Help from afar

With many tradies feeling inundated with work and often struggling to manage the load, including endless admin tasks, virtual assistants have become an appealing option. By Kerry Faulkner

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Jay McClure runs Office Shed, a company that specialises in providing virtual assistant (VA) services to trade businesses. She says new clients often come to her when they have reached absolute desperation point. She explains they are so overwhelmed by work, their lives quite literally seem to be falling apart.
“Their wives are going to leave them, or they haven’t slept for days or left their house the entire weekend; they are just stuck in a rut of not enough money coming in and spending all their time quoting,” she says. “Then they don’t have time to follow up on quotes because their phone doesn’t stop ringing.”

She says this is particularly the case in family-run businesses where the ‘tradie’ works on the tools and the life partner does the office and administration work. McClure says that system has always been flawed with mum trying to do all the work during school hours but then leaving after-school hours unstaffed.

“What happens in those before- and after-school hours when no-one’s there or when they’re sick, and what happens if they go on holidays?” she says.

“In this economic climate too, mums are being forced back into the mainstream workforce to full-time jobs to pay the mortgage and can’t help with the business anymore. This is when a service like ours really comes into its own.”

Virtual assistants are individuals or companies who take calls, book appointments and do other essential administrative tasks to keep trades people focused on their primary role of providing a trade service.

A Google search shows there are many VA services available from sole operators to bigger companies offering everything from appointment scheduling to website design.
However, the concept of a VA is not new. It had its beginnings in the 1990s when technological advancement paved the way with applications like video calls and a host of other organisational and communication tools, which liberated the assistant from a bricks-and-mortar office and enabled them to work remotely.

The popularity of VAs has grown since COVID which forced many employees to work from home, a significant number of whom to this day have chosen to stick with that arrangement. The pandemic also saw many reassess their work-life balance, quit their office jobs and choose careers that allow them to work remotely.

According to the research, a virtual assistant is much more cost-effective than employing a new staff member, even a casual one. Admin Army, for example, estimates that a virtual assistant could save a business up to 78 per cent in operating costs over a year.
Other advantages are that VA arrangements are flexible, they offer specialised skills and expertise across a range of trade specific software, and they increase business productivity and efficiency.

HIA says Australia is facing one of the most acute skills shortages of trades people in decades. Work is abundant and pay rates are increasing, well positioning ‘tradies’ to reap the benefits of the boom if their businesses can cope with the demand.

McClure explains the majority of Office Shed’s clients are ‘maintenance tradies’; plumbers, electricians, roofers, pest control experts—all those trades doing multiple jobs a day.
“We don’t really do project work. Our service doesn’t really suit that. It’s more people that are on the tools, driving from job to job who can’t really be on the phone taking calls and scheduling. They are mostly established businesses striving to reach the next level in growth. They have maybe three to five trucks on the road and find they are losing money on advertising because they’re not getting to their calls.

“The cost of a lead for a plumber or an electrician is really high; it can be sixty to a hundred dollars, but these tradies are stuck not being able to do the work because they’re so focused on answering the calls—they’re feeling bombarded by it. A lot of our clients also work with business coaches, and they really are striving to get to the next level.

“They don’t have an office as such, so they don’t have an office person. And then that’s when the conversation sort of starts as, ‘How can I get someone else to do this administrative work for me?’”

Many VA services are based overseas however McClure says ‘tradies’ risk losing those customers if they “go cheap and go overseas” because many people prefer dealing with Australia-based companies.

She says Office Shed started as a husband-and-wife team and has grown to 17 staff and is looking to expand into New Zealand. The service is based around job management systems, and they partner with six to eight major software companies.

“Every client will have their own job management system, which will attach to their accounting system,” she explains.

“The job management system has the capability of scheduling, quoting, invoicing, managing costs and managing staff members’ time. I call it the job life cycle and it is managed within that system. When the invoice is created, that closes the job and it sinks through to Xero, MYOB and QuickBooks or something similar where it becomes bookkeeping, which is a separate service.”