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in Virtually Speaking, the AVS newsletter
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HOME AND AWAY
Local Clients - Are They a Different Breed?
It's a safe bet that the majority of Virtual Assistants started their business by concentrating on local clients, before expanding the virtual side of their business. I know I did and although the virtual side of my business has expanded to encompass 75% of my clients, that still leaves around 25% who are local. It is important to develop a healthy local client base, they are after all literally under your nose. Depending upon where you live, that can mean dozens if not hundreds of potential customers.
Over the years Iíve found that the way I deal with these local clients differs from my virtual clients and this extends to the way I market, deliver and price my services. One of the major differences is their perception of what a Virtual Assistant is. Most local clients don't even know what the term means, particularly in the UK where the whole concept of virtual working has yet to gain recognition, never mind acceptance. To them I am a typist, secretary or a personal assistant - a "rose by any other name" in fact. I don't mind what name they use, as long as they use my services and pay for them!
The majority of my local clients tend to be private individuals, or small business proprietors and the type of service they require is usually just word processing. Perhaps someone wants a letter typed or a CV updated but doesn't own a computer - there are still some households out there which don't! A student needs a dissertation typed, proofread or edited and doesn't have time. Small businesses need occasional assistance, but can't afford an employee. Or companies need holiday or sick leave cover, often at short notice. Sophisticated administration support, travel arrangements or a full blown office support service isn't usually required. So you have to tailor your services and your approach accordingly.
Advertising methods for local clients can be very different. I am listed in all the local business directories, such as Yellow Pages and Thomson Local, under their secretarial or word processing headings. They haven't got around to offering a "Virtual Assistant" category and I think it will be a long time before they do. Similarly, my adverts placed in local newspapers don't mention the word virtual.
You may even find that the type of services you offer locally differ from the ones you may offer online. For example, if you live in a rural area and have experience of farm accounts, offering this type of specialisation is a good way of building up a healthy local client base. I once lived in a town full of hotels which ran conferences but hotel staff can't always provide secretarial back up for delegates, whereas I could. However, my most popular virtual services tend to be editing or transcription - neither of which is likely to be a money spinner locally. So analyse your local market thoroughly - does your area specialise in something you know an awful lot about?
Local individuals also tend to be "one-off" clients. They might want a few pages typed and that's it, you never hear from them again and when you're busy, it's tempting to refuse these very small jobs. Either it's too much hassle to interrupt the more lucrative project you're completing, or it's for such a small amount that it's hardly worth bothering with. However, even if it's for a single letter, if you make that little bit of extra effort, they will remember that and even if they never need anything more from you themselves, they may just recommend you to someone who does. Word of mouth is one of the most powerful PR tools you can use. Don't neglect it, whether itís for a project that's worth hundreds or a letter for only a few pounds.
I've also found that local clients and urgent deadlines seem to go hand in hand. Someone will flick through the local directory, scan the list of names and give the work to the first one who answers the phone and can turn it around quickly.
The method of delivery for completed work can be different too. I offer a free local pick up and delivery service in my home area, and although this is not very cost effective for me, most local clients seem to prefer this personal touch. If they live miles away, I charge for my time and mileage. For example, I do the book-keeping for a consultancy about 30 miles away which still uses manual ledgers (and has no intention of changing!) and every quarter I update her books on site. That's the way she prefers to work, so I charge for travelling time, as well as mileage, and this means not just petrol costs, but a full business mileage charge.
Fortunately, many of my local clients are happy to rely on post, fax or email for delivery of completed work and if you can wean clients into working virtually, you will make your life a lot easier. Bear in mind that if you are out of the office delivering work, even if you are being paid for your time, you are still unavailable should another client call. If you are not there or rely on the answerphone, the potential client may go elsewhere, particularly if it's a rush job.
For local office based businesses, sending files as an email attachment or using software such as PC Anywhere allows fast delivery of completed work. This also enables you to introduce the concept of virtual working. Once clients realise how convenient and economical it is, cutting down on their delivery costs, it becomes easier to convince them of the benefits of working virtually. This is something I am particularly pushing at the moment because we're moving house and I hope to "take" some of my local clients with me!
You may also find that you need a different pricing structure for local clients. I cannot charge the same rate in my area of the UK as I would for either a virtual client or one in a more affluent area, such as London. The market simply wouldn't stand it. Local businesses who prefer to pay by the hour will not tolerate the same prices you would charge virtually - whatever argument you might use about the benefits and long term cost savings. Or an individual who just wants a letter typed may prefer to pay by the item not by the hour. Charge the same rate as you do virtually and they might go elsewhere - perhaps to another local secretarial service. You will need to analyse your local market thoroughly to see what price level it will stand.
In the end, if your town or city is big enough you may find you have enough local clients to satisfy your income needs but if, like me, you live in a fairly small town or a completely rural area, the number of possible local clients may be quite limited, and you'll need to concentrate on building the virtual side of your business.
One of the major decisions you will have to make in dealing with local clients is how much personal contact you allow. Whatever you decide, there are implications concerning the security and safety of yourself and your home, but that's another story.
© Irene Boston 1998-2003
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