Many of the holisitic business professionals I work with are solo-preneurs, and this topic has come up several times this week. That usually means there are many more of you with the same question, so let me share my thoughts with you.
Working by yourself can be very flexible, and if you structure your business right, it can be very profitable. However, the thing that is most challenging is that you have to split your time between working with your customers and doing all of your business administration, incuding receptionist duties. Inevitably, there is a time when you’ll have to decide if you need help or not. Here are the 5 major options you have:
1. Voicemail Scheduling
If your clients know you are a solo-preneur then they will be understanding that they need to leave a message on voicemail to schedule with you. Typically, with a solo-preneur business model, you’ll be booking clients weeks ahead of time anyway. So you’re not going to be receiving a lot of calls from impatient people trying to book same-day. The voicemail system may work perfectly fine for you.
If you are going to use voicemail as the primary way people schedule with you, then you need to return your calls before & after work. One of the reasons people like going to a solo-preneur is because of the personalized customer service. So if you find that you can’t get those calls handled in 12-hours or less, then it starts to become customer disservice. So pay attention here. Your customers will give you some slack, but not to the point where it’s too hard to reach you.
If you’re going to use voicemail, then you will need to train your customers to leave messages. Your outgoing message will need to emphasize this. Personally, I find that many many people WON’T leave a message; they’ll just keep calling back until you answer…and when you’re booked, that might be never. That can be frustrating for both of you.
There is also a point when returning all those calls before & after work might feel burdonsome, especially if you’ve got to do a lot of phone-tagging. And if you easily feel rejected, not getting prompt calls back to the messages you leave can feel discouraging.
Bottom-line: Voicemail is almost zero financial cost, which is great if you’re not that busy yet. But once you are busy, it takes a lot of time. If you’ve outgrown being able to return calls promptly, then you will need to find a different system.
2. Email or Website Scheduling
Email is a god-send for appointment setting. You can return an email during hours when it would be unacceptable to telephone, and it virtually eliminates the back-and-forth nature of phone-tag. The downside is that not everyone knows how to email efficiently. Some people don’t check their email regularly, or forget to include necessary information like their name & phone numbers.
Website scheduling can be done with an advanced online booking system, but there is a simple way that will work with even a very basic website. Just create a special form for people to submit, and have the information forwarded to your email. You can customize your form to collect whatever information you need with drop down menus and required text boxes. Ask what services, give options for multiple services and upgrades. Ask for 2-3 preferred days/times. If you create a good form, this can be very efficient.
Bottom-line: Email and website scheduling are very efficient because the data is in written form and it eliminates phone tag. But know yourself and your customers: these only work if both you and your clientele are reasonably tech savvy.
3. Employed Receptionist Scheduling
For solo-preneurs who work in a location with walk-in business, having an employee at your reception desk is optimal. Besides being able to provide customer service, they can do other administrative tasks to keep your business running smoothly, AND they can book you for profitability! A good front desk person can upsell services, fill in the gaps on your less-requested days, and sell retail products. Because having an employee is the most expensive option, you’ve got to make sure they are trained well.
[Side note: We’ll be teaching another Powered-Up! Front Desk Training Seminar on September 10th. So if you don’t know how to train your front desk team to increase profitability, send them to us. There will be a DVD version available soon as well.]
Bottom-line: Having an in-house employee is really wonderful for both you and your customers if you work in a location that is open to the public. The downside is the cost, so you need to train them to help you make more money.
4. Virtual Assistant Scheduling (also known as having a V.A.)
This is what I have. I don’t have walk-in customers, so an in-person receptionist is unnecessary, but I do like having a dedicated staffer. My assistant Debbie Ally handles all of my scheduling & customer service needs. We work “virtually,” via telephone and email. In fact, she works from Florida, and I work in California. What I like about this is it still feels very personal. My clients get the same person every time, and she knows all of my personal booking preferences. She does other administrative tasks for me as well.
To work virtually, you need an online calendar that your assistant can acess. Any good VA will help you set one up. Cost for a VA is around $40/hour, but you don’t pay them for down-time…only when they are actually working, and they are independant contractors, saving you employment taxes and worker’s compensation expenses. Most work on a monthly retainer kind of arrangement, with 10-hours minimum per month being fairly typical. You will also have some expenses related to your online scheduling system.
Do hire a professionally trained virtual assistant. Assist U is considered a great school, so that’s where I sought a referral (and found Deb.) Admittedly, the Assist U website is not very good, because the referral search engine is almost hidden from view. Go to the very bottom of this page, and click the link that says: I’m ready to find a great VA. Then you can submit a request for a qualified VA to contact you.
Bottom-line: If you don’t need someone in person, but want a dedicated and highly-skilled assistant, a VA is a great option. The only downside is that you need to be willing to learn & implement a technology-driven administrative system, and they can’t answer your phone 24/7.
5. Call Center Telephone Scheduling
A call center is a 24/7 answering service that will schedule appointments, take messages, and even confirm your appointments. As with a VA, you will also need an online calendaring system, but the call center company will usually offer one as part of the package.
If the call center’s system is customizable to your particular services, they should be able to book you accurately. When I did a cost-comparison between a VA and a call center, here is what I found: One of the call centers above is $.89/minute plus a small service fee. My VA is only $.67/minute with no fees. So a VA is less expensive, but you’ll have a monthly minimum committment which might give you a higher total overhead. But then your VA can also do other administrative tasks for you, that a call center cannot, and a VA can book you for profitability like an in-house employee can.
Bottom-line: A call center is a good option if you want 24/7 telephone operators and you’re not ready to commit to a $400+ package with a VA. But if you can afford a VA, you can get a lot more for your money in the long run since they do a lot more than simple receptionist duties.
Ultimately, you’ve got to decide what your time is worth. For me, I always did my own appointments, but then there was a point in 2005 when I was just too busy. The amount of phone tagging was inefficient, especially since my clients are people like you who are also unavailable when they’re working with clients. Being able to turn over the call-backs and scheduling to Debbie has been a huge relief for me! Worth every cent.
Jaya Savannah - Chief Inspiration Officer. Strategy Coach for Holistic Businesses. Trainer, speaker, and writer. Spiritually aware, yet street smart. Elephant lover.