A difficulty with being an owner of a micro business or a sole trader is that it’s easy to become paranoid – paranoid that a new customer who’s just found you on Google is going to go elsewhere if you don’t answer the phone immediately.
And they may have a point. Faced with an online contact form, an unanswered telephone or even a voicemail service, many customers will simply decide to move on to the next possible supplier on their list.
One option is to use a virtual PA service. Reuben Singh, chief executive at call answering service AlldayPA, says: “Whatever time it is, you are open if you’re on the web. People have forgotten the idea of office hours.” Clients expect you to be available even if you’re on holiday, eating your dinner or out at the cinema.
The business’s services vary from a simple script in which the PA asks to take a message to the more sophisticated end; one client has a script of 216 questions the PAs ask to get to specific information the business will need. This might be because they’re processing insurance claims or getting details for independent financial advisers.
Clients can have a regional phone number allocated to them and, when a customer calls, the PA answers and puts them through. Alternatively, a PA can act purely as an answering service, to which calls are diverted when the phone is switched off or, for example, when it rings more than three times. The PA then handles the call and passes messages on.
Using a call answering service can be a big step for an entrepreneur as it means trusting someone else to represent your business. Finding the right person is therefore crucial. Mark Lee is a professional speaker and mentor for accountants and has tried a number of virtual assistants (VAs). He says one VA didn’t keep track of everything he asked her to do. “Tasks were falling between the cracks and I sometimes found I was having to go back and chase them up weeks after I thought they’d been done. I lost some clients and fees as a result.”
Now he uses two VAs. “One is very efficient and chases me up if I don’t do the things I commit to do between calls. The other one has a more focused role and I speak to her every week to ensure everything remains on track.”
Alan Stevens, professional speaker and reputation manager trading as mediacoach.co.uk, pays £30 per hour to Mooreva.co.uk. “The value of using a VA is immense, especially for an international speaker like me,” he says. “She organises my trips and speaking gigs, sets up meetings, keeps in touch with clients and is proactive in looking for opportunities.”
But when smartphone calendars have become so sophisticated and you can schedule time through a website, isn’t the need for this sort of service diminishing? “It’s not about scheduling, it’s about phone calls, emails, personal relationships and prospecting,” says Stevens. “It’s also a point of contact, with someone who understands my business while I’m not available.”
People have different reasons for using such services and it’s not all about capturing every call. Lee Warren is a public speaker and magician who uses PA Business Support, which costs him £600 per month. “The primary reason is to save time on tasks that can be done by someone other than me – admin, accounts and diary management. In other words, it frees me up to concentrate on what I’m good at – speaking, performing and writing,” he says.
“My PA is a qualified accountant, so has been a big help with setting up account structures, and she runs my diary for me. Before using a PA, I hadn’t realised quite how much time I spent with clients over things like emailing promo material, organising dates, double-checking correct venue addresses and so on.”
There’s another reason, though. “Being completely honest, there’s also the ‘image factor’. A lot of my clients are multinational companies, and it’s easier to take me seriously, particularly as a business speaker, if I have a PA.”
Inevitably businesses must measure value and the potential financial consequences of missing out on an important call. It’s not just about finances though.
Warren acknowledges that measuring exact return on investment can be difficult: “Time is the most precious thing any of us have, and so anything that saves me time, or helps me be more productive with the time I have is very important to me,” he says. “I’ve never sat down with a spreadsheet and calculated the ROI, but I have sat down in the evening and relaxed with a glass of wine, knowing that my PA is organising things for me, and that’s pretty invaluable!”
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