Susi Cernoch

Standby OfficeStandby was started in 1983 and Susi Cernoch was a client of the company until the previous owner retired in 2006, when she bought the business from her. Susi was an administrator in a variety of sectors including electronics manufacturing, construction, healthcare and insurance. She was also an English tutor for several years during which time Standby used to prepare most of her teaching resources for her.  She could see the value in using a team of expert admin support staff in her own work, and when the enormous potential of web based activity became apparent, she anticipated that remote admin support would play a critical role in commerce going forward, so buying the company was the logical next step.  Having worked in so many different roles definitely helped her to understand the challenges faced by her clients. We asked her a few questions about her business.

Did you do any specific training before you opened for business e.g. book-keeping, web-design, start-up business, something particular to VAs and was it useful?

Throughout my career I was a bit of sponge for any sort of training that looked as if it would prove useful.  We are PC based and I need to keep abreast of all the changes in Microsoft applications.  I completed my ECDL many years ago and I was already managing purchase and sales ledgers, but I took various top up courses later and did some Sage training.  I read voraciously to try and keep up with technological developments but it is a bit of a Forth Bridge scenario!  We work with a small select group of professional partners who provide graphic and web design services, and anything else in which we don’t specialise ourselves.
How did you find your first client and what was the first job?

Back in the early days, before almost everyone had a PC, Standby used to advertise for business in the local paper, and almost every job that came in was either basic typing work for local small companies or transcribing manuscripts for local authors.  Now we are a web-based operation using online CRM and CMS applications on behalf of clients in locations all over the UK and Europe, and we support organisations of varying sizes in a wide variety of sectors.  
Have you developed a niche area and what is it?

Because of my love of using social media, we’re now involved with managing SM strategies for a number of businesses, from butchers to storage companies and from marquee suppliers to estate agents.  My favourite SM client is a vet; puppies and kittens – what’s not to like?!
How many clients do you work with now?
We have several dozen clients, some of whom we work with continuously, such as personal coaches, a weight loss clinic and a couple of training companies.  There are others who use us from time to time, just when they need us.  We enjoy both arrangements – it prevents complacency setting in.

Do you work alone or with other VAs/employ someone?

I have my core team, managed by my trusty assistant, Lesley, and we have a back up team that we call in on an ad hoc basis if we get snowed under.  All our work is done in-house for quality control purposes and for reasons of confidentiality.  Perhaps I’m over cautious but I like to keep a sharp eye on everything we do.
What strategies have you used to grow your business and what has and hasn’t worked?

Advertising definitely doesn’t work for us.  Outsourcing is about trust, so our best relationships are with clients who came to us via a recommendation, networking connections or partner referral.  Our reputation for being reliable, thorough and dynamic is our best asset.
What has been the most difficult thing about growing your business?

There’s definitely a limit to the public’s understanding of how remote admin support can work.  Many people are not aware of how amazing the internet can be as a business tool, so we often have to educate new clients (and some existing ones too) about the options that are available to them.  Once we break down that barrier and explain how we will work to become part of their home team, clients usually say, ‘I wish I’d started using you years ago!’
Tell us something about a typical day and what kind of work you do?

Actually, typical days are not that common here!  We do a huge variety of work from social media management to internet research, copywriting and proof reading, event organisation and training course management, including telephone answering and outgoing sales calls, so no two days are alike.  We can do just about anything a client classifies as ‘not the core activity of their business’; anything peripheral to that is time consuming and probably not profit-generating, and should really be delegated or outsourced.
What’s one thing you’ve done that’s made a client absolutely delighted?

Gosh, which one to pick?  It could be anything that saves them time, or saves them from having t do the things they hate, like chasing payments or making travel arrangements, or remembering their partner’s or mother-in-law’s birthday, like any good PA would.  My favourite achievement is finding one client the very desk diary she had been looking for and was finding very elusive.  I trawled the internet and finally found it in Australia, of all places.  It made her day, and mine.  
Do you have any funny stories/anecdotes about jobs you’ve done?

We did once provide a long term transcription service to two firms of solicitors who were acting for opposing sides in a civil case.  It was very amusing to see what they were saying about one another as the case progressed!  Neither side ever knew that we were acting for the other, so our confidentiality policy must have worked exceptionally well on that occasion.
What are your favourite applications/gadgets that you couldn’t live without?

I’m very glad there’s Hootsuite. It isn’t perfect but it saves us a lot of time with our social media updates.  And my smart phone is a godsend – I use the camera and voice recorder constantly, not to mention email and the web browser.

What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?
I love the challenge of being given someone else’s problems to solve.  Thinking outside the box is my favourite pastime.

What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?

Dealing with the occasional client who finds it hard to relinquish control to us, I think.  We aim to make the admin process as seamless as possible and once they learn to trust us, things will go smoothly.  Until then, though, it definitely slows the process down and can make things feel a bit ‘clunky’. 
What’s the best advice you’ve been given / or you would give to others about growing your business?

Someone once told me, make sure everybody knows who you are and what you can do for them, and she was right.  That’s why networking and blogging are so important. When you offer as many services as we do, you have to remind people frequently what’s on the list, or they’re bound to forget. 

What do you think are the most important qualities a VA should have?

The ability to sort out chaos, and the ability to think clearly under pressure.  Oh, and a sense of humour.  Definitely the latter!