Supporting Role

Need extra help--but not ready for employees? Business support services bridge the gap.

As a small-business owner, you could probably use a little help answering the telephone, typing letters, maintaining customer mailing lists and paying your bills. If you can't afford to hire a full- or part-time employee--or don't yet need help on a regular basis--consider another option: contracting with a company that offers business support services. You'll find just the help you need, whether it's transcription, word processing, bookkeeping or general office administration.

"You can cut your office staffing costs and still enjoy the security of on-call personnel when you contract with a professional business support services firm," says Carole Holland, owner of At Your Service Too, a business support services firm in Jersey City, New Jersey.

"When you're just starting out or working on your own, you think you have to do it all. But you can't answer your e-mail or develop marketing materials if you're out prospecting for new business," Holland adds. "This way, help is always available, whether you need it 20 hours a week or just one hour a week."

Before choosing a business support services firm, interview several to find out about the specific services they offer and the fees they charge. You might be asked to sign a contract requiring a monthly retainer. This means you pay a regular monthly fee depending on how many hours you think you'll use the firm. (Any additional hours are billed to you.) In return, you get top priority when you need help. Or ask if you can pay on an on-call basis. "With this option, you pay an hourly rate for the work you need," explains Holland.

To give you an idea of how much a specific job will cost, the business support services firm should be able to show you a document that lists industry production standards for work performed. The document will estimate the average time it should take to complete various office tasks.

"You'll find out how long it should take a word processor typing 70 words a minute to complete a three-page letter or a 10-page marketing plan," Holland explains. "The actual fee will be set by the business support services firm and determined by market conditions in the community."

To find a firm to help you with your office needs, contact the Association of Business Support Services International (ABSSI), a trade association representing about 900 firms in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Jamaica.

The ABSSI's Web site (http://www.abssi.org) offers a full directory of its members' names and phone numbers listed by state; or contact the association at 22875 Savi Ranch Pkwy., Ste. H, Yorba Linda, CA 92887, (714)?82-9398. You can also check your Yellow Pages listings under "Secretarial Services" or "Typing Services," or ask other business owners for referrals.

As your business grows, you might opt to never hire your own staff and instead continue using a business support services firm. The latter option has certain advantages: "You don't have to buy office equipment, furniture or supplies," notes Holland. "You continue to operate as a sole proprietor and call us to back you up. We have several clients who do business this way, and they're very happy with the arrangement."

Carla Goodman is a freelance writer in Sacramento, California.

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