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in Virtually Speaking, the AVS newsletter
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Copyright reserved - Irene Boston
"Oh, how full of briers
is this working day world"
Call me paranoid but I often feel that Virtual Assistants can neglect certain aspects of personal security, especially those who are newly self employed and working from home for the first time. Eager, or perhaps desperate to land that first client, we can be somewhat cavalier about our own safety. After all, we insure our belongings and put locks on our doors and windows - we need to take the same care of ourselves.
Believe me, my intention is not to frighten everyone witless, just to reinforce some basic common sense principles. As Virtual Assistants, without the back-up and security of the corporate world, we must realise it's up to us to look after ourselves.
Thrilling as it is to hear from potential clients, remember that the voice on the end of the telephone, the email or letter enquiry belong to complete strangers. Yes, they may become clients. Yes, they may lead to lots of work and loads of money. But at first you haven't a clue who they are. Large organisations may have elaborate security and safety arrangements in place to protect their staff but the news is full of instances where even that may fail. In the UK, mention the name Suzy Lamplugh, the estate agent who arranged to meet a potential buyer and was never seen again, and I guarantee most women will think "there but for the grace of Godů.." I'm sure we can all remember other, equally disturbing, stories.
When you receive an enquiry from potential clients, it's not a good idea to invite them into your home or for you to visit their home - alone. For that first meeting, always insist on meeting them in their office unless their office is also their home, in which case you must insist that you meet on neutral territory. All my clients have understood this precaution - anyone who baulks at this should trigger alarm bells in your mind anyway. Above all, trust your instincts. If after meeting a potential client, your gut tells you something isn't quite right, heed that warning. Or if requests from a particular client seem bizarre, be very wary.
In dealing with a potential enquiry, remember that you should also be interviewing the clients. Make sure you get their name, business name, address and telephone number before you make arrangements to meet them. Don't just accept a mobile number - insist on knowing an office or home telephone number and check this out in the local directories. Make sure you confirm they are who they say they are. I've always found that if you explain why you're asking for this information, genuine enquirers will understand these basic precautions.
I rarely allow visits to my home, particularly by first time clients, to deliver or collect work and even long term clients are discouraged from doing this. However I often find that some local clients will put work through my letterbox for completion. If your address is listed in local business directories, you can't avoid letting even potential clients know your whereabouts. If you must organise a meeting with a potential client, use a neutral venue such as a hotel lobby or local café. I know that some Virtual Assistants use an office locally which they can hire by the hour or on an appointment basis. I am also cautious about the wording of any advertising in local or regional papers. I never add my address to the advert - just my telephone number and email.
Once the potential client becomes a "regular", only you can decide how much personal contact you allow. For local clients, I offer a pick up and delivery service and I am very fortunate in this respect because my husband is retired and can deliver for me. I think this is another useful ploy because the client can see I am not a lone female. If I have to go and collect work, Rex nearly always comes with me - at least in the early stages of my association with that client.
Of course there are some local clients who, over the years, have become friends and I've come to trust them completely. I am also fortunate in that the majority of my clients are virtual; only 25% of my business comes from local sources. So I rarely have to deal with either a constant stream of visitors or have to go out to deliver completed work.
Inevitably, many local clients will not be businesses but individuals and the same level of caution should apply when visiting their homes. Again, insist on knowing their full address and phone number. Look them up in the local telephone directory. If they are students, elicit their college or university address and the name of their main tutor.
There may also be various local authority rules and regulations which govern how you can work from home. Or if you live in a flat, the terms of your lease may preclude admitting business visitors to your home.
Business office insurance is essential because the chances are your ordinary home insurance will not be appropriate. Depending on your insurer, you may be able to add an office insurance policy onto your home insurance, as I did.
The other possible drawback of admitting business visitors to your home could be the reaction of neighbours. However accommodating and supportive of your new business venture they may be, it won't be long before a steady stream of visitors may annoy them. It only takes one to report you to the local authority. Avoid this hassle if you can by keeping visits to an absolute minimum.
You may think that personal safety issues are only applicable to local clients, but security problems may arise even with virtual clients. After all, they too are complete strangers, at least initially and I would advise against giving away too much information. For example, if you're going on holiday, even if only for a few days, set up a holding email. Don't say you're away - this implies to all and sundry that your home is empty. You might as well stick a sign in the window or on your website saying, "Please help yourself!"
For all female VAs, it's probably a safe bet to assume these personal safety precautions apply only to male clients. I've never yet felt uneasy in the presence of any female client. Irritated - yes. Threatened - no. However, for all you male VAs out there (and I know there are a few), you will also need to be cautious about arranging meetings with female clients. Be aware of and sensitive to any security or safety issues they may wish to address.
I realise you don't want to run the risk of losing a potential client but it is best to be cautious, although I don't wish to turn you into a nervous wreck in the process! I apologise if you think I'm being alarmist because I know that most of the things I've mentioned amount to sheer common sense, which we all have in abundance. But remember, it only takes one mistake. So be sensible - and stay safe.
© Irene Boston 1998-2003
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This page was last updated 19th January 2003