With technology increasingly intertwined with all aspects of business, CNET@Work can help you -- prosumers to small businesses with fewer than five employees -- get started.
Five years ago, I was consulting for a small, local credit union looking to outsource its website development to a professional firm that understood the elements of great branding and merchandising. The credit union's goal was to "level the playing field" so that its online presence could compete favorably with the websites of large banks and financial institutions.
We looked at various website and marketing firms. Far and away, the best website designer and brand person was a local freelancer working out of his home. His competition: several larger Seattle-based firms --all with well-appointed offices complete with cappuccino machines that served up custom coffees to visiting clients. We visited these firms, but the local freelancer didn't have an office so he came to the credit union.
As a consultant primarily looking at quality, I advised my client that the freelance designer did the highest-quality work. However, when it came to other elements of the credit union's RFP, such as ability to support the work on an ongoing basis, or long-term financial solvency of the vendor, the freelancer didn't compete well. In the end, the credit union opted for a far more expensive contract from one of the Seattle firms that served great cappuccino and had an impressive office downtown. "Why do we want to put our faith in a one-horse shop that we don't even know will be around next year?" my client firm's CEO complained.
Lesson: The professional impression delivered by a physical office matters.
"What many companies are finding is that they simply can't run well without meeting with their clients face to face," says Marcus Moufarrige, CEO of Servcorp, which provides global "virtual" offices.
Not to be confused with virtual reality, a virtual office, according to Servcorp, allows small to medium businesses to benefit from the advantages of a prestigious address, landline phone numbers and team support without committing to dedicated office space.
"You can be based in New York and run a global salesforce in multiple locations with a very 'light' brick-and-mortar touch, but you still need physical offices and office support personnel in those remote locations to close big deals."
In other words, customers feel better about doing business with a firm that has an attractive office and conference room, with a professional administrative staff standing by to take phone calls, make appointments --and serve cappuccino, if needed.
Small companies seeking to assert a large global presence by having attractive offices and facilities in cities around the world can accomplish this without having to lock into long-term building purchase or lease contracts, says Mourfarrige.
The alternative that his and other companies offer is "on demand" offices, facilities, technology and administrative assistance in US and global locations where companies only pay for what they need or use.
How it works
Say you're a cloud software provider based in New York, with remote salespeople based in Los Angeles, Chicago, Sydney, Amsterdam and Tokyo. These salespeople are usually on the road; when they're not on the road, they all have home offices. However, when it comes time for a salesperson to make a major presentation or to close a deal with a large client in say, Los Angeles, the salesperson can rent an office facility with administrative support, conference room and the latest video technology. The impressive office surroundings underline the strength and the brand of the company, and help to seal the deal.
So if you are a smaller company without an impressive brick-and-mortar presence, what steps you can take to capitalize on brick and mortar when you need to?
Step 1: Confirm the business value of brick and mortar
Many online retail businesses affirm proudly that they neither have nor aspire to any brick-and-mortar presence. But for a great variety of other business -- financial planning, accounting, law, insurance, real estate, commercial software, surveying, architecture and construction, and health care, just to name a few -- a virtual office can be a real competitive advantage.
L. Blake Harvey, president of a New York-based public relations company, sees many benefits to a virtual office presence: "I have used virtual office solutions and they were so critical to helping to build a more solid foundation for the firm," says Harvey. "It gave me a chance to work with clients and partners with confidence, knowing that my dedicated local phone number was always in service and my mail was professionally handled. Access to hourly office space and conference rooms gave me the extra advantage of being able to compete with my industry counterparts at a price that made sense for my business. The professional staff of executive assistants and floor staff made it possible for me to delegate appropriate tasks that inevitably freed up more of my time to building the business."
Step 2: What services should you look for?
Minimally, virtual offices should offer attractive surroundings in which your in-field salespeople can meet with clients. These physical office facilities can include offices, conference meeting rooms, restrooms, a kitchen area -- if coffee and/or refreshments are to be brought in or prepared -- and a reception area where the administrative staff for the premises greets the client with your company name. A second layer on top of the physical premises is supporting technology. This can range from telephone services and high-speed Internet, to video conferencing and other facilitating technology for product presentations and demos.
"As a technology advisory firm, Chairseven's mission is to support our clients by providing world-class technology consulting services, and unparalleled customer support," says Jordan Hamad, CEO. "By utilizing virtual offices, we can ensure that the phone is always answered professionally, and that we always have a reliable, professional and well-appointed space in which we can host our clients. This allows us to focus not on operating a physical space, but what we do best -- solving some of the most difficult technology challenges our clients face."
Step 3: Don't forget to merchandise
A virtual office facility must be nicely furnished and appointed -- and some of this will be up to you. You will want to bring some of your own branding (company signage, etc.) into the facility to identify it as part of your company. Invest in high-quality signage (i.e., don't just hang up a makeshift sign) and office furnishings. Seek professional decorating help if you need it.
Step 4: Dialogue with your salesforce
If you are strictly using home offices for your salesforce today and you want to incorporate virtual offices, your salesforce needs to be made aware of when and how to use them. One possible scenario: Educate them to use a virtual facility only when they need to make a key presentation to a client. In normal, day-to-day business, they would continue to work primarily in the field, using their home offices. In other cases, it might make more sense to get your salespeople regular virtual office space.
In all cases, it is important to let your salesforce know exactly under what circumstances you want to use virtual real estate. It is also important to get your salesforce engaged in the process. Have them visit a potential virtual office site before you enter into any agreement. Get their feedback, in advance, on whether they consider a virtual office needed in their locations. Finally, it is important that you personally preview these facilities. "We have used global virtual offices for many years, and I always make it a point to periodically visit these offices," said Mourfarige.
Bottom line: Entrepreneurs and small business owners now have affordable and flexible alternatives for exerting physical presence in key markets around the world.
"The way we see this," says Emin Tatosian, co-founder of fintech startup FastFin, "is that it's a cloud-based office, an elastic resource for us. We can expand and contract as needs arise."