Virtual services that make your business look big

While it’s always nice to have extra help–in the form of a personal assistant, an accountant, or a lawyer, say–it’s also nice to cut costs. Small and medium businesses often can’t afford to hire salaried professionals for all of those extra tasks that must be done.

Luckily, virtual help abounds. Don’t be fooled by the term “virtual,” either–you’re not necessarily hiring a cyborg, as a lot of virtual services still utilize the skills of real people. They’re just remotely located, dedicated people who don’t require a benefits package you can’t afford.

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If you already operate on a shoestring or need to cut costs–and perhaps water cooler chatter–read on for virtual services you can “hire,” instead of an extra employee.

Replace your personal assistant or secretary

Hiring a dedicated personal assistant or a secretary will cost you around $35,000/year ($2900/month), plus benefits. But you can easily outsource much of the work of a personal assistant to the virtual world for just a fraction of the cost of hiring a professional, especially if you know what tasks you need the most help with.

If you do a lot of traveling and entertaining, RedButler offers personal assistant and concierge services (such as making hotel reservations), and it features a special membership card that allows holders to receive discounts at hotels and restaurants. RedButler memberships start at just $36.95/month for 15 tasks (each phone call or hotel booking constitutes one task) and a membership card.

If you’re looking for more of a dedicated personal assistant, Habilis and AskSunday offer hourly membership plans. Instead of being billed per task, you can sign up for a certain number of hours per month. Habilis plans start at $350 for 40 hours, while AskSunday plans start at $150 for 10 hours. Both offer personal assistant services such as making phone calls, handling e-mails, and making reservations, and they feature 24-hour availability.

Replace your lawyer

While I don’t recommend completely outsourcing your legal needs to technology, free legal Websites are a valuable resource. Because lawyers charge by the hour, doing your own research, or at least finding the correct legal form, can actually save you a small chunk of change.

RocketLawyer features hundreds of free legal documents created by lawyers–including confidentiality agreements, general service contracts, and employment agreements. LawHelp and FindLaw both offer free legal advice from lawyers, though they should probably not be used as lawyer replacements.

If you need specific legal advice, LawGuru features an extensive question-and-answer service with free and paid options. For free, your question is forwarded to a limited pool of attorneys (though not right away) and answered eventually on the public forum. If the question is urgent, or you want a private answer, however, you can choose to pay between $40 and $60 (you are charged only if you accept an answer) for quicker service.

Replace your accountant

The first place you should look for virtualizing your accountant is accounting software. Intuit’s QuickBooks, which features invoice and expense tracking and sales and profitability reports, is a small business standby, and the Pro version of the software will set you back just $184. QuickBooks 2011 also offers convenient browser and smartphone access to the software for an additional $10 monthly fee per user. Sage’s Peachtree, which costs $200 for the Pro version, is another desktop accounting package that offers invoice and receipt tracking, easy payroll entry, and business analytics and forecasting.

If you’d prefer not to be tied to your desktop, online accounting services are another option. QuickBooks features an online version whose cost ranges from $12.95/month to $63.16/month and has a lot of the features of the desktop version, including invoice and expense tracking, payroll support, and online banking support. Freelancers and self-employed individuals should check out Outright, which is a free online accounting service that helps users track invoices and payments received, calculate estimated taxes, and organize W-9 forms.

FreshBooks, whose plans range from free to $40/month, is more suited for small businesses larger than one person. FreshBooks allows you to track invoices and expenses, and to create and manage inventory, and it even creates and mails invoices for you via snail mail at a nominal additional cost.

Even if you end up hiring an accountant anyway–just as an extra pair of eyes before tax time–these services are worth it. After all, if you have your finances in relative order, it will save your accountant time–which translates to saving you money.

Replace your customer support

Customer support is an essential–yet tiring and time-consuming–aspect of running a small business. Fortunately, a few online tools can make customer support a relatively easy, painless process.

Instead of hiring extra workers to answer customer questions and concerns, you can put your customers to work. Get Satisfaction allows you to take advantage of people’s enthusiasm for helping each other, building a community in the process. On Get Satisfaction, anyone can ask questions and answer them–though “official” company responses are marked as such. Putting your company on the site is free–although the site also has several paid options with benefits, such as community branding and customization, Google Analytics and community statistics, and ZenDesk integration.

ZenDesk is a virtual help desk and more of an organizational tool for customer support. Instead of crowdsourcing customer support as Get Satisfaction does, ZenDesk allows you to solve customer problems using helpdesk trouble tickets. You can embed ZenDesk into your company’s Website, enabling customers to open a ticket when they have a problem. ZenDesk helps you manage, organize, and resolve open tickets.

ZenDesk is nicely transparent in that customers can see who is working on their ticket and when it’s expected to be resolved. ZenDesk can also help users help themselves with its ticket tagging–certain tags will pull up forum and discussion suggestions that may resolve the customer’s issue. ZenDesk starts at $9/month for up to three customer service agents.

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.

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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 labour-on-demand Websites will help you find skilled workers for just about any job you can think of.

There are two types of labour-on-demand sites: those that offer “unskilled” labour and cater to short, menial tasks such as finding e-mail addresses or posting to online forums; and those that offer skilled labour, 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 labour 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 per cent.

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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