Carol is a student at Sierra College enrolled in the Virtual Office Professional course there. She interviewed me for her final and agreed to allow me to post it here. Here's an excerpt of her final, including our interview.
Three days of cold calling virtual assistants with absolutely no response, I was beginning to feel hopeless in finding someone to interview for our final assignment. Obviously I needed a different strategy.
I would like to introduce Sue and Joel Canfield, co-founders of Chief Virtual Officer. I met Sue and Joel through an online Virtual Assistants Networking Meetup Group that they co-organized. I signed up and participated in their monthly conference call where they share ideas, resources and information with other Virtual Assistants. I informed them that I am a student at Sierra College and that I am taking a class in Creating a Virtual Office. They were so encouraging and offered such insightful information. After the conference call, I began to feel a ray of hope. I quickly exchanged emails with Sue and asked if I could conduct a telephone interview with her as part of my final project. She graciously said yes with no hesitation.
I called her at our scheduled time for the interview and I asked her nine questions from my questionnaire. I told her that I did not want to take more than 10 or 15 minutes of her time because I was aware that her time is very valuable. I began the interview with the clock ticking. Twenty minutes later, I still had a few questions that were unanswered. I brought this to her attention. She was very thoughtful and wanted to continue the interview until she had answered all of my questions. After she answered the last question, I thanked her for providing such valuable information. We ended the call and I immediately began transcribing my notes while they were still fresh in my head. About an hour later, I decided to stop and check my email. To my surprise, Sue had sent me an email thanking me for interviewing her; I was very impressed.
Below, Sue and Joel Canfield answer my questions about starting a virtual business.
Question 1: What is your most effective marketing strategy for starting a virtual business?
Sue Canfield: The marketing strategy that I would recommend is P2P; meeting in person and getting to know your clients and their needs. Also, referring them to others is a good way for them to return as a client.
Question 2: My biggest fears about starting my own virtual business are criminal activity, scams, viruses, data breach, identify thief, etc. Have you ever experienced any of these problems?
Sue Canfield: Absolutely not. For years, my husband and I owned a networking company and we had our own firewall. We never experienced any problems. Of course you always have to be on top of things and use commonsense. You don't want to download everything you see. Always backup your data to a thumb drive. That's what we do in addition to having a backup external drive and we store everything on Amazon s3 Storage. There are all kinds of apps you can use. We use Google Apps to create documents and because we travel so much, we have access anywhere. They also have video and audio tools that I highly recommend.
Question 3: What is your advice on determining rates?
Sue Canfield: Never sell yourself too short. There are a lot of factors to consider when calculating your rates: technical skills, overhead, insurance, etc. Calculate what you will need. Be reasonable and then set your rate. Most likely they will pay. But don't sell yourself short.
Question 4: What is your advice on client contracts and agreements?
Sue Canfield: Keep contracts simple. No more than two pages that outline the specifics, such as: your rate, payment agreement, how and when you can be reached and exactly what the client wants accomplished. You should have a contract for every client so that you can refer back to it just in case the client comes to you later and says this is not what I wanted. Also, I use EchoSign to obtain electronic signatures. I've had contracts signed and returned to me within 45 minutes and it is binding.
Question 5: How do you receive client payments? How do you assure that you will be paid for your services? Do you require a deposit, retainer fee; keep a credit card on file?
Sue Canfield: I get paid by the project and I require a 50% deposit. If there is a retainer, it is discounted for paying up front and when I get close to the end of allotted time, I let them know and they pay for the next 10-20 hours. If they pay by the hour, I have a two hour minimum. I use PayPal to accept payments because it is safe and easy.
Question 6: How do you handle a difficult client that is not satisfied with the service/work you provided no matter how much you have tried to make him/her happy? Especially when you know that you delivered an excellent product?
Sue Canfield: I have had two clients like that and I fired them. With the first client, I tried everything I could think of to make her happy. I finally apologized, letting her know that I could no longer be of assistance to her. I offered to help find someone else that could meet her needs. The second client was slow in giving me the necessary information to complete her projects because she was constantly changing her mind. When she did finally provide the information, the timeframe that she demanded for completion was impossible to meet. She was also very slow to pay for services. I eventually told her that we were just not a good match. If it is appropriate, always offer to help them find someone else that would be a better fit. Be cautious if you do this because you don't want to create another bad situation for a fellow VA. Remember you are the business owner; you are the boss. When you put up with too much grief from one client, your other clients will suffer. Don't keep trying, politely fire them. You and your other clients will be better off.
Question 7: Has the recession helped or hurt your business?
Sue Canfield: We see more and more companies looking for ways to cut costs because they can no longer afford to pay a staff for 40 hours. But we also have clients that can no longer afford a virtual assistant. I think the recession has hurt everyone.
Question 8: What is your opinion on outsourcing? Do you see outsourcing as a growing problem that will be the death of the VOP industry in the United States? Has it created any problems for your business?
Joel Canfield: Actually, I think outsourcing is helping our industry. Clients are finding that they may be able to get their projects done for $4.00, but it takes 40 hours of their time to manage it properly. It's just not worth it for them. Also, we can utilize outsourcing to our advantage. As long as a project is not complicated, it can be worthwhile for us to outsource it.
Question 9: What do you know now that you wish someone would have advised or warned you about before you started your own business venture?
Sue Canfield: It definitely would be the importance of having a business plan. Now one of the first things that I advise anyone to do is to write a business plan. I'm not talking about an elaborate 45 page professional plan; I'm talking about something simple that states how you plan to start and grow your business.
The most important thing that I took away from this interview (and the conference call) was realizing that it really is possible to have a successful online business. Sue and Joel opened my eyes and showed me that honest and legitimate internet businesses really do exist. Sue helped to alleviate my worries about becoming a victim of the internet. Use commonsense and take appropriate precautions. In all likelihood, there will be no problems. Joel instilled me with a sense of confidence that I have the ability to make my vision become reality. It starts with being passionate about what you like to do.
Knowing that there are successful and well established internet businesses that mentor and provide assistance to fledgling entrepreneurs is very encouraging. I consider ChiefVirtualOfficer.com a valuable resource I will recommend.