Dear Danielle: How Do I Work with Clients Virtually?

Dear Danielle:

In talking with my business coach we have decided I should use my 18 years office administration and customer service skills to start an administrative support business. I’m losing my current work position in June of this year so I’m hoping to have my business established by then. One area I’m struggling with is how I perform my current skills for business owners strictly from my home office? Is there specific software I should have, etc?  How are others accomplishing these tasks from their home offices? Plus, there are some tasks I don’t know how to do at this point. —SC

New software, services and technologies emerge every day so there isn’t a way to give you one single, static list of everything you might possibly use.

One reason is because I don’t know who your target market is (a target market is simply an industry/field/profession you cater your admin support to).

That makes a big difference because while there will be some general overlap (e.g., Microsoft Word, Excel, etc.) the software and tech tools you would need to work with one industry/profession may not necessarily be the same for another.

For example, are they professionals providing a service or are they a sales business? Different industries/professions have different business models, work with clients differently, market differently, etc, and that will entail different support and require different appproaches in supporting them.

So it really depends on what industry/profession you’re going to support and the work involved in supporting them. Once you know that, you can then better determine what tools you’ll need.

That said, here is what I can tell you generally:

1. One trait I notice a lot in our industry is people tend to make things far more complicated than need be, which only increases their workload and makes their business harder to manage. In large part, you and your client don’t need anything more complicated and involved to communicate other than simply emailing each other. With email, you don’t have to take time out for random, interrupting phone-calls. You have a tangible item that you can move around in prioritizing files in your email client (e.g., Outlook) and you’ve got a hardcopy paper trail and record, so to speak, of what is asked of you.

2. In the past I’ve recommended project management/online collaborative office services. However, even that just complicates things unnecessarily. And when you have a full, busy practice (or building a business to have one), you will find you just don’t need anything that weighs you down like that.  I’ve also found that clients don’t like to have to learn a whole new software or tool to work together and it just doubles your administration and workload re-adding projects and work into another system when you’ve already got it in an email. Now, I don’t use any project management software at all. I simply use DropBox to share documents with clients, collaborate and edit them in real time, and keep things organized online in a central repository we both share.

3. Then, there are going to be services your clients uses and all that’s really required there is for them to give you the login access information. For example, if you client publishes an ezine (online electronic newsletter), he or she will use a service like Aweber to distribute it and manage the attendant subscriber lists. Because it’s an online service, you don’t need to download anything or purchase your own software. You simply log into the client’s account and do what you need to do.

4. Let’s see, what else? Oh, here’s a good example… Some people offer bookkeeping in addition to their administrative support. My first caution here is to first make sure you are qualified to be providing this kind of service. When you start messing with people’s money and financial recordkeeping, you open yourself up to a whole other level of liability. People who don’t have the knowledge and training to be providing this service shouldn’t. Otherwise, you risk causing real harm to the clients and yourself getting into potential legal hot water.

But let’s say you are a qualified bookkeeper and want to offer this service. There are all kinds of ways you can provide this and all kinds of platforms to use. In the actual bookkeeping field, what many folks do is have clients fax or mail bank statements at the start of every month and then they simply enter and keep the data at their end in their own software (like Quickbooks Pro). At the end of the month, they give clients summarized reports and balance sheets. When it’s tax time, they simply make a CD copy to give to the accountants (unless they provide that services themselves as well).

Other business owners are more hands-on. They want their data entered a little more regularly instead of once a month. They like to keep their own finger on the pulse of things and for them, keeping their records on their own systems is preferred. In those cases, services like Quickbooks offer an online version. It’s pretty robust, but there are components lacking that the actual software has (e.g., last I heard, the online version doesn’t allow you to enter COGS line-items; if you working with contractors, for example, that could be a problem). If the client’s business is simple and more service-based, the online version will probably serve all your needs. And if you get the online version, again, all you need is for the client to provide you with access to the account.

Another way is to have the client fax or email things to be entered and then you mail then back a CD or somehow get an electronic version back to them. Things like invoices can be emailed back to the client or simply mailed out. This is a really complicated way of doing things because it adds more work and will require that you and the client always be in exact sync and never fail to upload the latest CD of their files. For example, if you do a client’s bookkeeping for the week, then make a copy of the CD and do a file transfer of it to them, the client then has to download that latest CD. If he fails to do this, the next time you do file swapping, you could lose all your previous work. I really, really don’t recommend doing things this way whatsoever. Too much room for human error. And trust me, there WILL be human error sooner or later. I guarantee it.

The only other way is to work on the client’s own software to do their bookkeeping using remote access (such as with a program like LogMeIn or TeamViewer). This can work really great. The only thing is that the client can’t be on the computer you are trying to work on remotely. In the past, what I’ve had clients do is simply set up a second computer (typically, one that isn’t going to be used at all or very often by anyone else), keep their bookkeeping software on that computer and then I simply log in whenever I was ready to do their bookkeeping.

I used the example of bookkeeping, but as you can see, when it comes to software there are going to be all kinds of options available to you. There are going to be online services. Sometimes remote access is the way to go. Other times, having the actual software is what is required. You simply are going to have to research them (and your research could and should include asking those specific questions of your colleagues when they come up) and find out what works best–for your clients AND you. And a lot you will figure out as you go and as you talk with clients and prospects.

What you need and the option you end up using for any given support area is going to also depend a lot on your target market and what makes sense for your business as well. Meaning, your business can’t afford for you to be spending your time using antiquated or inefficient systems or softwares just because a particular client is using them and doesn’t know any better. As an independent professional and administrative expert, you have to work with clients who can get with the program or are amenable to the advice you give them on what will work better for them and for you. Because every inefficiency you allow into your business, just to make an exception and cater to an individual client’s whims, makes your business that much less profitable and efficient. And that’s not good for you or your other clients.

One Response

  1. Wow, Danielle, for a post that starts out “I can’t possibly give you a neat and tidy list of all the possible software,” that is quite *the* list…you gave a ton of information in that one answer! I totally appreciate it.

    I’ve been a VA for a little over a year and have accumulated most of what you wrote above, in some form or fashion, during the year. I never thought about it as a “list”…but you are so right. I guess all the programs I use are my tools.

    Funny…if I read your answer when I was first starting out, I would NEVER have known what you were talking about! Now I get it…THANKS for sharing!

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