Productivity software

Make Your Small Business Look Bigger With Virtual Services

Replace Your Travel Agent

In this day and age of budget airlines, it's surprising that flesh-and-blood travel agents still have a market. Instead of calling up a local agent to book your next business trip, here are some virtual alternatives.

For booking flights, check aggregator sites such as Kayak, Hipmunk, and Mobissimo, which check online booking sites (such as Travelocity, Orbitz, and Priceline), airline Websites, and other aggregators for the best prices.

If you're not sure how much your route should cost, consult Bing's Farecast; it collects past data from your selected itinerary to show you what the price should be based on the time of year, and whether it will drop in the next few days. Kayak can also help you find alternative itineraries by searching for a range of dates and airports. Also remember to check individual airline sites for specials and discounts.

Want that extra "insider" knowledge? TripAdvisor's SeatGuru gives you detailed seat maps of hundreds of airplanes with information on legroom, reclinability, and outlets. If you need the human touch, Compete 4 Your Seat and Zicasso both take your itinerary to real travel agents, who then bid for your patronage.

Booking hotels is a similar process. Aggregator sites will help you find out what the general price range should be, while individual hotel sites often have specials and discounts. If you're wary of the hotel's quality, check out its reviews on TripAdvisor and TravelPost.

Replace Your...Other

Maybe you don't need a virtual accountant, lawyer, or travel agent, but you need a virtual "something else." If you can't find the exact job you need on this list, never fear: A number of labor-on-demand Websites will help you find skilled workers for just about any job you can think of.

There are two types of labor-on-demand sites: those that offer "unskilled" labor and cater to short, menial tasks such as finding e-mail addresses or posting to online forums; and those that offer skilled labor, such as Web development and marketing.

If you're looking for the former--say you want someone to post short messages to forums--then check out CrowdFlower, ShortTask, or Amazon's Mechanical Turk. These Websites help you outsource tasks that are menial--yet require a human touch--to the "cloud" for mere pennies (anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars). The downside to the short-task sites is that the labor you're paying pennies for is unskilled--great for posting reviews, bad for everything else.

For help with tech support for your business, you can visit a big-box retailer for basic setup and troubleshooting. And a number of remote-support services are ready to assist you from afar via remote-access software; directories such as OnForce list tech-support pros around North America.

If you need to spruce up your company's marketing, Web design, and social media presence, sites such as Acumen Works provide long-distance services for such white-collar tasks. A search for "social media virtual assistant" can guide you down the right path.

If you need a real job done right, you should turn to Elance, which is a great site for finding independent online contractors. Elance features contractors for a variety of jobs, including Web design and programming, writing, marketing, and consulting. It's an example of the "human cloud" of skilled workers. Posting a job is simple--employer accounts are charged a one-time fee of $10, and Elance takes a cut of each project's budget--between 6.75 and 8.75 percent.

A note of caution before you pick up the phone to fire all of your employees and virtualize your company: Some tasks are best left to real human beings. Personal assistants, for example, are valuable not only because they'll do those little tasks you don't have time for, but because they'll know what needs to be done without your constant supervision.

Also, organizing virtual assistants and services take a toll, even if it's minor, on your personal time, so if you're a particularly busy person it's probably better to keep flesh-and-blood assistants instead of burdening yourself with all of the organization.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal is a freelance writer and regular contributor to PC World. Follow her on Twitter (@geeklil).

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