Rediscover Your Core Business With Virtual Pa’s. An Interview with Sabina Hinchcliffe
An office-based PA has long been an integral part of many successful businesses, a comforting presence for senior staff and a rock to rely on during stressful periods. It is for this reason that many businesses have been reluctant to look at alternatives, even when there is a clear business case to do so. Conversely, a huge number of small to medium sized businesses have seen the role as an expensive extravagance that is unrealistic within their business model.
At Elite Virtual Team, we are vocal proponents of outsourcing in order to increase productivity and promote growth, and we are seeing the use of virtual PAs come to the forefront of business as a legitimate, highly professional and cost-efficient choice.
Lucie Marchelot Shukla had the opportunity to meet with Sabina Hinchcliffe, Co-Founder and joint Managing Director of PA Business Support to discuss her experiences and insights, the growing sector and how she joined forces with another entrepreneur to build a larger, more successful business.
Lucie Marchelot Shukla: Hi Sabina, really excited to have you here. We’re going to ask you a few questions in regard to your business and also your experience working with virtual PAs and VAs.
Sabina Hinchcliffe: Okay, lovely.
Lucie: First of all, what was your vision when you initially launched PA Business Support (PABS)?
Sabina: I’d been running my own business previous to PABS, which was Sabina VA. It was the same thing except I was by myself and I had a smaller team. I outsourced quite quickly, because I realized that I didn’t just want to have this as a lifestyle business. I wanted to have a model that enabled me to get out and get the work and pass it out to people. That was the initial thing when I started doing it by myself. When PA business support was in the making it was all about finding someone that I can work really well with. We did a lot of due diligence. Sophie and I met an awful lot. We did did everything by the book. We had solicitors talk to us about where we want to go with our business. Whilst we both had our separate businesses prior to it we knew that we were ambitious enough to build something big here.
Lucie: Sophie was also working as a self employed virtual assistant before?
Sabina: Yes, she was.
Lucie: Did you have the experience of working together before, or was it completely new?
Sabina: We’d had a shared client who she had introduced me to. Essentially, I was the smaller of the two businesses when we first met. I looked at her as sort of a mentor in our early stages as she had been running a little bit earlier than I had. We connected really well. The client was brilliant, she was an amazing client. She was based in Europe, which was a big thing for both of us because it meant that we’d gone international. Through speaking with Sophie and getting to know her, we realized we have the same goals, passion and drive. Equally, being able to challenge each other really made us realize that looking forward would be a great partnership for something bigger and better.
Lucie: So, initially you realised that a business that isn’t led by lifestyle goals and lacking delegation to the right people could be a problem for others as well as for yourself. You turned this from being a problem into offering a solution to your customers by helping them delegate.You used your own experience to formulate the solution which makes perfect sense.
Sabina: Absolutely, I started the business because I was a mum who would have worked in the city but realized that after having two young children I couldn’t go back to the city if I wanted to see them grow up. I wanted to do something at home that was flexible, I knew I was employable but I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. This was a good opportunity for me to get out there, meet people and get a support network of other businesses around me. It was such a steep learning curve, it still is.
Lucie: Sure. Your strength is that you totally understand both sides of the business. You understand your clients because you’re also a business owner and you went through the same things. Also, you have an excellent understanding of the work the VAs do.
Sabina: I absolutely understand the challenges and the clients know that I am always there, I’m very hands on. The girls have their operational day today with a client but if anyone needs me I’m there. I have had that client contact, and because I have done the work before, I know the pressure that the girls are under. I know what they need and I know how to support them, as well as the clients. Yeah you’re right, having had that experience myself and getting into the nitty-gritty and doing the dirty work as well has helped.
Lucie: Great. Can you just explain to us a little about the main difference between being a PA and a virtual PA? Would you say that virtual PAs have a different mindset to physical PAs that work in an office? What would you say is the main reason is for them to become virtual PAs in the first place?
Sabina: For us the main difference between a PA and a virtual PA is that virtual PAs are not based on-site. Our PAs are based in their home offices and that’s the difference. If you want a PA on-site, that’s not something that we provide but we do like the relationship to be enhanced by having face to face contact. Whether that’s meeting once a month or including our VAs in team meetings or just having the odd coffee every couple of months to enhance that relationship.
There’s a personal touch in the relationship with the VA and the client. It really does help with any kind of virtual work that you do. You have to work faster to learn how someone deals with things, how they react to office situations and how they deal with stresses in their own office politics. When you are a virtual PA, you’re not in the thick of it. You are detached from that. That’s the difference. We try and enhance the relationship early on so that a relationship is built between the client and the virtual PA.
Do I think they have a different mind set to a PA who works in an office? Definitely. I think they are more motivated, because they’re alone and they don’t necessarily have a support network of office staff. They have to get on with things and they don’t always have people to ask questions. They have to understand things pretty quickly. Often they don’t have anyone to ask or have support. They only have the client.
Lucie: Our General Manager used to work in an office before and that’s exactly what she said. She said that when working in an office, you can always ask questions and rely on others, but when you are alone in front of your computer you have to find out. You become more productive.
Sabina: Yeah, you do. I don’t think because they’re by themselves they want to prove something it’s that they have got something to prove. They have to prove that they are being efficient with their time, and that there are goals that are set and achieved. I think being by themselves and only having limited contact with other people, generally just the client, makes them want to work harder and strive for something and prove to the client that virtual PAs do in fact work.
Why do they become virtual PAs in the first place? For different reasons. I would say that the majority of our team are mums at home. They are professionals normally, for example, city PAs, bilingual PAs, management accountants and we’ve even got graphic designers. They are all doing what they do, but they base it around their family commitments. The flexibility is what they want. It starts from there, and then they get a client and they realize they can have the best of both worlds. They can work, and they can have a family life as well.
Lucie: Exactly. Have you worked with virtual PAs from other countries? Would you say there’s a difference with the ones working in the UK? What’s your experience of that?
Sabina: I have worked with PAs from Malaysia once before. They’re brilliant, on the ball and they were really focused. The difference is that the skill sets they have are very different from the ones in the UK. The main difference I find is that it is easy to give them direction and tell them what to do. They can turn it around really quickly and speed and efficiency is second to none. For that personal touch we personally prefer UK based PAs.
Lucie: Due to the time differences and they have the same culture?
Sabina: Yes, the time difference can cause slight problems. If we had an issue with some of the work that was done, and wanted to have a discussion about it time zone differences don’t help. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, it just means that you have to be more efficient about communicating.
Lucie: Would you say that both could be combined? A client could have a virtual PA in the UK and then give different tasks to a virtual PA in another country for example. That could fit in quite well?
Sabina: Definitely, the way it worked with us in my experience, is that things that were not time demanding were very good to pass on to overseas PAs. Things like research we needed, but not time critical. We could have it in a week’s time and we’d be happy with that. If it was something that needed turning around pretty quickly, and accurately and without much correspondence we use our UK based PAs.
Lucie: In terms of your model, are your virtual PAs dedicated to work with one client at a time or do they work on multiple projects? Do you think that it makes a difference whether they’re full time or part time and would you say it could affect their commitment or motivation?
Sabina: We play it by ear. We get a VA on board and we match them up with a client that is looking for a certain PA, personality fit and competencies. Then we let them bed in. If a client wants twenty hours, usually there will be a new VA that comes to us has no other clients, because we like to use the hours for a client with that VA. We usually start them off where they have no other commitments. That’s how we like it. It doesn’t always work, but generally when we get someone new on board they’re not working with anyone else. They then take a 20-30 hours per month contract.
They are perfectly entitled to go and get work from elsewhere by the way. Some of our PAs actually run their own businesses. It’s not conducive for us to demand they only work with us, but we like to kind of have the flexibility to say, “Okay, the client’s taken you for twenty hours but what if they wanted to extend to thirty?” We have to know that there’s room to build on that. Usually, when we’ve just taken someone on to do twenty hours. The clients already said “Do you want thirty to forty within the next three months.” That’s great for the PA. They’ll either consider just having that client, or taking on another client. There are no conflicts of interests, we make sure that if they do take on another client there is nothing to get in the way of the work with the original client. If they’re comfortable we offer more hours. We probably wouldn’t give a VA more than sixty hours.
Lucie: Do you find it difficult to get the PAs to take on many hours given that many have other commitments?
Sabina: Negative, between 40 and 60 hours is what they usually aim for in most cases. After that they are very happy. We can usually fill our VAs up with two to three different clients depending on how many hours the client needs and depending on the type of work it is. If it’s really full on PA traditional type skills, then usually thirty to forty on one client is going to be plenty.
Lucie: In terms of management and training is your company offering the training for the virtual PAs or are the clients responsible for that?
Sabina: At the moment if there if a specific skill set that the PA needs then the client provides it. We’ve only been operating for nine months, so we haven’t actually put a training program in place. However, we are talking about it. We believe that CPD for all VAs whether they’re full time or contractors is really important. We want to look after our VAs, we want to make sure that they feel like they’re being looked after. We also want them to feel if they need to be developed then there is the scope to do that. That is definitely something we’re talking about.
Lucie: Especially when you work online there are so many different things you probably need to be doing that you didn’t do in the past when you worked in an office?
Sabina: Absolutely. Lots of virtual online tools people haven’t even heard of. If you work in a corporate office you tend to use a lot of bespoke programs. Often they wouldn’t have heard of things like Dropbox. I know it sounds simple to me and you. Dropbox or Google Drive. Things like that, they may never had access to before. Why they might be very easy and simple to use, they still have to be trained to create a basic understanding of what they do.
Lucie: We know that dedication and building a team is probably one of the hardest thing to nail in a business. Business owners find it difficult, especially when they are starting their business or growing it to a different scale. Sometimes it also seems harder when it comes to remote virtual teams. What would you say are your best tips to delegate work effectively to a virtual PA?
Sabina: I think the most important thing above anything else is to communicate with your people. I speak to my VAs once a week. They know that I’m at the end of a phone, Skype, email, text any day of the week. We’re really in touch with them. The client is 100% happy until one tiny thing happens or they’ve had a bad day and something doesn’t go quite right. That’s then my job to ensure that the client remains happy by rectify things. They’re human, mistakes will happen, we have to manage expectations as no one is ever going to be perfect.
It’s really important to Sophie and I to have the relationship with our clients and to communicate with them and also have that relationship with our VAs. Communication, leadership and an ‘open door’ is crucial. Don’t just give them a job and leave them to it. It doesn’t really work like that. When you’re in an office you get preparation and you have this time to learn a role or learn a job and learn the people, learn of the culture of the company. Our VAs don’t have that. They might go and see the client a couple of times and get a feel for what their about. Essentially it’s all working from home so they will have a lot questions. You have to be patient. It all springs from the communication with your VAs.
The client will be happy for a certain amount of time, but they have expectations and you have to build that into your relationship with a virtual assistant. I can’t say that enough really. We’re on a steep learning curve nine months in. Our team is much bigger than it was before, and it really is about keeping everybody happy not just the clients.
Lucie: Exactly. Currently how many virtual PAs do you place and do you see a trend growing since you started your company? Do you think people are more open to the idea of working with people remotely now and those that are still reluctant to have virtual PAs, what do you see as the reasons?
Sabina: Small businesses whether startup or growing can’t usually afford full time PAs. Everybody has admin, and you always see it at networking events where everybody could do with a PA, because everyone is just too busy. It’s about where you care to put your money and lots of people will just invest in marketing, which I think is very sensible. However, if you’re up at 23:00 doing your admin because it’s cheaper, you’re not with your family and you’re not resting.
That isn’t cheaper, because it’s actually very stressful and very expensive to your business. You’ll get stressed, you won’t be healthy, you won’t have enough sleep and you’ll be running on empty. That’s where we fit in. They need a PA to help them with all the backload of admin. In addition, the idea of having a remote PA is so much more palatable to people, because just having a PA or a chair in the office with another computer is expensive. How much does it cost to have that extra chair and that extra desk? They have to pay for their holidays and their sick pay. All those things that just don’t come with virtual PAs.
Lucie: With your model you don’t have to pay them full time, and they can be doing the work whenever you need on a part time basis, so it’s reducing the cost as well.
Sabina: Absolutely, it works both ways. These women don’t necessarily want to go into an office either. It’s good for us as business owners because we actually get people that actually just want to be at home. It’s good for the women that are at home doing the work because they can do the school run and still be doing work and emails for a client until five or six in the evening and it works great for the client because they’re not spending a lot of money. They just pay the hourly rate. I think that’s quite important, we’re a very flexible service.
Lucie: Some people object to VAs and argue that they would rather have someone physically in the office. Why do you think this is?
Sabina: Part of it is tradition, a lot of people want that person on site so they can see what they are doing. They have that contact and connection with them. I can understand that because it does take a little bit more work with virtual. Also the bigger corporate simply can afford it. They want the full time staff, they want someone there filing and doing all the jobs that a traditional PA would do. Again, if you are a small business and you’re reluctant to hire a PA it all comes down to cost. We’re not cheap in the sense of the word but we’re really good value for money. You get for what you pay for. We have high standards for all our PAs and they have got such a wide skill set. They are actually paying for a really good high standard of service. Some people can’t simply afford that.
Lucie: They might not understand that spending this money would be a very good return on investment.
Sabina: Absolutely, and they don’t realize how much time they get back. If you’re doing your bookkeeping or you’re emailing people out of hours trying to catch up with things that you couldn’t do in the day time, are you being with your wife and kids or are you out to dinner with friends? All these things count towards your personal life and stress levels. Health and wellbeing is important, it’s not just about money.
Lucie: Where can people find out more about your services?
Lucie: Great, well thank you so much Sabina for sharing your experience and insight with us and we wish you all the best with your business.
Sabina: Thank you so much Lucie.
We would love to hear your personal experiences. Join the conversation by posting a comment below. To find out more about outsourcing, virtual teams and all related information, contact us here
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