adams is a contract worker, she has less access to some of the benefits and resources full-time employees have. Jay doesn’t have those resources either, and she has to decide if she’s going to create them herself as part of her business.
A great perk of telecommuting that VAs don’t have is that employers provide equipment to their employees. And if any new programs or equipment are needed for upgrades, it’s on the company tab. For Adams, there were only a few exceptions. When she needed a better, more ergonomic chair, she had to pay for that herself.
“It’s a $200 investment,” Adams said. “It’s an investment and it’s well worth it. That’s one thing that you have to upgrade yourself on.”
To stay in touch with people, she uses instant messaging systems like Jive or Jabber. She rarely has to pick up a phone now.
As a telecommuter, she has the option to go to the Overland Park, Kansas, office to get work done. She primarily makes the trip when Cisco’s Telepresence equipment is needed. It uses a large camera so everyone can see each other at once. Even though this is a web-based meeting, the Telepresence units are only located in the office, and she has to make sure everything is in sync. She has to get details from many people at once to make sure everything is set up properly on their end.
One of the programs Adams uses when she travels is called Any Connect. As long as there’s internet access she can connect to her home computer. There’s also a mobile option.
Virtual assistant tech
Of course, every VA will tell you that they can’t live without mobile technology—like tablets and smartphones. Jay is no different. She said she couldn’t live without them.
“All of the apps, programs and software that I use are mostly in the cloud so that I can do this job from anywhere,” Jay said. “I don’t have to sit in my home. I could take my laptop and go out to a coffee shop.”
One of the cloud software programs she likes is DropBox, to safely share private files of varying sizes with clients. She uses Evernote as an overall planner—to do lists, processes, and systems. Whenever she needs to document anything she uses Evernote “to keep track of my life.”
She also utilizes Google software like Google Drive. She has multiple email accounts, and they are all filtered to Gmail for better organization. She likes using Google Docs for creating surveys.