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Virtual Realty

What happens when your business gets too big for a home office, but you don’t want to get locked into renting your own space? The solution – go virtual. Here’s how.

The dream of every small business owner is to achieve growth. Indeed, there’s nothing more satisfying than the feeling that comes with watching your hard work pay off, and your business start to expand.
But what happens when your business gets too big to run from home? It’s hard to look and sound professional when your business is all taking place from the spare room in your house. And when business really starts to take off and you’re running around trying to keep your clients and customers happy, who’s there to answer the phone?
You also need to ask yourself “is it okay to have prospective clients pop round to the house for a cup of tea?”, or would you rather meet them around a professional-level board room table?
The obvious answer to these issues is the traditional approach that many small businesses take: when the business grows, it’s time to start renting a business premises and start hiring staff. Which is fine if your business is growing strongly and large enough to warrant the extra burden on your bottom line.
However, there are solutions available to small business that can handle the downsides of business growth, without putting undue pressure on your profits each month. If you don’t want to hire staff or rent a shopfront, it’s time to go virtual – a viable option that doesn’t trade off professionalism against costs.

Can I take a message?
There are a number of definitions of a “virtual office” – and we’ll be talking about each of them within this feature, starting with the more traditional take on the issue.
A virtual office is generally accepted to mean a suite of services designed to help business owners stay on top of things when their business is busy. The two main reasons small business owners take the plunge into the world of virtual offices are a need for a reliable channel of communication for the business, and a need for a professional space in which to meet with clients.
On a communications level, virtual offices can be as simple as engaging the services of a call centre to answer the phone, take messages and pass them along to you when you have time to give them the attention they deserve. This sort of service works extremely well for small businesses where the day-to-day operations require long periods of attention from the proprietor, and where the interruption of a new client calling would impede fulfilling the needs of the clients you already have.
Sole-operator tradespeople are a good example of how a professional answering service could work very well. There’s nothing worse than trying to take calls from new clients when you’re up to your elbows in power tools, or at a critical point of some very hands-on work.
You can, of course, rely on voicemail to handle incoming calls for you. However, ask yourself this question: how many times have you needed an urgent service, called a prospective supplier, and had the call go straight to voicemail? If you’re like most people, you would simply move on to the next number in the phone book, rather than hope that the person you’re calling will get back to you.

The Next Level
The next step up from a simple answering service is a more feature-packed virtual office set-up, which can include a business address, phone and fax numbers, and paging on top of the base-level telephone answering services.
Organisations such as Asian Pacific Serviced Offices can be vital in helping small business owners identify precisely what they need from their virtual office, and then will assist them in finding the right set-up for the job at hand. Of course, it pays to be thinking about things well in advance.
“Many clients organise their virtual office 2 to 3 weeks before they launch their business,” says Fiona Tome, Virtual Office Manager for Asian Pacific Serviced Offices. “This allows enough time to have the phone number and address details ready for the website and printing of business cards. You can organise your new contact details and choose a start date to match your launch date.”
“Join with a credible provider,” Fiona adds. “Success breeds success. Start with a business address and a phone number to show you have a base for your business. We offer six packages to cater for many different requirements; phone answering by a professional receptionist, address use, mail forwarding, meeting & boardroom usage, with a choice of eight locations around Melbourne, or Adelaide.”
There are tangible benefits to using a virtual office service, Fiona points out.
“Organising a virtual office ensures your business is given the professional image it deserves; a corporate address and a professional receptionist answering your calls,” she says. “Make sure you don’t miss any important business calls. Plus the financial outlay is low allowing huge cost savings during the early stages of your business.”

Virtual Assistants
Yet another option for small business owners is to engage the services of a Virtual Assistant, who operates in the role of an office administration professional, without the need to employ someone full time.
Virtual assistants generally bill by the hour, and can perform many of the tasks that tie up the time and energy that small business owners could – and probably should – be putting into growing the business.
Those tasks range from the simple taking of incoming calls and scheduling bookings and meetings, through to the more labour-intensive tasks, such as updating websites, replying to customer enquiries, data entry and booking travel.
Having a virtual assistant on board has been made very easy, thanks to several key leaps in technology and collaboration platforms. Services such as Dropbox and Google Drive allow team members to work on documents collaboratively in real time, negating the need for the whole team to be in the same place – or even the same country.
Alongside that, other useful services include the suite of tools offered by Google Apps for Business. Not only can you access email from anywhere you can get a network or mobile connection, but users are able to share calendars and contact lists, as well as hold virtual meetings using services like Hangout, or Skype.
That sort of collaborative power, combined with a virtual assistant, who you only need to pay for the hours they work, rather than running the risk of putting someone on part- or full-time and having to pay even when business is slower than normal, are a fast and flexible way to help you grow your business, without breaking the bank.

Go Digital and Get Mobile
It’s all well and good to get your business processes mobilised – after all, that’s the goal of shifting to a ‘virtual’, fully mobile office. However, there are still a number of basic office functions that you’ll probably need to be able to access.
Even the most environmentally conscious among us will have to admit that the idea of working in a completely paperless setup is beyond any reasonable chance of succeeding – however, there are options available that can save you time, increase productivity and make being mobile a breeze.
Recent research from Tech Research Asia provided some very interesting statistics about the issues that plague many small businesses.

  • 66 percent of SMBs say that the average worker wastes eight hours a week on admin.
  • 27 percent say that their workers spend more than 15 hours a week on admin.
  • 63 percent of workers waste between 2-10 hours, every week, on repetitive or manual administrative tasks.

Shifting to a more automated, digitised documentation system has the effect of freeing up a lot of time that would otherwise be spent on administrative tasks – and, with the right setup in place, it can alleviate a lot of the security concerns surrounding access to confidential paperwork for your business.
There are some solutions that are geared specifically towards small business. One example is Canon’s WORK 3.0, which is a suite of solutions that have been designed specifically to assist with the process of moving towards a more productive way of doing business.
With software that can automate large swathes of previously time-consuming, tedious admin work – such as data entry, invoicing, order processing and accounts payable – Canon’s approach to the issue is a shining example of how embracing technology can be hugely beneficial to small business owners.
Additionally, WORK 3.0 allows previously paper-based workflows to be transformed into far more streamlined digital processes. Each member of staff can capture, edit, retrieve, store and distribute information from virtually anywhere their mobile devices will work. With a system like that in place, sales staff can spend more time face-to-face with clients, as they don’t need to come back to the office every time they want to log a sale and produce the paperwork.
Best of all, document and information security – a major concern for many small business owners, and one of the traditional ‘barriers to entry’ for businesses seeking to go digital – is handled well, through comprehensive security set-ups. These include frequent data back-ups, and the ability for managers and business owners to quickly and easily set user permissions for the documents they are accessing over the network.
Going digital and getting mobile might sound like you need a degree in computer science to get everything working as seamlessly as possible – but thanks to some clever thinking, most of the hard yards have already been done by the development teams behind the solutions themselves.

It’s an Illusion!
Recently, NETT spoke to Kevin Ackhurst, Managing Director of Google Enterprise Australia, about the tips and tricks that small businesses can use to make themselves seem to be bigger, while still staying small and agile. Kevin’s advice for small businesses included looking into the idea of utilising ‘virtual meeting rooms’, an IT solution to the problems faced by small business in terms of meeting space.
“When you’re running an SMB, time is money,” Kevin said. “Video conferencing services from Google, anymeeting, Skype or Oovoo are an easy way to bring everyone face-to-face. You don’t need expensive equipment to do it — just an internet connection. With Google Apps, for example, you can use Google+ Hangouts for brainstorming sessions, team meetings or consultation sessions.”
Video conferencing also negates the need to have a dedicated, board room-style meeting space when talking to new or existing clients, and allows you to maintain a professional level of communications with your customers at a fraction of the cost. Taking a truly mobile tack on the virtual office scenario isn’t without its pitfalls, though. SMB owners will need to ensure that their internet connection is suitable for video conferencing, and that your data plan is sufficient to deal with the bandwidth some of these virtual solutions command.
It’s also worth remembering to be mindful of your surroundings when video conferencing with clients. It’s good practice to make sure your surrounding environment is quiet, and that there’s nothing untoward happening over your shoulder while the video link to your clients is open.

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