How To Work Online With Your VA - Virtual Business Assistant NZ
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How To Work Online With Your VA

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How To Work Online With Your VA

Many small business owners may be somewhat hesitant when it comes to taking the plunge and hiring a virtual assistant. They may be worried that it will be difficult to really “communicate” with the outsourcer and they may feel that they will not be essentially “in control.” However, technology today has presented us with a wide variety of different options and ways to keep in touch and there really is nothing standing in the way of the development of a fruitful relationship between both parties.

 

1. How To Collaborate On Projects Over The Internet With Project Management

The success of any business is almost always based on an element of collaboration. While every small business owner will attest to the fact that they are occasionally called upon to be the “head cook and bottle washer” at the same time, you can only achieve real success if you delegate and rely on people who are competent and skilled at their particular vocation. Whenever a project kicks off it’s important that everybody is on the same page and understands what needs to be done to make sure that the project is a success.

In the old business model, organisations may have chosen to keep everything in-house, to employ particular specialists under the same roof and thereby, to some extent, simplify communications at the very least. However, we know that a much more modern-day approach and one that is likely to return bigger dividends is to outsource whenever possible.

Outsourcing often requires the use of several different virtual assistants and individuals who may be located in far-flung geographical areas. No longer is it a case of going into the next office to discuss a particular element of the project while in progress, but it is often the case of working across different time zones and finding a way to communicate with someone who may be working while the rest of the team is effectively sleeping.

Web-based project management and collaboration tools are coming into their element, as a powerful answer to this particular challenge. Business owners who adapt and embrace these project management tools have the ability to be flexible when needed, to communicate clearly and proactively and help to keep the workflow moving.

Let’s look at a few of these options:

Basecamp is one of the better-known options available. This product focuses on message sharing rather than trying to make “head or tail” of e-mail threads. “To do”s” can be assigned and deadlines issued to individual members. Files, documents and other multimedia information can be shared both internally within the team and shown to the clients at the appropriate time.

Podio is a very flexible alternative. Here, you can create your own applications and work towards goals, shaping the way that you manage your projects. There’s an amazing array of customisable workflows and you can tailor the development of your project.

ActiveCollab can be installed on your server or local network and can be configured as required and according to the growth of a project or your business size. As with many other options here it can be configured to allow access to unlimited users, set up for unlimited projects and infinite storage space.

Zoho Projects is another example where you can focus on milestones in order to organise projects, take ownership of tasks, and record your working hours for all those important invoicing purposes.

A project management and collaboration tool is an essential requirement for any expanding, modern online business in order to ensure prompt communication between various individuals responsible for integral elements. These tools take the guesswork out of project development and ensure that deadlines are met, consistently.

 

2. How To Collaborate On Documents Over The Internet

Technological developments have been fast and furious in the past few years. We are seeing an unrivalled ability to communicate effectively and to collaborate in order to make sure that projects are completed on time and with great efficiency. It’s not too much of an overstatement to say that the world has shrunk before our eyes. Not that many years ago it would be inconceivable to think about actively collaborating with an outsourcer who may be half a world away in order to complete a project for a local client. Back then, before we entered this new era, it would simply have been illogical, expensive and very difficult to master. In those days we would more often rely on tools that would be hosted on our own local machines and then employ individuals to operate “in-house.” Those were the days of the PC dominance, where Microsoft built its fortune and where we all became very familiar with their Office suite of products.

Some people say that there will be very little need for any storage capability on a local computer in the future. Laptops and notebooks will become thinner and thinner, as all we really need is browser capability after all. As we are increasingly able to access all the software tools and technology that we could ever need “through the cloud” and utilise a variety of first-class communications tools to reach our outsourcing team, why clutter our immediate work area with unnecessary resources?

Microsoft Office, as a locally hosted tool on your computer, is starting to be replaced by online applications, making it ever so much easier for groups to work together collectively on documents. If you have an important document that needs to be fine-tuned according to the input of various experts or professionals at scattered locations, then a product such as Google Docs is now perfect. Just like Office, you can access a variety of different types of document, such as text files, spreadsheets and presentations. Amendments are automatically saved as important work goes on, and you can share and collaborate with others on a particular document in real-time. Furthermore, a link to a particular document can be provided to an external user who can view the file simply by loading that link into a browser.

Don’t expect Microsoft to go down without a fight, however. Office 365 is their answer to the New World. Here you will find the online versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. While this is still a relative newcomer to the cloud computing, document sharing arena, there may be a number of kinks to iron out. Also, anyone who is to be brought in to work on shared files has to have a Microsoft account ID, which is a little cumbersome.

There are a number of other interesting options including Zoho Documents and Teamlab, the latter having the ability to communicate in multiple languages. As is the case with most of the options, you can try it all out for a certain period of time before committing to monthly payment plans.

 

3. How To Manage Email Over The Internet

Any small business owner who is still in something of a transition phase between the old-school way of operating, and the new, more efficient, more communicated path to profits may still rely on off-line e-mail tools. We are so used to having tools like Microsoft Outlook on a local machine and while we may be able to network individual computers in our office environment to keep on top of e-mail communications, problems arise when we are travelling or on the road.

These days there is simply no need to be out of touch or be unable to compose messages, or react to important e-mails on the spot. We no longer need to rely on static resources when we can use online options such as Gmail.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world are now used to using the free e-mail service provided by Google for their personal mail. While it is all very well to have an e-mail address that ends in “@gmail.com” you will almost certainly lose some credibility if your business e-mail address is similarly configured.  Google has the perfect answer with Gmail for Business, which is part of the Google Apps empire. It’s not that difficult to make the switch over from resources such as Outlook either and Gmail for Business is available free or for very little expenditure on an annual basis.

Once you have configured everything so that all your e-mail is funnelled through Gmail, there are a number of added benefits. For example, you can instantly place telephone calls to mobile and landline phones from within the programme should you wish or initiate instant messaging or even video chat with other Gmail users. Your e-mail will be automatically synced with relevant Apps placed on your mobile communication devices and you also have access to a large variety of different applications from within the Google Apps marketplace. You could use some of these Apps to set up CRM solutions, for example.

There’s no need to worry if you feel that your business life is currently “trapped” within your Outlook application. It’s relatively easy to import everything from Outlook into Gmail if you follow the instructions provided by the company.

How will your productivity be affected if you have instant access to e-mail wherever you are? There’s a lot to be said for delegating a particular period of time to e-mail matters and time management issues are a whole new subject in and of themselves. However in a world where time and communication can be all-important, it’s good to know that you can access your e-mail threads and conversations wherever you have access to a browser, rather than having to rely on an ability to somehow connect with your local machine “back in the office.”

It’s true to say that there is still a certain amount of hesitation in some quarters when it comes to “trusting” where you host all your important information, contacts and documents. However, as each month goes by we are able to see that cloud-based office productivity solutions are all the more reliable, and trustworthy.

 

4. How To Share Files Over The Internet

As sophisticated as the Internet community undoubtedly is, it’s still amazing to see that online file sharing is in its relative infancy. Think about it for a moment. Unless you’re actively involved in using some of the latest solutions and tools to share files with others, you might immediately think of “e-mail” whenever it’s time to forward a particular data file, photos or some other material to somebody else. Yet e-mail is a notoriously inefficient way to send files and you may often find that the system itself or the gateway at the other end will simply deny the transmission of your attachment.

Until fairly recently there were a number of “work arounds,” but they were either very time-consuming, far too tricky or simply too insecure. If you were sophisticated you might try to upload files to a remote machine by using FTP protocol. This was a very awkward way of doing things however and you needed the relevant information from the other party, login details and in short far too much “bother” for what should be a relatively simple task.

With the advent of cloud computing and storage, things have become a lot easier in recent times. We are used to sharing quite a lot – and in many cases more than we really appreciate – through the cloud as it is. Facebook enables us to share all kinds of experiences, but when it comes to dedicated methods for business purposes, companies like Dropbox have set the standard.

Dropbox is essentially free for infrequent use, but does come with a fairly low monthly fee if you’re transferring lots of files, or files over a certain size. Essentially, you upload the file to your account in the cloud and then send an e-mail to the entity you want to share the file with. Basically they login using their access details and you’re all set.

Another option is Google Docs. Once again, all you have to do is upload it and invite people to share it with. This is also a handy feature of other Google Apps such as Maps. If you need to share information about the location of a meeting or event for example, you simply input the details into your Map, create a link and send that to your contact.

Massive files can be a bit of a challenge under any circumstance. However, it’s very unusual to come across a multi-gigabyte file that you’re not able to compress. Exceptions may be a very lengthy instructional video file, but you should really be producing those in a format that takes up fewer resources anyway. You can host big video files in the cloud using a very inexpensive Amazon S3 account and simply send the URL to others in order to access it.

Little by little we are becoming accustomed to using the cloud as a fabulous resource. We can either access all the tools, software, solutions and resources we may need, or we can use it as a storage medium, making it easier for us to communicate with outsourcers and/or clients.

 

5. How To Share Passwords Over The Internet

It’s really quite amazing how many times each day you are asked to enter a password to access a particular solution, software as a service, file, membership site and so on. In fact, if you’re actively involved online each day the chances are you have upwards of 30 or 40 different logins, each of which really should have its own very distinct and hard to guess password. Yet human nature being what it is we all like to take the path of least resistance. We really can’t imagine trying to create 35 or 40 alphanumeric passwords with additional characters, upper and lowercase letters and so on. We would just have to write them down somewhere and then we would be stuck trying to find a piece of paper whenever it’s time to log in again.

As sad as it is to say there are people out there who get a great deal of pleasure out of trying to hack people”s passwords. Sometimes they can access financial sites and steal money. Other times they can access your e-mail lists and send spam to all your contacts. This is much more common than you might think. After all, if you do tend to use the same login details everywhere, hackers will go to sites that have typically poor security parameters, such as online forums and gain access to passwords there. Then, it may be as simple as using the exact same details to gain access to other, much more important sites.

The good news is that you don’t have to risk all of this, nor do you have to magically remember all of those crazy pass codes. There are a number of solutions online that also enable you to share your passwords with other members of your team.

Pass Pack now makes it possible for you to share secured passwords by using encryption. This is a handy addition to its own online desktop password manager. Here, all of your login details will be stored and automatically loaded whenever you visit the relevant URL. Your passwords can be synced using industry-standard encryption known as AES256.

It may be tempting to send login details including your password to a member of your outsourced team via e-mail. How much of a risk can this be? The answer is it can be a significant risk. Once again, remember that this is especially so if you tend to use the same password across multiple sites including those that are extremely sensitive.

You should always ensure that the solution you use does all the encryption locally before it is sent across to this service and that the industry-standard cryptography algorithm is used. You certainly need to make sure that you remember your master password and of course this should never be something straightforward or guessable.

Many of the password managers are free up to a certain number of stored login details and thereafter are available for a small fee. This fee should be well worth your consideration, especially bearing in mind the number of unscrupulous people around these days.

 

6. How To Provide Training And Instructions Over The Internet

Are you one of those people who tend to use their hands to try and explain something? Many of us are guilty of doing this and we might find it difficult to get across what we are trying to express using just the spoken word. It’s great to be able to doodle or sketch to really get across what you’re trying to say, but this can be of course really difficult if you are trying to communicate with an outsourcer, who may be thousands of miles away.

When it comes to communicating with a virtual assistant or outsourcer, you often have to be very explicit if you want to achieve a certain result. Many of us are guilty of “assuming” far too much, but it doesn’t take too long before a number of incorrect or incomplete results teach us that we need to be a bit more explicit with our instructions.

Sometimes it can be quite difficult to explain what you want to achieve in writing, as well. You may feel that you need to add a diagram or two and this can become quite time-consuming to put it mildly. If you find that you are spending almost as much time trying to explain the final outcome as you might expect to do the job yourself, this is clearly not productive.

Thankfully, answers are at hand. One particular service, known as Jing Project, is a godsend. This particular creation is free to use, although with some limitations. Essentially, Jing enables you to show somebody how to do something by capturing an up to 5 min. video of your screen or a simple screen capture. It is “simplicity personified” to use and once you are finished recording your video you can upload it to screencast.com. From there you just send your outsourcer the URL and they can view the video complete with detailed, visual instructions.

Jing can be particularly useful if you want to give instructions to an outsourcer about how to interact with a certain programme, how to log into a site for example and treat particular information a certain way. We all find it a lot easier if we are shown how to do something instead of, or in addition to, simply reading about how to do it. Jing is the perfect answer. It does have the limitation of 5 minutes as we’ve said and if your instructions are likely to last longer than that you may need to consider its big brother programme, called Camtasia. Alternatively, you can break down your instructions into a series of smaller projects, or “chapters” if you will.

Remember that you cannot edit your file in Jing. However, you must also keep in mind that you”re not trying to prepare a professional video production, but something that enables you to really communicate with your outsourced team, while leaving no room for misinterpretation. If you do want to produce a very professional video for distribution to clients, for example, you need to move up to a professional video editing programme.

 

7. How To Talk For Free Over The Internet

Voice over Internet protocol was basically a revolution in the world of communications. In addition to deregulation it began to spell the end of the monopolistic control that certain carriers had on long-distance communication and hastened the development and progression of the Internet in general. Part of a larger system that allows us to share files and send text messages across the Internet, VoIP, essentially means that we can communicate with friends or family, business associates or outsourcing team partners on the other side of the world, at very low cost indeed.

Some carriers have chosen to try and combine the familiarity of a conventional landline telephone with VoIP. Companies such as Vonage for example will route all your calls via the Internet while still allowing you to make use of a telephone handset. However, in the world of online marketing we are far more familiar with systems and solutions that have grown to become household names. In the space of just a few short years Skype has now become the word for talking one-on-one with far-flung contacts either via instant messaging or in person, online. If the other party is equipped with Skype, a free service to download and install, then there is no charge for the call, no matter the distance. Calls on Skype to conventional landlines are significantly less costly than their traditional counterparts and the arrival of programmes such as Skype have forced the legacy carriers to completely review their approach to business.

Nowadays you can load up the best of the VoIP software solutions on to your smart phone as well as your PC. For now, Skype remains the leader even though we are seeing competition from heavyweights such as Yahoo and Google.

Services such as Skype have revolutionised the world of outsourcing and the ability of small business owners to work with virtual assistants, no matter where they may be located. Apart from the fact that you can instant message at no cost with all your outsourcers, the ability to actually “pick up the phone” as it were and talk through any particularly tricky issues at little or no cost again cannot be underestimated.

It’s also possible to find specific applications made for the iPhone and Android system. International calls made or placed to mobile phones can be extremely costly, as we all know. Apps such as Chat Time allow iOS users to call internationally at VoIP prices and the quality is usually first-class. Another iPhone app is iCall, making best use of 3G and Wi-Fi in order to make and receive calls anywhere in your local region at no cost. International calls do generate an associated cost, but once again it is considerably cheaper than what the service carrier itself might otherwise impose.

In the early days, calls placed via Skype were often a little suspect as quality was particularly dependent on the bandwidth, but now the level of consistency is up to par. VoIP has become more and more of an essential tool for small business owners today especially as they seek to remain in touch with international clients and members of their outsourced team.

 

8. How To Share Your Desktop Screen Over The Internet

In the old days, one of the potential drawbacks associated with outsourcing was felt to be the fact that it was difficult to really explain to the other person what you wanted them to do. In even older days when you may have had a team of colleagues surrounding you in your office, it was relatively easy to pick through particular problems, explain the intricacies and foibles associated with a particular operation and make sure that the outcome was what you expected. However, as the world of business changed and the concept of outsourcing and virtual assistance started to make a great deal more sense, so the need to be able to communicate well and really explain what you needed your remote worker to do increased.

There are many different ways to get your point across of course. For example, you could choose to make a video of your computer screen covering the particular issue in question with both audio and visual instructions. You could always send lengthy and detailed e-mails or drop instruction or files into file sharing solutions such as Dropbox. However, sometimes the problem is even more complex and it”s necessary to have two or even three-way input in order to work through to a particular solution. In this case, it’s good to be able to share your desktop screen with others across the Internet.

This has given rise to services such as GoToMeeting, ideal for Web conferencing with various individuals at once, Mega Meeting, Any Meeting and so on. At relatively affordable cost any number of outsourcers from your team can log in and view your screen at the same time as you go through training or instructions, while you discuss the project in the making.

Sometimes you might just want to share your screen with somebody else in order to sort a particular problem out. You might just want to access your screen at your home office if you are “on the road” somewhere. There are a number of remote desktop screen sharing applications available today such as Team Viewer. Both computers do need to have the Team Viewer software installed but it’s a relatively easy process and you can also use this solution for presentations and conferences.

One of the original tools in this marketplace was Show My PC. The advantage here is that both computers need not have the software installed and as far as convenience is concerned, it takes some beating. Another tool to generate a live telecast of your “show” is Screen Stream. You can share whatever you have to broadcast with any number of people and nobody needs to install any software here. Yuuguu is yet another solution. This is a cross-platform solution that you install on your desktop, or you can also gain access via a web-based option.

There are so many different options and solutions available to communicate with your team no matter where they may be, that there really is no excuse for not considering outsourcing as a fundamental business resource anymore.

 

9. How To Organise Your Contacts Over The Internet

As your business grows you need to keep in touch with customers, prospects, vendors, outsourcers and many others. You never know when the contact that you made will result in new business, after all. Yet maintaining an up-to-date contact list always seems to represent an issue.

You might think that it was easier “in the old days” when you simply added the business card itself or completed a new index card to add to your Rolodex. At least the Rolodex was in one place and as jumbled as it may all have seemed, wasn’t it easier that way?

Today, the answer to a well-maintained contact list must surely be Plaxo. It’s one of several different options available online, but it is the better-known service. The provider has three different solutions to tempt you.

Plaxo Basic brings all your contact info from various different sources into a single, consistent address book format that is hosted “in the cloud.” It’s able to import from multiple different sources so that it can gather information about all your contacts whether it be an e-mail record, phone record or data associated with membership in various social networks. Imagine how convenient it would be to have a universal address book that has all your contacts, no matter where they originated from?

However, for very little cost, you might want to intelligently “up the ante” here. Plaxo’s Personal Assistant offering is able to recognise outdated contact info and proactively search through the various sources for updates, recommending what could be an invaluable change to a record within your address book as a consequence. If you have some records with missing or incomplete data, the Personal Assistant can proactively search to find information to help fill in those gaps.

How often have you found in the past that you received an update to a particular contact”s information, but you only managed to update one particular source? These days we need to have various platforms and communication tools as we go about our business and Plaxo has an option that enables you to sync the details across these various devices as well.

Another potential resource is Connected. This particular App looks for information and contacts from not only e-mail and social network accounts, but it also imports calendars from various applications such as Google Calendar and information found on those communication devices such as Google Voice. With this particular solution you can go even further by connecting with e-mail marketing tools such as aWeber.

As small business owners we know that time is everything and we also know that the more we can cut down the amount of frustration associated with non-productive tasks, the more successful we will be in the long run. A solution such as Plaxo or Connected should therefore be an essential tool. After all, when you really must get in touch with an important vendor to ensure that you meet a critical target, you don’t want to be left fumbling for their e-mail signature details or their Facebook contact information.

 

10. How To See Your Virtual Assistant Over The Internet

As online conferencing solutions become more popular and widely accepted perhaps we should be feeling a little sorry for the major airlines, who previously relied so much on those “full fare paying” business-class travellers. It’s no longer considered as essential to journey across the country for important conferences and meetings if it is, after all, possible to do almost exactly the same thing virtually. In the world of small business we are now getting used to the concept of telecommuting, virtual assistance and outside contractors. We have any number of tools available to us in order to communicate. We’re able to share files, e-mail, instant message, Skype, and interact in so many different ways through the cloud, but occasionally we want to discuss serious matters face-to-face, if only to put “a face to the voice.”

Many small business owners are just starting to get used to working with one or more virtual assistants and finding that it”s a very productive relationship. The virtual assistant becomes more than just an outsourcer and more and more business owners are finding that they’re building a very important relationship with their VA, quite apart from the benefits associated with outsourcing in general.

If your virtual assistant has now become a very important part of the business make-up and a highly contributory member of the team, it’s nice to be able to meet them face-to-face, perhaps for a chat now and again or, perish the thought, to actually socialise for a few minutes. It’s easy to forget about the social element of interacting with another human being as we live so much in the virtual world today, but this element of interaction should never be underestimated.

At the very basic level of course we have webcams that are integrated within so many different instant messaging programmes these days. This, to all extents and purposes, is now “old technology,” but when it comes to productivity and the ability to chat with various people at the same time, should you need to, there are a number of great video conferencing solutions on the market today.

One of the more established is WebEx by Cisco. This has consistently been one of the best video collaboration services available online and is probably the most recognisable name in this industry. For very little monthly cost you can include up to eight attendees at your virtual meeting and each member of your team has the ability to hold the floor as their image is highlighted whenever they are speaking. It’s possible to access the meeting from any personal computer or even from an iPhone, Android or BlackBerry. You can all share files, contribute to the whiteboard, share screens and remote control with very little drama. If somebody has missed the meeting, no problem; you can record what goes on for later playback and review.

In the online marketing world GoToMeeting by Citrix is perhaps better-known. It may be a little bit less robust than the more established offering however, but their video conferencing interface is also top class.

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