When Dave James opened his podiatry practice, he learned a lot of lessons the hard way. In this article, we share some of his experiences and advice on what NOT to do when going into private practice.
It’s 12pm on a Tuesday. The waiting room in your practice has been full all day and so is your appointment calendar. Your phone chimes with new calls and emails constantly, and your patient notes from the day’s consults are steadily stacking up.
On the one hand, it’s exciting! This is exactly what you have been aiming for since you decided to open your own practice. But there’s just one thing that’s suddenly in very short supply: Time. (Lunch would be nice, too).
For many practitioners, this is the moment they decide it’s time to hire extra help. Maybe that extra help would be a receptionist, admin assistant, or another practitioner. In recent years, virtual assistants (VAs) have become a very popular choice for the potential flexibility and cost-savings they offer.
If you’re considering a VA for the first time, you may be facing some big unknowns. For example: With so many companies out there, how can you find a service that best matches what you need? Should you choose a VA service based outside your country or closer to home? How much should it cost? The legwork in hiring someone can be a little overwhelming—especially if you’re already short on time!
We asked VA providers and practitioners to weigh in on the pros and cons of using a VA. Here’s what they said.
What is a virtual assistant (VA) and what do they do?
When we say “virtual assistant”, we mean employees or contractors outside your business, most likely remote, to whom you can outsource some or all of your routine business responsibilities, including telephone answering, appointment booking, processing invoices, transcribing letters, running your waiting list, and more. VAs typically are able to do a little bit of everything, and some can even take on specialist tasks like responding to comments on your social media pages and updating your website.
You can find virtual assistants who will work directly with you as freelancers, as well as virtual assistant services that are offered by a team in a larger company. Some VAs will take on multiple clients and work part-time for each, too.
The term “virtual assistant” can sometimes also refer to AI like Siri, Cortana, or Google Assistant, or even automated replies to inbound messages. To keep things simple we’re leaving the robots out of this post!
Why use a VA service?
A VA can do the tasks that take too much of your time or that you just don’t particularly want to do. They may also offer additional flexibility over hiring someone to work with you in your practice (AKA “in-house”) full or even part-time, in that there are services that allow you to pay for only what you need when you need it.
The main upshot is that a VA can be more cost-effective than you attempting to do everything yourself. Anne Batty, owner of UK-based telephone answering service Paperclip, shared this anecdote from one of her clients:
“We take bookings for a practitioner and he told us that because we’ve taken that task off his plate, he now has time for two extra sessions a day. What he can earn from a couple of extra sessions outweighs the cost of hiring a virtual assistant.”
Here’s what practitioners had to say about why they use a VA:
“We use a virtual receptionist who works purely as a message taker - a much higher conversion rate than using an answerphone. Much cheaper than employing a receptionist.” - Chiropractic+Massage Clinic
“I have a virtual/remote receptionist who handles Cliniko and bookings. She's a great help and obviously cheaper than having an in-person receptionist. She's an integral part of the team and the clinic needs her.” - Samantha Bonnici, PhysioCentral
“I use a virtual receptionist who works off a script and takes bookings, moves bookings, etc. She doesn't answer any health questions. I think she is amazing, and has helped my solo practice grow by always answering the phone.” - Sharon McVilly, Peony & Tiger Acupuncture
What are the potential drawbacks of using a VA?
Hiring a VA service isn’t necessarily a solution where you can throw money at a problem and solve it. Even though you may be looking to save time overall, you’ll want to do your research into finding not only the most cost-effective service but also the one that will deliver the most value to your business in terms of quality.
When we asked practitioners on social media about their opinions on VAs, several mentioned the caveat that it’s important to put the time into finding a good one and being clear on what you are getting from the service. Price may be an important factor but so is communicating expectations and asking the right questions to make sure you'll getting what you're paying for:
“I love them - if you can find a good one they are such a boon to your business!” - Jill Woods, Practice Momentum
“I don’t think people realise that VAs are rarely a ‘jack of all trades’, and the magic happens when you engage a few who each niche right down and do their own ‘thing’ with brilliance.” - Tash Lunn, The Boobala
What is the best way to find a good VA for your business?
With so many different types of VA service on offer, the best way to start your search for a good VA service could be by assessing what you need and—maybe just as important—what you value in your business.
“The number one thing to look for in a support service is that they fit in with you, rather than the other way around,” says Anne. That means deciding what specific tasks you need help with and then finding a service that will be able to conform with how you already do those things: From how you answer the phone through to how notes are handled, depending on what tasks you plan to delegate.
“You want someone who you feel comfortable with and who you can trust. In order to build that trust, you can always start off small and just focus on one task, like just message-taking, and then ask them to do more. Also, don’t be afraid to ask your VA what their ethos and values are to see if they match your own.”
It can also help to think about what your patients need. For example, if you are looking for someone to answer your phone line, how much of a personal touch do your patients expect? Is it important that your patients always hear the same voices and build familiarity when they call your practice? Do they often have questions about the treatments you offer or do they mainly phone in to book an appointment?
The answers to these questions can guide you in finding a service that will not only reduce your workload but also help reinforce the experience you want your patients to have when interacting with your business.
When should you choose a VA over someone in-house and vice versa?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but here are some things to consider:
- Is there enough regular work available for the role you are looking to hire? As in, is it cost-effective to bring someone in for a set number of hours per week or would ad hoc services make more sense for your business?
- Do you need the most help with tasks during the normal workday or out of hours, during lunch, etc.?
- Do you have the time and resources to manage the HR duties that come with hiring an in-house employee?
- How much time do you have to train a new employee?
- Do you have physical space for an in-house colleague?
A VA can offer the flexibility your business needs in the early days to sustain growth. Hiring in-house, however, may make more sense once your business begins to scale.
“Using a VA service can give you cover all of the time, whereas a receptionist or admin assistant that works in-house will need a lunch break and holidays”, says Anne. “But once you get to a certain size and have a consistently high volume of work, it can be more cost-effective to hire someone in-house.”
There are also situations where it can be helpful to have both in house and virtual support, working together:
“Our virtual assistant is an integral part of our team. At this stage, we use them to populate our clinic dashboards and for client nurturing but we have plans to increase the hours we use them so that our on-site team can focus on face to face tasks.” - Rebecca Healy
How much should a VA service cost?
Unsurprisingly, prices vary depending on what you need and the support you choose. For instance, when it comes to basic phone answering, some VAs charge per call while others charge per minute. And some VA services will charge a flat hourly fee for admin support.
“An Australian VA could be $60 an hour, whereas a VA in Asia or Eastern Europe could be a fraction of that.” - Tash Lunn, The Boobala
To help you decide what your business can afford, Anne recommends that you think about what it currently costs you to do the tasks a VA would be taking off your plate, or what you are currently paying a colleague to do those tasks: “If you’re a practitioner and personally responding to all emails, social media, and phone calls, would hiring some extra support to allow you more time to see patients instead? Do your consults earn more revenue per hour than a VA service would cost?”
There’s also the value of missing fewer appointment requests from new or returning patients, both in terms of more revenue and also a better customer service experience.
If costs still seem out of reach, there are also steps you can take to help keep the cost of a VA down. Anne from Paperclip says:
“If you’re paying per call, make sure there is a cut-off point of a few seconds for dropped calls! That way, if you’re using your personal mobile for your business, let your friends and family know to hang up if the VA answers the phone when they call!
“Ultimately, don’t be afraid to switch things up and ask for more from your VA service as you go. The more you can think of for your VA to do that will help fill up your diary, the better your experience and relationship with them will be.”
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