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Some businesses still expect to pay entry-level employees only $10-$15 an hour for administrative assistance.  This will pay for a warm body in a seat who may be bright and willing to take direction, if the time and management resources are made available for training this employee.  The business must provide a workspace, computer and other office equipment for this individual to use.   And the next one, once the employee gains skills and moves on to take a better-paying position elsewhere.

Smart businesses will pay $20-$25 an hour for more experienced assistance.  This wage may attract someone with the skills and motivation to do the job well.  Regardless of the workflow, during slow and busy periods, this person is paid to show up and work (and go to meetings).  Their performance and productivity is evaluated yearly and raises meted out accordingly.  Such a person still probably needs to be trained and managed which means the business needs to make those resources available also.  These businesses still have to pay for benefits such as sick and vacation pay, health care insurance, employment tax  and retirement plan contributions.  It’s quite a commitment of management and financial resources.

Really smart businesses will pay an online office manager $40 an hour or more for expert assistance on an as-needed basis.  The business will save money in the end because the “Virtual Assistant” or VA covers his or her own overhead expenses, benefits, vacation and sick time, and self-employment taxes.  The right fit will be a highly motivated professional who works either by the project or on an hourly basis.  Once a working relationship is established, the online administrator needs minimal supervision, provides his or her own training and office equipment, and only charges the business for productive working time.  The proof is in the results.  Did the work get done as agreed upon?  The online professional expects to be evaluated on his or her productivity constantly if he or she expects to be retained.


The solo service professional, whether he or she works from home or from a small office space, never really works alone.  Some of the lure of entrepreneurship is going it alone or taking on all of the responsibility for the company.  That may be so, but building the business involves engaging with many others.  Whether connecting with clients or colleagues, or collaborating with other professionals, doing business involves one in many relationships, in person and online.

Always seeking a better balance myself, I enjoy immersing myself in a project and working free from distractions in my own home office.  Such a space and time enables me to work mindfully and find the flow, the state in which we lose track of time and ourselves.  Working from such a space produces better work and greater satisfaction in the work, to the benefit of the client and myself.  I also really enjoy people and would start to feel isolated if I did not connect with others on a daily basis.  It’s easy to do by participating in discussion groups online and by attending weekly local networking events and following up with meetings for coffee and lunch with colleagues afterwards.  And of course, communicating with clients is all about creating and tending a professional relationship.  And asking others for help is always a wise move, whether it be for professional services that the business needs or the moral support that the owner needs.  And providing help to others in making connections or relieving other owners from some of the burden of the work they need to do to run their own company.   Starting one’s own company truly is a pleasure in terms of both working alone and working together.

My business offers office support services for other businesses, mostly for consultants and others who bill their clients for their time.  These business owners are under pressure to maximize their billable time so that work comes in, gets done, and brings in the money that keeps the whole enterprise going.  In the beginning, when the business is just one person doing it all, the ratio of billable to unbillable time is about 50/50.  That unbillable time is spent running the business, or taking care of all the administrative tasks required to do sales and marketing, client relations, database management, bookkeeping.

As the business grows, and more work comes in from more clients, the billablity of the owners’ time increases.  And the amount of administrative work is increasing too so the owner has more unbillable hours to put in to keep the business going.  Unfortunately, there are still just 24 hours in a day.  The amount of time available to do all the work, billable and unbillable, isn’t going to change as the business grows.  The smart owners are able to delegate the essential administrative tasks to others whether it be to an employee or to a virtual assistant like me.  These tasks get done and the owner has more time to spend on billable work or sales or on vacation, whatever the owner needs.

Are there other options?  Well, the owner can try to do it all.  But that owner will have to limit growth and turn away business so as not to exceed his or her capacity for doing the work.  The owner might try to just do the billable work and let the unbillable (unimportant?) tasks slide.  But that won’t work either as the administrative tasks are necessary for the quality of the work itself, excellent customer service, and control of the business’ finances.

It’s an interesting challenge for me as an office manager and business owner.  I know the importance of excellent administrative work and love to take over and get things organized, simplified, and well-documented for the overwhelmed business owner.  But as my own business grows, and more works comes in, I will eventually find myself in a similar position as many of my clients. With an insider’s view of the benefits of delegation, for sure I am going to avoid overwhelm in favor of delegation.  It’s a win-win for both parties.

As the owner of a service business, I know it is all about great customer service.  Many of the business owners I assist are service business owners themselves.  So we are in agreement that great customer service is important and central to doing business.  In an ideal world, the service provider would be able to recognize the value of great service and accept assistance when and where needed.  We all need help sometimes.  In the real world, the helper may have trouble asking for some help in the first place.  And once he or she asks for help, may have trouble accepting the help offered.  It can be hard to let go when the owner is used to doing it all by him- or herself.  Consequently, I have been thinking about ways to help a helper.  And it is advice that I myself shall have to heed as I am sometimes the helper in need of some help.

To use an example from my personal life, I’ve been considering how to help my mother.  All her life she has been focussed on taking care of others and I have often relied upon her steadfast support.  Recently she moved the family household and I jumped at the chance to offer some help to her.  Was there anything I could do from here?  After all, I was just starting my virtual assistance business and could do some work online for her as she does not own or use a computer.  She thought about it and did ask me to contact the magazines she subscribes to and notify them of her change in address.  That was easy to accomplish on her behalf so I started there.  I also researched lists of things to take care of when moving to a new state for her to consider.  I also created a simple change of address postcard for her to send out to her mailing list.  I would have gladly mailed them out for her but she preferred to send them out on her own at a later time, after she was settled in.  So I sent a stack to her with her new address and appropriate postage so that all she had to do was write a note to her friend and fill in the addressee’s information.

And then I listened…as she packed up the house herself and enlisted the aid of my brothers to move everything in several trips to her home six hours away.  At that point, I did suggest that movers are available to pack up and haul boxes but my family was determined that they could do it themselves.  I don’t think cost was the real issue although they might think they saved money by doing it themselves.  From what I heard, if they were to tally up the truck rentals, the time taken off work, the gas and mileage costs and all the labor my mother and brothers put into the move, it would have been a comparable cost.  The problem is that my mother did not consider the value of her own time.  So she spent her time to save some money.  The truth of the matter is that I think she enjoyed it and wanted to be in charge of the details and that is fine too as really it was her prerogative.

So the lessons I learned about helping a helper could be summarized as follows:

1.  Offer to help.  Ask if there any tasks that would alleviate the workload of the helper.

2.  Do these tasks promptly and efficiently for the helper.

3.  Suggest similar tasks that the helper hasn’t thought of yet that could be done just as easily.

4.  Do as many of these tasks as the helper will allow.

5. Listen to the helper.  It would be a mistake to do everything you can think of to help as the helper really might not need or want help with some tasks.

6. And then listen some more.  Sometimes the best support is just listening and showing appreciation for the work that the helper is doing without help.  It would be a mistake to continue to advise or perhaps even criticize once the helper has made a decision about what to do by him- or herself.

As I talk to potential clients, many of them helpers, and many of them women, not so coincidentally, I keep this path in mind as I offer my assistance.   What can I do to make their workload easier?  Usually there are a few tasks they just can’t seem to get to and that is a great place to start.  And then from my view on the inside, I can see and suggest additional assistance, often ways to simplify current practices.  Usually things that the owner is too busy to consider on his or her own.  Working together, we can sort out which of these things it makes sense to change and how to make those changes.  I can offer my experience and expertise in office management to enhance what has already been put in place by the owner.  Ultimately, our working relationship becomes a partnership as we figure out how to each do what we do and love best.  It worked for my mother and it works for my clients.  And I am sure that it will work for me too when it is my turn to ask for some help.

In a professional service business, it’s not so much what you know as how well you can share what you know with others.  As a former teacher, I am fluent in many learning and communication styles and know that good communication begins with listening carefully to clients to learn more about their needs.  As a consumer, I am sometimes frustrated by experts who can tell me what they think I need before really listening to my description of the problem and without really considering my questions.  I am more impressed by the expert who listens to me and responds to my questions and can ease me into a better understanding of the problem and some possible solutions.  Rather than impress someone with my expertise, my goal instead is to make the solution easy for the client to implement.

During my first month of business, I was mistakenly more concerned with demonstrating my expertise in the tools I was using to serve clients.  I had just upgraded my computer and installed QuickBooks and was ready to help small business owners with their bookkeeping needs if they used QuickBooks.  As I met small business owners, I discovered some gaps between their current methods of bookkeeping and what I was offering.  Some collected piles of expense receipts that they needed to organize and summarize for their taxes.  Some were relying on their bank and credit card statements for their business expense information.  Some tracked their accounts in Quicken.  At first, I was thinking how I could help them when they were ready to use QuickBooks and when that might be.  I soon realized that I could better serve their needs by helping them immediately with whatever tool they were already using.  It might mean totaling expenses with pen and paper.  Or summarizing their expenses in an Excel table.  I could also do bookkeeping in Quicken or QuickBooks.  It all works.  It wasn’t the tool and my expertise with it that was important, it was helping clients get the job done as simply and quickly as possible.