The secretary of yesteryear needed to know how to take shorthand, type and answer the phone. Today's secretary deals with dictation using a tape recorder and transcription equipment; instead of simply typing, she inputs data into a computer; and the office telephone she uses is actually a complex communications center.
What we now call the business support services industry has experienced a similar and perhaps even more remarkable evolution. It began as secretarial services or typing services, and typing was pretty much all they did. But those operations have gone the way of the horse and buggy, replaced by modern, techno-savvy entrepreneurs who want to take advantage of a virtually limitless market.
Though the term "secretarial service" has a strong degree of consumer recognition, it's no longer an appropriate description of the industry. While typing and transcription (historically typical secretarial services) are still a mainstay, consumers often don't think of a secretarial service as providing desktop publishing, spreadsheet design, Internet-related services, and other sophisticated product and service packages. The phrase "business support services" does a much better job of conveying what the industry is all about today and still leaves flexibility for the changes that are likely to occur in the future. You'll also hear terms such as "administrative support services" and "office support services" applied to this industry.
In 1998, the National Association of Secretarial Services changed its name to the Association of Business Support Services International. Executive Director Lynette M. Smith says, "We felt that 'business support services' did a better job than 'secretarial services' of covering the scope of our members' services and bringing more respectability to the profession."
Of course, the size of the market for business support services is difficult to estimate for a number of reasons--primarily because the U.S. Bureau of the Census mixes other types of businesses with business support services. Also, the providers, services and customers are constantly evolving with technological advances. The secretarial service of the 1960s and 1970s, when a good electric typewriter was pretty much all you needed, wouldn't get off the ground today. And who knows what technology will be able to do 20 or 30 years from now?
The Sky's the Limit
To understand the future potential, take a look at how the industry has evolved. Over the span of the 20th century, the administrative demands of doing business have grown tremendously, creating a need for secretarial and clerical support. With the advent of desktop computers and increasingly sophisticated office equipment, the skill and knowledge requirements of secretaries have also increased.
At the same time, the general business landscape has changed dramatically. Big businesses are looking for ways to streamline their operations, and one popular option is outsourcing, where they retain another company to provide a service that may have traditionally been done by employees. Small companies want to stay lean and profitable, so they, too, are turning to outsourcing, rather than fattening up their payroll.
Combine the obvious need with the new way of operating in the business world, and you have a dynamic young industry wide open with opportunity: business support services. In fact, there is so much opportunity that if you don't have a clear plan, specific services and a target market, your chances of success are slim. But with a lot of thought and preparation, and a minimal amount of cash, you can quickly be on the road to profitability.
Types of Services
You can offer a wide range of services. The following list encompasses what we found on the market, but it is by no means exhaustive. Some of these services could be businesses in and of themselves; others are ancillary to a primary service. Listen to your clients; they'll let you know what they need, and then you can decide if you can provide it.
- Word processing
- Tape transcription
- Phone-in dictation
- Desktop publishing
- Spreadsheet design
- College papers and reports
- Telephone answering
- Mail receiving and forwarding
- Packing and shipping
- Database/mailing list management
- Bookkeeping, check preparation and billing
- Resume preparation
- Print brokering
- Fax sending and receiving
- Internet research
- Web page design and maintenance
- Event planning