Make Your Small Business Look Bigger With Virtual Services

While it's always nice to have extra help--in the form of a personal assistant, an accountant, or a lawyer, say--it's also nice to cut costs. Small and medium businesses often can't afford to hire salaried professionals for all of those extra tasks that must be done.

Luckily, virtual help abounds. Don't be fooled by the term "virtual," either--you're not necessarily hiring a cyborg, as a lot of virtual services still utilize the skills of real people. They're just remotely located, dedicated people who don't require a benefits package you can't afford.

If you already operate on a shoestring or need to cut costs--and perhaps water cooler chatter--read on for virtual services you can "hire," instead of an extra employee.

Replace Your Personal Assistant or Secretary

Hiring a dedicated personal assistant or a secretary will cost you around $35,000/year ($2900/month), plus benefits. But you can easily outsource much of the work of a personal assistant to the virtual world for just a fraction of the cost of hiring a professional, especially if you know what tasks you need the most help with.

If you do a lot of traveling and entertaining, RedButler offers personal assistant and concierge services (such as making hotel reservations), and it features a special membership card that allows holders to receive discounts at hotels and restaurants. RedButler memberships start at just $36.95/month for 15 tasks (each phone call or hotel booking constitutes one task) and a membership card.

If you're looking for more of a dedicated personal assistant, Habilis and AskSunday offer hourly membership plans. Instead of being billed per task, you can sign up for a certain number of hours per month. Habilis plans start at $350 for 40 hours, while AskSunday plans start at $150 for 10 hours. Both offer personal assistant services such as making phone calls, handling e-mails, and making reservations, and they feature 24-hour availability.

Replace Your Lawyer

While I don't recommend completely outsourcing your legal needs to technology, free legal Websites are a valuable resource. Because lawyers charge by the hour, doing your own research, or at least finding the correct legal form, can actually save you a small chunk of change.

Rocket Lawyer features hundreds of free legal documents created by lawyers--including confidentiality agreements, general service contracts, and employment agreements. LawHelp and FindLaw both offer free legal advice from lawyers, though they should probably not be used as lawyer replacements.

If you need specific legal advice, LawGuru features an extensive question-and-answer service with free and paid options. For free, your question is forwarded to a limited pool of attorneys (though not right away) and answered eventually on the public forum. If the question is urgent, or you want a private answer, however, you can choose to pay between $40 and $60 (you are charged only if you accept an answer) for quicker service.

Replace Your Accountant

The first place you should look for virtualizing your accountant is accounting software. Intuit's QuickBooks, which features invoice and expense tracking and sales and profitability reports, is a small business standby, and the Pro version of the software will set you back just $184. QuickBooks 2011 also offers convenient browser and smartphone access to the software for an additional $10 monthly fee per user. Sage's Peachtree, which costs $200 for the Pro version, is another desktop accounting package that offers invoice and receipt tracking, easy payroll entry, and business analytics and forecasting.

If you'd prefer not to be tied to your desktop, online accounting services are another option. QuickBooks features an online version whose cost ranges from $12.95/month to $63.16/month and has a lot of the features of the desktop version, including invoice and expense tracking, payroll support, and online banking support.

Freelancers and self-employed individuals should check out Outright, which is a free online accounting service that helps users track invoices and payments received, calculate estimated taxes, and organize W-9 forms.

FreshBooks, whose plans range from free to $40/month, is more suited for small businesses larger than one person. FreshBooks allows you to track invoices and expenses, and to create and manage inventory, and it even creates and mails invoices for you via snail mail at a nominal additional cost.

Even if you end up hiring an accountant anyway--just as an extra pair of eyes before tax time--these services are worth it. After all, if you have your finances in relative order, it will save your accountant time--which translates to saving you money.

Replace Your Customer Support

Customer support is an essential--yet tiring and time-consuming--aspect of running a small business. Fortunately, a few online tools can make customer support a relatively easy, painless process.

Instead of hiring extra workers to answer customer questions and concerns, you can put your customers to work. Get Satisfaction allows you to take advantage of people's enthusiasm for helping each other, building a community in the process. On Get Satisfaction, anyone can ask questions and answer them--though "official" company responses are marked as such. Putting your company on the site is free--although the site also has several paid options with benefits, such as community branding and customization, Google Analytics and community statistics, and Zendesk integration.

Zendesk is a virtual help desk and more of an organizational tool for customer support. Instead of crowdsourcing customer support as Get Satisfaction does, Zendesk allows you to solve customer problems using helpdesk trouble tickets. You can embed Zendesk into your company's Website, enabling customers to open a ticket when they have a problem. Zendesk helps you manage, organize, and resolve open tickets.

Zendesk is nicely transparent in that customers can see who is working on their ticket and when it's expected to be resolved. Zendesk can also help users help themselves with its ticket tagging--certain tags will pull up forum and discussion suggestions that may resolve the customer's issue. Zendesk starts at $9/month for up to three customer service agents.

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