Once upon a time every office, even the tiniest one-person business, had a secretary. She filed the papers and typed up notes. She handled the bookkeeping and kept track of appointments. She screened the mail and kept the boss from having to deal with endless details and distractions so that he could concentrate on getting his work done and building his business. Those days are gone.
Now even medium-sized offices with dozens of workers often don’t have a secretary or administrative assistant. Each employee, and even the boss, must handle all the time consuming details that must be accomplished to make an office run.
A combination of weariness and technology is bringing back the clerical help — but in a whole new form. The virtual assistant can handle almost every task the old-fashioned secretary handled, plus some new tasks that secretary never even thought of.
A virtual assistant is “an independent entrepreneur who provides professional administrative, creative, managerial, technical, business office, and/or personal support services,” says Pamela Braue of PSWEASSIST.com, a business based in Jackson. “Our job is to know and understand the technology to remove all geographic boundaries and make it possible for people to work in remote locations,” she says.
Braue has been a virtual assistant since 2003. She has never met most of her clients, who tend to work from distant states. Her specialty is real estate agents, for whom she works to “streamline and automate systems and processes.” She aims to have six to eight clients on retainer, and has been able to consistently meet this goal. She also consults with realtors who want to set up administrative systems. A relatively new business for her is training other virtual assistants who also want to specialize in real estate.
The classes are offered online and students sign in from throughout the United States from their home computers. The next set of classes begins on Saturday, July 1, and runs for 12 weeks. Classes cost $600 and registrations are accepted at the Real Estate Virtual Assistant Training Center, www.REVATrainingCenter.com, which she runs with four other VAs who share her specialty.
These classes are specifically for virtual assistants who want to specialize in real estate. Braue or one of her associates also leads programs for people new to the profession who want training as a virtual assistant, and for those who want to specialize in other areas, such as the legal or medical fields.
“Not just everyone who has a computer and an Internet connection can be a VA,” she says. “It takes special training and special skills.” An understanding of office management, bookkeeping, and a wide variety of software is a must. Once the basic skills are learned, the VA must continually keep up with the latest in technology, both software and Internet-based.
The profession is perfect for “educated people who have left the corporate arena, maybe someone with an administrative or business background,” she says. Typical fees range from $25 to $50 an hour for a VA who does not specialize in a particular area, and $35 to $75 for VAs in a specialized field.
The VA must be willing and able to “constantly change hats,” says Braue. “He or she must be very organized and be able to switch from one thing to another on a moment’s notice. If I am working on something for one client and another client calls with an emergency, I have to be able to stop and handle it.”
While Braue enjoys working by herself, out of her own home, it is not for everyone. As a VA she rarely meets her clients in person. Her “networking” is done via the Internet.
Some of the services a VA can assist with include word processing, transcription, database creation and maintenance, bulk mailings, proofreading, business form development, and correspondence.
They schedule meetings, make travel arrangements, manage E-mail and website maintenance, and conduct Internet searches. Other common tasks include preparing overhead transparencies, PowerPoint presentations, and newsletters. Some professionals use VAs for help with party or event planning, online shopping, or for transferring home movies or slides to DVD.
Braue worked as a paralegal for a number of years before becoming a virtual assistant, but a daughter with a critical illness forced her to become a stay-at-home mom. When her daughter reached school age, however, Braue was ready to “find something for me.” While she wanted to go back to work, she needed the flexibility of owning her own business, preferably one where she could work at home. “This was perfect for me because it put together my business management skills with my love of technology,” she says. She received certification through Virtual Assistance U, another web-based training center, and then developed her own clientele with realtors.
“When I started there was no one else specializing in real estate,” she said. “Other people were just out there creating a few flyers or doing desktop publishing for realtors.” So after spending about two years developing her own systems she and four other real estate VAs developed their own academy. It opened its virtual doors in January, 2005 to teach VAs about the unique needs of busy real estate professionals — and how to meet them.
The classes focus on several areas:
Risk management, which deals with what a VA can and can not do as an unlicensed real estate assistant. “This is where we talk about all the legalities,” says Braue.
Listing coordination, or how the VA assists the realtor with “everything that happens from signing the listing agreement to signing the contract.”
Closing coordination, or how the assistant helps the realtor to go from contract to closing.
Marketing, or assisting with listings, online transaction management, and other marketing services.
The Internet continues to blur boundaries. Geographic boundaries no longer exist for many businesses, and time boundaries are also blurring. We work at home, in a car, while we are traveling. While the old reliable secretary may have been lost in the process, most of us still need help, sometimes more than ever.