Dawn Lane’s career started in the Royal Navy in 1977 where she spent 22 years honing her leadership and organisation skills. She left in 1999 with a lot of experience but no qualifications other than the ‘O’ levels she had when she left school. After working for the local constabulary as a communications operator for a while, she was becoming bored and needed to change direction (that’s what changing posts every two years whilst in the RN does for you!). She decided that she needed some qualifications in what she did best – administration and organisation. Dawn did an NVQ in Business Administration and found a new role with a building company as assistant to the business development manager. A few job changes later she changed direction again and spent nine months in college upgrading her admin skills by studying for the Advanced Diploma for Medical Secretaries. Whilst doing this course, she was head hunted for a post as PA to an associate director within the local NHS Strategic Health Authority (SHA).
In 2006, the SHA restructured and Dawn had to look for work once again. This was now the right time to take the plunge and establish the business she had been thinking about ever since she was at college in 2004, and Your Office Online was established in October 2006. The idea of working as a remote secretary had been planted whilst working at the SHA – her boss, and the rest of the team, were constantly out of the office travelling around Devon and Cornwall and the wider UK NHS areas. Dawn thought that as she was providing office based remote secretarial services for them whilst they worked out of the office, she could do the same for clients whilst based in her own office. Funnily enough, the same boss is now one of her clients and a big fan of what she does, promoting her services wherever she can.
We asked Dawn more about her Virtual Assistance business:
Did you do any specific training before you opened for business e.g. book-keeping, web-design, start-up business, something particular to Virtual Assistants – and was it useful?
I didn’t do any specific VA training although I did start off by attending Carmen McDougall’s VA Mastery course weekend but because of client demand didn’t have the time to complete it. However, I have always loved to learn and at every opportunity will try and upgrade my skills. Since leaving the RN, I have completed an NVQ2 in Business Administration, an Advanced Diploma for Medical Secretaries, which included a number of OCR qualifications in typing, presentations, audio transcription and ECDL – this I did to advance level in Word and PowerPoint, and completed a course at Certificate Level 3 for Business Start Ups through the Chartered Managers Institute – this I found extremely useful as it gave the foundations for any one starting a business. I had to produce a business plan to achieve the certificate – something I didn’t have when I set up the business. I have topped all of this up with a web design course, Level 5 certificate in leadership and management, and have taught myself Photoshop, some bookkeeping and how to do online based publications such as newsletters, email marketing etc. I am also constantly on the look out for what I may need to learn to stay up with or ahead of the latest technology, anticipating what it may be that my clients will need next.
When I think back to my time in the Royal Navy, I realise how far I have come in terms of using a computer and how much I have learned. Back in those days, computers, mobile phones, laptops etc were unheard of and I swore that I would never use them. Ha – look at me now…
How did you find your first client and what was the first job?
My first client actually found me before I had really finished setting up. I had an email out of the blue – only my website was up and running and this client had found my details from there. He was a French man living and working in the UK and needed someone to make sure his publications/articles were in correct grammatical English.
Have you developed a niche area and what is it?
I don’t really have a niche – although my business model may differ from other VAs in that I only ever planned to work with a handful of clients on a long-term basis – I always wanted to be a PA to a small number of clients so that I could learn their business inside out, rather than with a lot of clients for short term, ad-hoc work. Having said that, out of all my clients, six of them work within the medical sector in one form or another.
How many clients do you work with now?
I currently work with 11 clients on a long-term continuous basis ie do some form of work for them on an almost a daily basis, but I also have a number of long-term clients that I do work for on an ad-hoc basis eg short notice transcription or document formatting work.
Do you work alone or with other Virtual Assistants/employ someone?
I tend to work alone although I also do some work with associate VAs, helping them out when they are overloaded – I thank the world for Charlotte and Lyndsey at Online Transcription – they have helped me out at short notice a number of times. I am getting to the stage where I think I need to delegate work to my own associates, but like my clients when they first come to me, I find it difficult to let go of the control – I need to talk myself into having my own VA!
What strategies have you used to grow your business and what has and hasn’t worked?
I have been really lucky in that most of my clients have found me through Google and my website. A number of my first clients were ex-services/NHS and my background was an instant attraction for them – they knew I could work in the same way as them and would understand any jargon they may use. Since then word of mouth referrals has helped my business grow. I did initially advertise on Yell.com and had a few adverts in magazines but on reflection this wasn’t money well spent as I only picked up one or two clients, although one of those is still with me.
What has been most difficult thing about growing your business?
Educating businesses! In my opinion, depending on the geographical area you are based in, some businesses easily grasp the idea of not seeing their secretary face to face whilst others struggle with the idea. I am based in Cornwall, and many businesses here still want to see someone sat at a desk in their office – even if it is not financially beneficial to their business. Face to face networking in my local business community has helped other businesses understand what a VA is and can do – many thought I could only answer the telephone, but they now understand better what service we can provide and how we can help them make their business more efficient.
Tell us something about a typical day and what kind of work you do?
No two days are the same, which is what I love. My day starts by checking emails and prioritising my work – I don’t set specific times of the day for specific clients but I will have a to do list and work from that. This can include diary and email management; report and powerpoint formatting; booking travel and accommodation; event management; internet research and analysis; bookkeeping and accounting, the list is varied and endless. With some clients I do have some regular online meetings and therefore block that time out, otherwise it just depends on what comes through the ether and hits my inbox. I also do telephone answering for a number of clients and they can come in any time of the day or night, from 8:30am until 10:00pm – I don’t answer the phones before 9:00am or after 5:00pm though – I do try to have a home life.
What’s one thing you’ve done that’s made a client absolutely delighted?
Having my husband drive 40 miles on his motorbike to hand deliver documents a client needed for a committee meeting. The main thing my clients are delighted with is the fact that by taking the administration of their business away from them, I allow them the space to breathe and move their businesses forward. One client told me that I had allowed his business to expand and increase turnover tenfold in only one year – that is some recommendation.
Do you have any funny stories/anecdotes about jobs you’ve done?
I used to act as a ‘receptionist’ for a lady who was a masseuse. Her speciality was in Tantric Massage and I had endless requests for ‘happy endings’. One person enquiring about her services even sent me a photo of himself asking ‘am I too big for her?’ I’ll leave you to imagine what he sent me!
What are your favourite applications/gadgets that you couldn’t live without?
I couldn’t work without Dropbox or my HTC Desire Smartphone. Both of these allow me to work when out of the office, I can even access Dropbox via my Smartphone so am really never unable to answer a client’s question or send a document when I am not at my desk – a blessing and a curse.
What do you enjoy most about being a Virtual Assistant?
Not knowing what the day will bring, and being my own boss. The former has its challenges and means that I am never bored; the later means I am in control of whom I work with – it is very empowering to be able to say no to a client (if it needs to be said) and to decide whether a potential client is someone you can work – I will always try and find another VA to whom I can refer those I can’t or don’t want to work with. Also, deciding when I do the work – if the sun shines and I want time out I can always catch up later.
What do you enjoy least about being a Virtual Assistant?
I can’t pick anything I least enjoy about being a VA. My worries are really about the business – I am the one the buck stops with and if the business isn’t to fail then I have to make all the decisions without anyone else to help. That’s the main worry.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given / or you would give to others about growing your business?
I would say be consistent in what you offer your clients. Consistency creates credibility and confidence in what you can do – your clients will then refer you to people they now and your business will grow. One point I would like to leave with the readers – I recently reviewed a book about customer service. The book, ‘raving fans!’ by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles, focussed on three points, which I think every VA should be aware of:
- Decide what you want
- Decide what your customer wants
- Deliver plus one
What do you think are the most important qualities a VA should have?
Be able to think clearly and quickly, to be able to make decisions quickly on your clients’ behalves and to multitask. One definite prerequisite though is to have a sense of humour – sometimes you will just have to chuckle or you will cry.