Have you ever thought what would happen to your business if you were suddenly unable to provide your services due to circumstances beyond your control? How long would it take you to restore services to your clients to the widest extent possible?
It’s whilst the going is good that it’s a good idea to sit down and analyse what the potential emergency risks to your business are. You should write down what your likely response would be and who your key contacts are. As a Virtual Assistant you can often end up holding the keys to the businesses of a number of clients. If you don’t have a plan then it might not just be your own business that suffers, but theirs too.
Obviously a national disaster might be beyond the scope of your document, but to follow are some of the things you might like to consider as part of your business continuity plan.
Loss of Computers/Electronic files
It’s wise to have more than one computer available to you, each containing up to date software for the work you do daily. If your main computer breaks down or a virus strikes then you have some breathing space to keep working on the other until you have time to fix the first computer.
- If you’ve created a home network then a networked external hard drive can be used to store all documents in a central location and accessible from other computers on your network.
- Synchronising files is useful. Dropbox is one of my favourite applications and allows you to synchronise files across multiple PCs, access your files online from any computer and, if you purchase the Packrat service for an additional fee, allows unlimited restoration of previously deleted files. This is useful for your own accidental deletions and also enthusiastic removal of a file you were working on by the client you’re sharing a folder with.
- You could consider an external backup service. Companies such as Databarracks offer a remote backup service that happens automatically each day and stores several generations of changes that can be restored at any time, whether it’s to find a removed file or because you need to restore your old file system on a new computer.
- Many virtual assistants offer email minding for multiple clients and it can be a challenge to maintain a continuous service if one PC is lost. Try not to use POP3 email that downloads all emails to the location you happen to be using. You could end up with emails spread out in more than one place. One of the best methods of syncing emails is to work with a hosted exchange service so try and persuade your client to have all the emails on their domain hosted this way. Many ISPs offer hosted Microsoft exchange for a monthly fee. Your inbox and sent items can then be synchronized across multiple devices – your computer, your smartphone etc and it won’t matter where you read or send an email from, every view will be the same. The other added benefit is that you’ll then have access to shared calendars and tasks through Outlook.
- If a client has only offered you a pop3 email address on their domain then try and find out if there is a webmail option for this account with their ISP and try and use and leave it online. You’ll then be able to access it from any computer but it will likely be slower to work with on a day to day basis.
Loss of Physical Documents
Fire and flood would be the likely scenarios for losing your paperwork. I usually tell clients that leaving paper documents with me for long term storage is at their own risk and try to give most paper files back to them. If you do end up with years worth of client’s book-keeping records cluttering up your attic then either arrange to send them back or send them to a specialist service, such as Iron Mountain, at your client’s expense.
Your own important documents, accounts, insurance policies etc should be scanned and stored in your safe electronic filing system as described above.
You need to extend this thought to the loss of your entire premises. If you lost your house through fire or flood, could you buy a new PC and have your business set up again within the day? If the answer is no then you could also be losing your livelihood. Take some time to work out what you’d need to have in place to minimize the chances of this happening
Loss of Telecommunications/Utilities
The crucial tools for a VA are the telephone line and broadband service. It’s not easy being virtual if either of these go down. I live in a rural area and in the 8 years I’ve been in business I’ve been without electricity for several prolonged periods and last year I was without my telephone and broadband for nearly a week when our local telephone exchange was flooded. Don’t be caught out, work out in advance what you will do if you get cut off.
- Is there anywhere else you can go to set up your office temporarily where there might not be a problem – family, a good friend, another business owner, a coffee shop with wifi? If your documents are stored online you should be able to cope in the short term.
- You could consider signing up to a mobile data service. It’s possible to buy data “dongles” that plug in to your USB port and connect over the mobile network. If you’ve researched them then you could just go and get one in an emergency rather than pay for it regularly
- If you have a problem with your phone line then call your provider and ask them to divert your normal phone number to your mobile until the service is reconnected. If it’s their fault this service is free.
Loss of Key Personnel
Nobody wants to think about the worst thing of all happening, but consider what might happen if the main person in your business, you, were to fall seriously ill, or even die. Most Virtual Assistance business are built around the skills of one person. Do you have a procedure written down for someone unfamiliar with what you do to pick up the pieces, sort through the workings of your business and get your clients back on track?
- Have current and outstanding work requests in a specified location. Someone could give these priority for contacting waiting clients and for contracting out work to be done urgently.
- Have a list of your current clients with contact details together in one place.
- Try to have a list of approved subcontractors listed with contact details and work specialities. It’s worth building some relationships with other VAs whilst everything is running smoothly, even if you normally work alone. Have their contact details in a central, easy to find location.
- Have a list of your regularly used suppliers and their contact details; your accountant, your bank, your office supplies provider. Although we’re always told not to write down passwords, when you work as a VA the chances are you have logins on multiple sites for multiple people. Unless you have the most amazing memory you’ll have to put them in a safe place, but make it somewhere that can be found in an emergency. At the very least, your clients will need their login details to e.g. their ISP and internet provider, the blog you’ve been running for them for the past few years, their trainline account and their frequent flyer numbers. Just because you’re gone shouldn’t mean that their business collapses too. Make sure they can be handed everything they need.
Hopefully you’ll never need the document that you produce as your disaster plan but it’s wise to think you might!
Joanne Sparkes, Editor of Virtual Assistance Professional
Director at Expedio Virtual Assistance