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There are so many online virtual assistant tools available these days that it’s hard to figure out which ones you really need to operate your business. Below are 5 tools that a VA or any small business owner can use to make their job easier:
1. Effortless Collaboration with Shared Folders
Managing a project that requires a lot of back and forth of files is a harrowing experience. Email works for the first round or maybe two, but after that, it quickly gets out of control. You’re working on version “c” while your client is already on version “e” and soon important revisions and notes are lost.
A better way to work from a single document is to simply add files to a shared folder. This way, as you or your client make changes, they’ll appear in real time, leaving no doubt about which version anyone has, or what changes were made when.
There are several players in the folder sharing market, making it easy to find one that will work not only for you but for your clients as well.
Dropbox and/or Google Drive
A favorite in the shared folder race is Dropbox. The simple setup and generous amount of free storage space (2GB) make this a top choice for many people even if sharing files isn’t on their minds. If you work from multiple computers, need access to files on your mobile phone or iPad, or just want the extra security of knowing your important documents are backed up in “the cloud”, then Dropbox is a good option.
The free version includes 2GB of storage space, which is plenty to get you started, but you can earn more space by Tweeting about Dropbox, referring friends, and connecting other applications. You can also upgrade to 100GB for around $10 per month.
Not surprisingly, Google has its own document sharing system. Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) now operates similar to Dropbox in that you can view your files in a folder on your computer. However, opening a file requires a web browser and the use of Google Apps. If you want to edit a spreadsheet in Excel, you’ll have to download it first.
Google Drive offers more free space than Dropbox does, starting out with 5GB. Upgrades are less expensive as well, with 100GB available for just $5 per month, compared to Dropbox’s $10 fee.
One noteworthy difference between Dropbox and Google Drive is how files are stored. With Dropbox, files exist both on your computer and in the cloud, meaning you can work on them without an internet connection. As soon as Dropbox detects a change to a document, it syncs the new version with that on the Dropbox server. If you and your client are both working on a file at the same time, this can result in a “conflicted copy” showing up in your Dropbox.
Google Drive is different in that only one copy of each file exists. When you’re working on a file, you’re actually editing that file on Google’s server. You can see this in action if you have a file open that your client is working on – you’ll be able to watch as she makes changes.
There are a variety of other file sharing services available as well, and chances are your clients will have their own preferences, so you’ll likely use several in your business. But to start out, Dropbox and Google Drive offer a simple solution for collaborating with others, or just sharing files between computers.
2. Track Time, Send Invoices and Manage Expenses with Ease
It’s the second most important question you have (right after “Where do I find more clients?”) and luckily, it’s not as complicated as we sometimes make it.
While you can track time using any timer app on your smart phone or even just a simple kitchen timer, and invoicing via PayPal is quick and easy, there’s an all-in-one solution that makes this task even easier.
Creating Projects, Invoices, and Estimates
With a Freshbooks account, you can create projects (one for each client works great for a VA), record time worked via their handy desktop app, track related expenses, and fire off an invoice when the project is complete. Of course, you can also create an invoice in advance, if you require payment before the work begins. Freshbooks is flexible enough to handle just about anything you need.
As a virtual assistant, you likely have a variety of tasks you do that have a package rate. Maybe you write articles or edit ebooks or create graphics. Each of these items has a set fee attached, and Freshbooks makes it easy to add these items to an invoice or project by allowing you to track your package pricing and add items to an invoice or estimate later.
Speaking of estimates, Freshbooks also allows you to create proposals for large projects, such as website design work. Create your estimate, email it to the client, she responds with necessary changes, and once you’ve worked out the details, you can effortlessly turn your estimate into an invoice. All within Freshbooks, so you don’t have to worry about lost paperwork or misunderstandings.
Tax Time is Easy
Other systems make tracking time and getting paid far too complicated. Quickbooks? It might be a favorite of accountants, but it’s a real pain in the neck if you don’t know what expense categories are or how to use them. And compiling all the various information, including expenses, payments, PayPal fees, and other miscellaneous items is time consuming and frustrating. With Freshbooks, all your information is together in one place, and with the click of a button, you can generate a variety of reports that makes tax time far less taxing.
Let’s face it – bookkeeping is not something most of us love. It’s time consuming, and while we’re doing it, we’re not making money. Freshbooks makes keeping track of time and getting paid easier and faster, so you can get back to work. Not only that, but you’ll find many of your clients are familiar with Freshbooks and find it easy to work with as well.
3. The All-In-One Communication Tool Every VA Needs
The phone rings and you dash to grab it before your toddler – newly able to answer with a barely understandable “Hewo?” – can get to it. After all, it might be a client, or worse, a potential client.
Such is the peril of publishing your phone number on your website. Yet many virtual assistants find that offering a phone number increases the inquiries, and consequently, new clients, they receive. Having a separate office line would be a good solution to the toddler-as-receptionist problem, were it not for the cost. The solution?
You’re likely used to using Skype day in and day out to chat with friends, IM with colleagues, and perhaps talk to online clients as well. But did you know you can use Skype as a phone replacement?
Skype offers two types of services: Incoming and outgoing phone calls, and you can purchase them together or separately, for maximum flexibility.
Make Phone Calls
If what you really need to do is call out to clients or others, and don’t want to eat up your cell minutes or reveal that number to the public, then Skype credit is just the answer. Purchase a monthly or annual subscription or a pay-as-you-go plan, depending on your needs.
With Skype credit you’ll have the ability to place a call to either cell phones or landlines right from your Skype app. And if you need to call internationally, options are available for a variety of countries starting as low as one cent per minute.
Accept Incoming Calls
Want to publish your number on your website and answer it at your desk? The answer is to get a Skype number. For as little as $30 per year, you get your own phone number that rings right to your Skype desktop or mobile app. You don’t have to reveal your home or cell number, and you don’t have to worry about anyone else answering your calls, taking messages, or tying up the line.
When you sign up, you’ll have your choice of available numbers, so you can choose one that’s easy to remember and that shares your area code.
Combine with Google Voice for Ultimate Flexibility
Having an office number is nice, but what if you’re not in the office? A Google Voice number (available only in the United States) will allow you to control your incoming calls. You can forward your calls to your Skype number when you’re at your desk, or to your cell phone when you’re out of town. A Google Voice number also gives you the ability to block certain numbers, send others right to voice mail, or forward some to your home phone and everything else to your Skype number. You can even set a call schedule, so you only receive incoming calls during business hours.
Google Voice is free, and like Skype, you can choose your own number from the available pool. You can also use Google Voice as a stand-alone solution, and make outgoing calls right from your Gmail account.
Having a phone number on your website helps visitors feel more secure, but publishing your home phone isn’t always a good solution. With Skype and Google Voice, though, you can have the convenience of an office phone without the high costs.
4. Put an End to Password Management Nightmares
As your virtual assistant business grows, you’ll find yourself having to manage dozens, or maybe even hundreds, of passwords. Client websites, shopping carts, email providers, hosting accounts, and nearly everything else you need to do for your clients – and your own business – will require a password. Keeping track quickly becomes overwhelming if you try to manage with a paper notebook or other list-type systems. Not only that, but most password management tools – whether those you create yourself or those your computer helpfully offers – are incredibly insecure.
How LastPass Improves Security
Do you keep your passwords in a spreadsheet or – even worse – your browser? By managing sensitive information with these unencrypted tools, you risk exposing it to the world. Imagine how much time and money would be lost if your passwords were compromised and your website (or that of a client!) were hacked? That’s the risk you take if you’re not taking steps to protect the passwords you use.
In addition, when you use a password manager such as LastPass, you can easily generate rock solid, random character passwords. LastPass remembers them for you, so there’s no need to try to be clever about creating passwords you can easily remember or type. Since long, random passwords are much more difficult to hack, this feature alone is worth the switch to LastPass.
Easy Password Sharing
Here’s where LastPass really shines. They make it easy to share passwords with one another, so your client can quickly give you all the passwords you need without sending them via email (a huge security risk). Even better, she can choose not to reveal the password to you, which means extra security for her. Plus, she can revoke your access to the password at any time, leaving you unable to log into her accounts.
The same is true if you’re outsourcing some of your tasks. For example, if you hire a web designer to rebuild your website, you can share your hosting account logins with him temporarily, then revoke access when the job is done. In fact, with the latest version of LastPass, you can even share entire folders of passwords, so it’s easy to put all the necessary access credentials in a single folder, share that, and everything your designer needs is in one place.
Perhaps the best part about LastPass is its cost. The free plan is more than adequate for most uses. If you’d like to use LastPass on your mobile device or have the ability to track logins, you can upgrade to a premium account for just $12 per year. Enterprise accounts offer even greater advantages, but for most virtual assistants, this type of account is overkill.
Security online — especially when you’re dealing with client websites and other accounts — is critical to your business success and reputation. LastPass makes it easy to keep client records safe, and because it’s so easy and fast, you’ll find you rely on it not only for it’s safety, but for the convenience of one-click logins everywhere.
5. Plan Your Time More Effectively With Shared Calendars
We’ve all been there—stretched too thin, with more work than we have time, and suddenly an important deadline is missed. And if you’re a busy VA with lots of clients, that might happen more than you like, unless you have a trusted system for tracking due dates. Google has the answer for you.
All Your Important Appointments in One Place
Few things are a bigger time suck than having to check and reconcile multiple calendars and apps just to see what’s on task for the day. When clients use different project management systems to record their deadlines, it can be challenging to remember to log in and check on your due dates.
But Google Calendars syncs with any app that creates an iCal feed, so you can easily “subscribe” to your task lists and have them appear all in one place.
Not only that, but by sharing a calendar with clients, you can see what projects and appointments they have in the works as well, so you can plan accordingly. If your client is presenting at a telesummit, for example, you’ll know ahead of time and can keep that in mind when scheduling her social media or creating blog posts.
Time Blocking Ensures Critical Work is Completed On Time
Aside from knowing what’s on everyone’s schedule for the coming days and weeks, a calendar is a fantastic tool to help ensure all your important work is done. By setting aside time in your day to actually complete projects using a system known as time blocking, you’ll know exactly when you can get to that next project. No more guesswork or late nights trying to catch up when you overbook yourself.
Time blocking works by actually setting appointments with yourself. If you have a project to complete, and you know it will take you two hours to do, you make an appointment. The key though, is that these appointments are sacred. You cannot use time blocking as a suggestion, you have to treat it as an unbreakable appointment, otherwise it becomes just background noise that you’ll ignore.
Set your “appointments” with a reminder (either a pop-up or an email) and you will never have to ask yourself “What’s next?” You will always know, and you’ll find that you’re much more productive and efficient, too.
Access Anywhere for On-the-Go Productivity
Not in your office? No problem. Google calendars are available at any time from any of your devices, so you’ll always know what’s happening. Unlike printed planners, you won’t have to remember to take it with you, you can’t lose it, and you can check appointments and tasks not only for yourself but your clients as well, no matter where you are.
A calendar is a basic tool that every productive virtual assistant should master. Sharing calendars with your clients will make your job easier (and make you a superstar in their eyes), but you have to make use of it. Getting in the habit of using a calendar can be a challenge. If you’re not accustomed to it, then make it a point to check your calendar first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Set reminders for yourself if necessary, until it becomes a habit. You’ll soon find that you truly cannot live (or work) without your calendar.
Visit my resource page to check out some of the many wonderful tools for online business owners and their virtual assistants. Many of them are free or low cost!
–> Resource Page <–
Do you use any of the tools listed above or have a recommendation for a tool you can’t live without in your business? Please share your tools in the comments below. I love discovering new tools!