We’re Getting Closer to Live Chat Best Practice: Here’s What We’ve Learned So Far

Advice and Support,Start-up Guides — Tags: , , , — Mike Sullivan @ 4:24 am on June 26, 2015

Our take on live chat best practice

By Mike Sullivan, Chief Marketing Officer at Alliance Virtual Offices

The Internet is full of “top tips” on how to do pretty much anything. But have you ever noticed that most of these so-called guides carry more fluff than real, substantially useful stuff?

I have. While researching ways to improve our sales and service team’s use of Live Chat, I searched online for some help in putting together a list of best practices.

I found lots of posts on “best practices” but it was always focused on management implementation rather than actual day-to-day use by front line staff. Our sales team is busy, so I needed something that got right to the point.

That’s easier said than done.

My favorite useless “Best Practices” post was one I found on Salesforce.com. The number one best practice was “Live Chat Offers Immediate Solutions”. There was nothing on how that relates to best practice, much less something that could help a team improve their ability to interact with customers to increase sales or service capability.

So given that, our team decided to write our own best practices.

Before we go any further, I’m not saying this is the best ever guide to Live Chat on the Internet.

Nor is it comprehensive. In fact, some people might even take issue with a few points (I’m pretty thick-skinned, so go ahead and share them). It’s not perfect, and that’s mostly because every company is different, and every sales team has its own unique culture. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Plus, it’s not finished yet.

So what is it?

It’s a line in the sand. We are always learning and evolving, so it shows us where we are right now in the process, and it shows us where we need to be.

First, always be a student.

I’ve watched the Alliance Virtual Offices team evolve and get better, but even as we weed out the bad habits and junk, there is usually something else to replace it. It’s mostly less egregious though.

Second, review all transcripts.

This is more of a business best practice than a Live Chat process, but I would recommend it to anyone who has a website. A review of all transcripts is not to see how your team is doing, but to see how your customers are doing – and whether your website is answering their needs.

Third, roll your sleeves up and get stuck in.

One thing I’ve learned is that managers or business owners need to spend time on the front line. Read chat conversations and even participate from time to time. I’ve done it myself – in fact I’m still doing it – and I believe a lot of insight can be gained by doing this.

While you’re scanning chat transcripts you can learn a lot about the performance of your website. Ask yourself:

  1. How is the customer doing?
  2. Can they find things on the site?
  3. What are the top three recurring problems?

Don’t underestimate the power of live chat to help you make massive improvements to your site. Heat maps, usability testing, analytics… those are all good, but what about actually listening to the customer’s questions? This can help shape your website, and how you communicate on it.

Here are some ‘best practice’ Live Chat points that I’ve learned along the way:

(NB: I don’t want to rehash what’s already been done. Check out Live Chat Inc’s post from 2012. I will try not to discuss anything there unless there is new insight.)

  • Respond quickly, both initially and within the chat. Chat session experience is often impacted dramatically by how well and how quickly the customer can be serviced. The best experience is either a brief chat, or a long extensive one. The ones in between have slightly lower satisfaction results. See Live Chat inc’s info graphic section on Customer Happiness by Chat Duration for info.
  • Be precise – The team should be well trained with weekly reviews of products, services, policies, etc., to enable less effort in communication. Nothing is worse than going down a rabbit hole of question-and-answer because of poorly trained staff.
  • Be Kind – This should go without saying, right? Yes, well, sometimes website visitors can be antagonizing jerks for no reason. We had a visitor recently talk about how amazingly awesome he was, then asked our team member what she looked like and mentioned that he had a wife but he didn’t care. Outrageous behavior like this can trigger a backlash response in even the steadiest members of your team. Address it ahead of time because you know it will happen. Since your team knows it will happen, they are less likely to respond poorly. In this case, tell your team to have kindness for this poor lost soul by finding out if there is a problem that can be solved; if not, thank him for his time and move on.
  • Use Canned Messages – Everyone is already using canned messages with their live chat system, right? I sure hope so, but a lot of them are used quite poorly. Customer I Care has a detailed post about how to use canned messages properly. Our priorities around using the canned messages are to ensure our team knows how to find them quickly (Zoho SalesIQ uses hashtags as an automatic search operator) and to use them consistently, unless a specific scenario calls for a custom answer.

You’ll find some more excellent pointers about Live Chat on the Kiss Metrics blog.

Like I said, we’re eternal students. So we’ll continue to share our evolving best practice must-dos and don’ts with you as they happen. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll graduate… Until then, and even after then, we’re always learning.

Got best practice Live Chat tips to share? Tell us on Twitter or Facebook.

Image source

The Bootstrappers’ Bible: 8 Ways to Build a Business on a Budget

Advice and Support,Start-up Guides — Tags: , , , — joanna @ 9:51 am on June 23, 2015

How to grow your bootstrapping business

They say money makes the world go round. But when cash is tight, how do you grow your business without growing the size of your budget?

Alliance Virtual Offices has come a long way in a few short years, and like every business, we had to start somewhere. We were that cash-strapped bootstrapping business with big ideas and tiny pockets. We learned a lot in the early years, and we’re still learning – so we want to share some of our knowledge with you.

How do you build a business on a budget? To answer this, we asked some of the world’s best entrepreneurs for their advice. Here’s what they said:

  1. Knowledge is Power

Amber Armstrong ‏(@ambarmstrong), Program Director at IBM Commerce, Mobile and Social, said: “Identify your network and find people who know what you do not know.” As a small business owner, you want to oversee everything – but sometimes you get drawn into affairs of which you have little knowledge or experience. So identify people who can help fill the void.

Amber lives by this rule, although she admits she didn’t come up with it herself. “Brian Fanzo told me that one” she says. So naturally, we asked Brian for his advice too…

  1. Are You Likeable?

Brian Fanzo ‏(@iSocialFanz), speaker and self-confessed evangelist of social technology and change, says: “People buy from people they like.” He advises small businesses to focus on relationships and customer engagement, and not just marketing.

It’s easy to plough headfirst into marketing, branding and advertising when you’re running a fledgling business. Those things are important, but like Brian says, you need to think long-term. Focus on your relationship with your customers and they’re more likely to come back to you – and to recommend you to others, too.

  1. Referrals Are Important. REALLY Important.

On the subject of recommendations, Ken Varga penned a great article on how to grow a small business on a budget. Many of these tips ring true, including this one: “Referrals are one of the most important tools you can use to grow your business,” says Ken, explaining that two ways to generate referrals are to “pay for them per lead; or bribe people in a fun way.”

Naturally, we prefer the latter. Ken advises: “Referrals are the least expensive way to grow your business on a budget. The key is to start writing down the ideas you get, and then start doing them.” He also adds a word of caution: “If you haven’t done your job on making your clients happy, you shouldn’t ask for a referral.”

Wise words.

  1. Promotion, Promotion, Promotion

Like we said earlier, branding and marketing is important. Digital Sales & Marketing Professional Gary Creigh (@gscreigh) offers these words of wisdom for small businesses:

“It is important to promote your business before it is launched, as marketing and promotion can take a while to gather momentum. By pre-promoting yourself, prior to launch, you can get a buzz going and hit the ground running.”

To start, Gary suggests: “Create a simple one-page webpage which sets out your mission, feature and benefits, as well as a sign-up form for users who are interested. Use Twitter and Facebook as well as networking on LinkedIn to create a pre-launch buzz – and get those potential customers intrigued and ready to buy from you!”

  1. Continuous Improvement

Mike Sullivan, Chief Marketing Officer of yours truly, Alliance Virtual Offices, says it’s all about “continuous improvement”. Some know this better as the ‘kaizen’ approach, or ‘good’ (kai) ‘change’ (zen) – read more about this here.

Big ideas

Mike says that whatever size of business you’re running, you should always focus on continuous improvement by looking for ways to progress your enterprise. “Always look and learn,” he says. “Take a non-judgmental standpoint and find ways to improve. Rather than being overly critical, instead take a broad look at the situation and consider how you can make it better.”

You can do this in your own business, and also by looking at your competitors. Look at what they’re doing – both good and bad – and then identify ways you can improve on it.

  1. Think Big, Act Small

Ben Weeks (@REGV1), Founder and Managing Director of workspace search Real Estate Grapevine Limited, works with startups every day. He’s seen plenty of great businesses take off, but he’s also seen the effects of poor business decisions – particularly where expensive real estate is concerned.

“Never bite off more office space than you can chew,” he says. “Many young companies have visions of exponential growth and needing stacks of office space to accommodate such growth… but only when you are well and truly ready would I seek leased premises over serviced or coworking space.”

Real estate is one of the most expensive parts of running a business, and the hard truth is that most companies don’t even need it, at least in the beginning. As Ben says, “there are so many derivatives these days”. For instance, a business address can come from a virtual office instead of a physical workspace.

Ben says “there is a juncture” where a private office may be needed, but advises startups to always “think big, act small” in the early days of running a business.

  1. Think Partnerships

Vanessa Merit Nornberg (@vanessanornberg), President of Metal Mafia, says: “Identify companies who provide services or products that are complementary to yours.” As an example, she cites placing catalogues in each other’s mail orders. This, she says, eliminates the expense of extra mailing fees and can virtually double your readership overnight.

A “cross-pollination partnership” like this, she says, also acts as a silent endorsement – so it’s well worth seeking out suppliers with an existing client base and a good reputation. “(It) can also be done digitally – just ask to do an email exchange, or to trade advertising space on each other’s respective sites.”

  1. Outsource

Gemma Falconer of GoToMeeting recommends outsourcing tasks that you aren’t comfortable doing yourself.

“If the public is going to see it and you aren’t an absolute pro at it, just outsource,” she says. “When it comes to building your website, creating a logo or designing marketing materials, you really will get what you pay for. If you can, use more of your marketing budget on the tasks that you can’t do yourself.”

With websites like Task Rabbit, Odesk, and People Per Hour offering expertise at affordable hourly rates or set fees, you really don’t need to take on the world. You can now outsource everything from SEO management and blogging to cold calling and receptionist services.

So, armed with these 8 tips on how to grow a business on a budget, where will you start? Keep us posted @AllianceVirtual – and good luck!

Image source: Graur Razvan Ionut, SumAll

Cincinnati Startup Wins Alliance Virtual Offices’ First Small Business Contest

Press Release — Tags: , , , , , , — joanna @ 9:12 am on May 28, 2015

Andrea Kelly (A Space For Me) with business mentor, Charles Walters

In April, Alliance Virtual Offices launched a new campaign to support small businesses. We call it the ‘Backer Of Small Business’, and we pledged to give away $500 to one dedicated startup.

To say we were delighted with the response is an understatement.

In our first ever contest we received over 30 entries, and all of them were thoughtful, considerate and detailed – just like we asked. Alliance Virtual’s own Chairman, Frank Cottle, judged the entries alongside Viveka von Rosen – LinkedIn consultant and social media guru.

Choosing a winner was not an easy task. Yet there was something special about one entry in particular.

It was penned by Andrea Kelly, an undergraduate student at the University of Cincinnati, who is developing TWO ventures within the social care industry. Andrea won us over with a truly heartfelt entry that revealed just how passionate she is about her work.

Pictured: Andrea Kelly with her business mentor, Charles Walters

A space for children

28-year-old Andrea is majoring in Psychology and is set to graduate in August 2015. She also holds an Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education at the University of Cincinnati.

Andrea is developing a business called A Space 4 Me, a child enrichment center for kids aged up to 12 years old. Andrea has developed a business plan for the center and is in the process of negotiating terms for rental of the space, based in the Roselawn area of Cincinnati.

There is still a long way to go, but Andrea has a clear vision of exactly what the space will be.

“A Space 4 Me will be a full service child development center,” she said. “Services include tutoring and afterschool care for school-age children, childcare for children 0-3 years, and preschool with an emphasis on kindergarten readiness.”

Andrea also plans to include a co-op program for parents, transportation, and CDA class training, along with support for students and volunteers who need experience in a child care setting.

“I would like everyone who uses the services – parents, teachers, and children – to arrive every day knowing that there is a space for them.”

A space for homeless women

In addition, Andrea is in the process of developing a transitional shelter for women and children.

Sharing the same brand and similarly called A Space For Me, the non-profit shelter shares the same vision as its childcare counterpart – to provide a place where people feel they can belong. The shelter will provide temporary housing and more permanent solutions for longer-term residents.

“The building that I am trying to acquire for this space is on the northside business district in Cincinnati,” she said. “It is designed to alleviate chronic family homelessness which occurs because of high rates of poverty in the Cincinnati area.”

Andrea explained that child poverty in Cincinanti is among the worst in major U.S. metropolitan cities. Explaining what she plans to do with her $500 funding from Alliance Virtual Offices, she said:

“A Space For Me Transitional Shelter is in the developing stage, and with the funding, I will officially register A Space For Me as a non-profit and then seek to raise funds for the building itself. I will also register with the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, which will assist with awareness and investment.”

Ultimately, Andrea’s vision is to benefit and engage local communities through both the childcare center and the shelter. As part of this, she plans to create jobs in the local area through employment at A Space 4 Me Child Enrichment Center, which will range from tutors and on-site kitchen staff to drivers.

Here’s what our judges think of Andrea’s ambitions:

“Our children are our future, and their care and nurturing are the means by which we build a solid foundation for everything that society hopes to accomplish,” said Frank Cottle, Chairman of Alliance Virtual Offices.

“A Space 4 Me is a perfect example of a public/private partnership that demonstrates thought leadership and practical action in an area that can gain great benefit from our humble contribution. We hope that our support will not only demonstrate our own commitment to businesses that take a strong social position, but encourage others to do so as well.”

Viveka von Rosen commented:

“I have two assistants that have consciously chosen to work at home, so they can be with their children as they grow up. Not all working men and women have that option – often having to make the choice between being with family and supporting the family. I love the fact that A Space 4 Me provides both childcare and job development, so that working parents not only know their children are safe, but that they can themselves uplevel their possibilities and options as providers.”

From the team at Alliance Virtual Offices, we wish Andrea all the very best with her venture and we look forward to following progress as her vision comes to life.

Amazing Spaces: Top 10 Home Office Designs

Advice and Support,Virtual Office — Tags: , , , — joanna @ 10:32 am on May 27, 2015

From clever closets and dinky desks to marvellous multifunctional spaces, there are oodles of different ways to transform a corner of your home into an inspirational, hardworking office.

We’ve picked out a few of our favourite styles from Pinterest, which we’ve shared here.

Some focus on space-saving themes for small apartments and rooms, while others present clever ways to separate your work and home life – a necessity for virtual office users which is all too easily forgotten.

  1. How to Deal with Annoying Alcoves

Marie Bridger pinned this cute alcove-based home office, which originally appeared on Real Simple.

Using shelving, a pull-out desk and a curtain to hide away the office paraphernalia when not in use, this is a great way to make the most of an alcove or ‘nook’. Marie suggests using a “funky curtain” and an antique tieback to hold it out of your way during work hours.

Home office designs - annoying alcoves

  1. Back to Skool

Pinned by Webstash, this blackboard is not just a bit of retro wall art – it’s pretty useful too. Whether you use it as a calendar, notebook or just for doodles, it looks great with this waxed corner desk.

(Tumblr: mildredmildred)

Home office designs - Back to school

  1. Cozy Corners

When it comes to space-saving office designs for the home, Pinterest is alive with great ideas and unique perspectives.

We love this cozy corner, which comes with its own compact storage, corner desk, lighting and even a comfy couch for good measure. We’re willing to bet the top of the couch opens up to reveal a storage chest, too. Genius.

(Sally Aldridge / dumpaday.com)

Home office designs - Cozy corners

  1. Cupboard Under the Stairs

Okay Harry Potter fans – this one’s for you. Why fill a cupboard under the stairs with coats and shoes when it could be your own secret office? Just for muggles, this fantastic space-saving idea can be personalized to suit any size space.

Larger cupboards can feature under-stair shelving and even a corner desk like this one, pinned by Georgina Irving (originally by Austin Architect), while smaller spaces can do away with storage luxuries and use pale decor and lighting to create a brighter, airier space.

Home office designs - Cupboard under the stairs

  1. Spare Shed

Why let mice and spiders have all the fun? Even the smallest of garden sheds can be transformed into an inspirational workspace, like this one from LoveHome / UKTV, which uses pretty spring colours to create a light, bright space. The perfect al fresco office.

Home office designs - Spare shed

  1. Multifunctional Masterpiece

There’s not even a whiff of corporate activity in this home office. Is it a lounge? Or a library? Or a bedroom? With a bit of design wizardry, it’s a bit of everything. Pinned by Webstash (originally from Taking Steps Home) this beautiful space uses chunky shelving that doubles as a desk, along with lounge furniture and bedroom-style storage boxes for a homely touch.

Home office designs - Multifunctional masterpiece

  1. Clever Closets

These clever closets are the ultimate space-saver. If your bedroom or spare room has a large walk-in closet, or even a small one, you can turn it into a hideaway office.

This one on the left by Pinterest user A Thrifty Mrs (DIY Show Off) is a spacious area concealed by doors, brightened by pastel tones and a cleverly-placed mirror.

Yet even the smallest of clothes-hanging spaces can be transformed into a makeshift workspace. The pin on the right by Lauren Reed (Tatertos & Jello) might seem tight, but it’s just fine for those who work from home for short periods of time.

Home office designs - Clever closets   Home office designs - Clever closets

  1. Sparse Yet Beautiful

When it comes to home office decor and furniture, less is usually more. This sparse, minimalist approach using pipe shelves barely looks like a desk, yet its clean and functional – just what you need for a few quiet hours to bash away at your to-do list.

(Web Stash / French By Design)

Home office designs - Sparse yet beautiful

  1. Using Design to Achieve Work / Life Balance

When working from home, it’s important to have a workspace that you can pack away at the end of the day. Whether you close a door on it, fold it away or pull a curtain, it’s that physical barrier that helps you to de-stress and ease springs.

This cute little number can sit anywhere in the home – even in the hallway – and you simply close the lid at the end of the day. Clever, quirky, pretty, and downright useful.

(Mary Anne Bradford / Flickr)

Home office designs - foldaway furniture

This is another take on the fold-away idea, using a neat wall-mounted desk. It looks a lot like a retro suitcase, but in fact it’s a space-saving desk called NUBO, designed by Ligne Roset.

(Lindy Rogers / Trend Hunter)

Home office designs - foldaway furniture

  1. Mezzanine Magic

Getting this one right requires a designer’s touch, as workspace paraphernalia and storage can easily clutter a small space. This pin by Mary Anne Bradford (Garance Doré) sets the tone beautifully, with the perfect juxtaposition between vintage charm and clean, modern office functionality.

Home office designs - Mezzanine magic

Why not share your favorites with us? Ping us a picture of your home office on Twitter or Facebook and tell us what you love about it.

Meet Monica: Alliance Virtual’s Theater Junkie Talks Bangs, Books and Broadway

Advice and Support,Support — Tags: , , — joanna @ 11:14 am on April 23, 2015

Monica Ochoa, Alliance Virtual Offices

At Alliance Virtual, we like to work with an open door. We want our clients to see exactly what’s going on so they know who we are, what we’re doing, and who they’re working with. As a client, that’s a basic but very important right.

So in the nature of transparency, we recently opened the door on how Alliance Virtual Offices, a virtual company both by name and by nature, gets things done.

We told you that we work with people right across the globe, from North America and Mexico to Europe and beyond. It’s not always easy – as we explain in our blog. But it means we get to work with the best people in the business, rather than just those geographically close to us.

So now that we’ve told you how we work, we want to tell you who we work with. This is the really fun part, because we get to ask our staff all sorts of silly questions (strictly in the name of customer service, of course).

So we’re kicking things off with the lovely Monica Ochoa, Member Service Representative at Alliance Virtual Offices. She’s been one of our star players since February 2011, and she likes to talk… a lot.

AVO: Can you walk us through a day in the life of Monica?

Monica: A typical day at work will involve A LOT of calls and emails. Calls from new clients, calls from current clients, calls to members (owners and managers of our 600+ locations), follow up calls, follow up emails… Let’s just say that a typical work day for me is having the phone glued to my ear!

AVO: What do you love most about your job?

Monica: I guess I like the unexpected compliments. I know how that makes me sound, but whenever a client contacts me after they have been confirmed in a new address, just thanking me for my help … it’s a feel good moment for me.

We have our clients’ best interests at heart and we are not just trying to sell to them, we are trying to help their business succeed. So when they feel taken care of, to the point where they actually take the time to thank me personally, it means a lot.

I also like the trust that Frank (CEO), Mike (Chief Marketing Officer) and Toshi (Operations Director) have in me. I’ve grown with the company over the past 4 years and I now have a lot more responsibilities.

I also really enjoy the team at the office. We work hard but we also like to joke around and sometimes just take a break and talk about our weekend or the last movie we saw.

AVO: And what do you like the least?

Monica: Ha… Well, I guess the part I like the least is being on the receiving end of an unhappy client. It happens sometimes… not a lot, and it’s not necessarily our fault, but when it does it’s SO stressful.

AVO: Do you have any hobbies outside of work?

Monica: I do! Where do I start? I love to travel, and I LOVE going to the theater. I am a Broadway junkie. I am actually on the production team of a concert we are doing, for the second time, to help raise funds for a school that helps children with cerebral palsy.

I also enjoy going to the movies and reading. Actually, for one of my work anniversaries with Alliance the team gave me a gift card for a bookstore. They know me :)

AVO: Where did you go on vacation recently? And where are you going next?

Monica: I went to a music festival in New York. Next I am planning a trip with my friends to Vegas, I’ve never been so I am pretty excited about that.

AVO: Tell us something you’d rather forget…

Monica: I gave myself bangs… That was memorable, embarrassing and funny… NEVER AGAIN BANGS! Never again.

AVO: If you could work at any ABCN location in the world, where would it be?


Backer of Small Business Contest: How to FAIL in 350 Words

Backer of Small Business Contest - submitting your entry

Last week we launched our Backer of Small Business Contest, in which we’re giving away $500 to one lucky small business.

To enter, simply tell us in 350 words (or less) why your company deserves a $500 investment, and how it would help your small business grow. The contest is running until midnight (EDT) May 1 2015. So there’s still time to enter, if you haven’t already.

But wait! Before you go jumping in at the deep end, let’s think about the entry process.

As a small business owner, you know more than anyone the importance of planning. Which is why we’re asking you to really think carefully about your submission.

Take this opportunity to send us something that’s concise and straight from the heart. To help you create something meaningful, and to really turn our judges’ heads, we’ve outlined some examples of good and bad submissions below:

Bad Example

Describe what your company does:
“Our company is a foreign exchange business. We provide foreign exchange solutions and portfolio management for interested parties.”

Tell us why you need the money and how you’ll use it:
“We need to develop a new website. $500 will help us pay for a developer so we can get more clients.”

Good Example

Describe what your company does:
“ABC Financial Consulting is a small consulting firm in Atlanta, GA. We focus on services in accounting, business valuation and a host of financial services, mainly for startup, small businesses and entrepreneurs.”

Tell us why you need the money and how you’ll use it:
“We are a growing financial consulting firm who started in 2013. Our 5-year plan includes national and global expansion, but first, we want to find new paths to reach customers within our home state. We’ve found the best way to reach local customers is through word of mouth, as this tends to introduce more informed prospects with a higher conversion rate. To expand on this line of inquiry, we have developed a basic client referral program. We want to expand this plan in a variety of ways, including empowering our teams to use social media out reach, but our budget is limited. If we won $500 we would invest it in a better referral tool, like FriendBuy or ReferralCandy, and use the tool to closely track the performance of referrals and conversions. We believe this program alone will enable us to grow our sales pipeline by 30% in 2015, which will give us a solid footing for future expansion – both at home and abroad.”

Spot the difference?

The first example is poor because it’s far too light on detail. We don’t just want to know about your line of work. We want to get to know your business, why you do what you do, what makes you tick, and your plans for the future.

Don’t gloss over the important stuff. Get into the nitty gritty – give us stats, facts and real feeling.

The second example isn’t the full 350 words, but it doesn’t need to be. You might not have your own in-house wordsmith (yet) so we’re not expecting beautiful prose. But what we are expecting is a heartfelt entry that you have taken time to research.

We want you to tell us exactly how much difference $500 will really make to your business.

Like we said, your entry needs to turn our judges’ heads. If it’s full of cold hard corporate fluff, it’ll fall on deaf ears. But if it’s got feeling, meaning, and heart – with a few stats thrown in for good measure – then you can bet your bottom dollar it’ll be worth the full five hundred.

Enter Online Here

Thanks PicJumbo for the image

Backer Of Small Business: We’re Giving Away $500

Alliance Virtual Offices - Backer of Small Business contest

We’ve just launched a new campaign to support small businesses. We’re calling it the Backer Of Small Business, and we’re giving away $500 to one lucky business owner.

Why? Because we’ve been there. We know that for bootstrapping businesses the world over, a few extra dollars (or Euros, or Pounds, or Yen) really can make a world of difference.

Here’s how it works:

  • If you own, run or manage a startup or small/micro business, go to: www.alliancevirtualoffices.com/500/
  • Tell us in 350 words why your business needs the money and what you would do with it.
  • Be human about it. Don’t just paste your company bio and hope for the best. We’re for real, and we want to know that you are, too.
  • Don’t forget to hit ‘Submit’ when you’re done.

We’re opening the contest to all small businesses, regardless of industry or location. Our judges are Frank Cottle, CEO of Alliance Virtual Offices, and Viveka Von Rosen – the LinkedIn Expert herself.

You don’t have to be a client of Alliance Virtual Offices to enter. In fact we really don’t mind if you have no intention of using our services. We just really, really want to help small businesses like you to get ahead.

If you win, all we ask is that you take part in a quick interview for our blog and share the love on social media.

Oh, and spend wisely!

Find out more and enter online here: www.alliancevirtualoffices.com/500/

Quick Facts

  • Enter online from April 1
  • Submission deadline May 1
  • We’ll announce our decision on May 22
  • Open to clients and non clients of Alliance Virtual Offices
  • Meet the judges: Frank Cottle and Viveka Von Rosen

Five Things You Didn’t Know about the CEO of Alliance Virtual Offices

Advice and Support — Tags: — joanna @ 2:48 pm on March 30, 2015

Frank Cottle, CEO Alliance Virtual Offices

You probably didn’t wake up today wondering what it is you don’t know about Frank Cottle.

(If you did, I’m very impressed and a little freaked out.)

The reason I want to tell you a bit more about me is because I want to learn more about you, too.

Here’s why:

This year, the whole Alliance team is focused on what I’ve always devoutly believed in: developing personal relationships in business. Just because we share a business relationship doesn’t mean we can’t have closer personal ties, too. That leads to mutual understanding and respect — the keys to fruitful long-term business relationships.

Now You Know

Since we have to start this new relationship somewhere, let me tell you some things you probably didn’t know about me.

  1. My first business success was with Ardell Yacht & Ship Brokers. I thought I would retire after that business, but I was in my 30s, and I could only do so much surfing, paddle boarding and wind surfing (as a matter of fact, perhaps my hips would have preferred I not do so much windsurfing).
  2. I entered the serviced office industry in 1979 with three other partners, and over the years we grew our business center portfolio and the Alliance Network to more than 600 partner business center locations in 44 countries. We are able to serve our clients in most major markets globally.
  3. I have two artificial hips due to an abundance of windsurfing and downhill skiing all my life. I’m just hoping the knees aren’t next. Fortunately, I have a great personal trainer to keep me on track just to be sure.
  4. Unless I am travelling or have in-person meetings, I always work from my home office on Fridays.
  5. Most of my meetings are virtual, on conference calls or through video. Our Alliance team is mostly virtual, and most of our partners, suppliers and clients are not in my area. We use Gotomeeting and Skype extensively, along with a handful of other productivity tools.

Now you may have a little more insight into what drives the Alliance team and me.

How about you?

Let’s start connecting. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and give us the chance to do something else we love to do – talk about you, our customers and partners.

We Want to Talk to You – Often

Advice and Support — Tags: , , — joanna @ 12:14 pm on March 26, 2015

Frank Cottle,

We have always aimed at making our customer service the best around. While we think we are doing pretty well, we know we will always have a lot more work to do.

Now we’re focusing our efforts on understanding our clients better so we can create and deliver the best possible products, services and support.

The only way we can do this is to build personal relationships with each of you.

Even though we may never meet in person due to the virtual way we do business, and the physical miles between us, we can connect.

Let’s Do Social

We want to understand more about you and your business needs. So tell us! Nothing fancy required. Just good, old-fashioned conversations with a twist. We’d like to engage with you through social media.

My LinkedIn account is in the top one percent of LinkedIn, and I invite you to participate in the lively discussions we have there.

Our Twitter account is also quite active, but we’re going to kick it up a notch by focusing on more Twitter conversations with you.

So, are you with me? I hope so. We’re looking forward to connecting with our clients more closely and more frequently.

We also have a lot to give in return. We are about to launch a contest to give away money to small businesses looking to bootstrap. We also are about to start a referral program where we give our clients account credits for referring business.

We want to do a lot more than that though. That’s why we want to engage and learn more about you: to deliver on your needs.

Let’s get started by following each other on Twitter. We have multiple people in charge of working on our Twitter account, but usually it’s Jo Disney and she often ends her tweets “~Jo” so you know it’s her.

Connect with us on Twitter, and tell us who you are and what you do. We’ll follow you back, and Jo will likely continue the conversation in some way.

We look forward to meeting and socialising with you, the ‘virtual’ way.

Frank Cottle
CEO, Alliance Virtual Offices

Our Dispersed Team Wasn’t Working, Until We Did This.


Never mind dispersed. The Alliance Virtual Offices team is what you might call ‘globally scattered’.

Just picture this. The company is spearheaded in the U.S., with a CEO in Newport Beach, California and the Chief Marketing officer in Lexington, Kentucky.

Over in Las Vegas, you’ll find our CFO plus a close-knit team of receptionists.

A few thousand miles further south is our Director of Operations in Monterrey, Mexico. Head northeast across the Atlantic and meet one of our marketing team in Northampton, England, and another in sunny Dubai, UAE.

We’ve been known to work with great people right across the globe, even as far-flung as Sydney, Australia.

Not to mention the location of our clients of course. Most are based across the U.S., with a sizeable proportion in Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, and other European locations.

Collecting the pieces

Given that we’re virtual by name, it probably comes as no surprise that we’re virtual by nature too. In fact, we’ve been working across geographical borders for years.

The big question is: How do we bring our globally scattered team together?

And how do we keep things humming along smoothly? How do we work and communicate across time zones? How do we maintain visibility of objectives, tasks, and workflow?

We’re glad you asked!

It’s all down to a bit of tech, a dash of calendar planning and good ol’ fashioned communication.

Okay, that might sound a little too easy. It hasn’t always been a breeze, and there are always challenges involved when distance and time separates you from the people who are integral to driving your business forward.

“You never completely replace the benefit of sitting right next to your colleagues,” says Mike Sullivan, Chief Marketing Officer at Alliance Virtual Offices (he’s in Lexington, KY).

“Sometimes I come up with an idea and I need to share it with the team immediately. But when it’s 4:00 pm here, it’s 9:00 pm over in England and midnight in Dubai. So it has to wait.

“That’s frustrating and disruptive. But rather than let it become a problem, we came up with a way around it. Because working this way is so much better and more productive for us than the traditional, centralized 9-5.”

If it wasn’t, we probably wouldn’t be in the virtual officing trade (Alliance Physical Offices doesn’t really have the same ring to it). We had to find a way of replicating the benefit of sitting side-by-side, while working thousands of miles apart.

So here’s how we do it:

1. We Use the Right Tools:
The right technology is essential for anyone working with a dispersed team.

CommunicationA smartphone is important, not so much for calls but for keeping tabs on email, social media and software data – like getting alerts if there’s a problem with your system or website.

When you’re working with an international team, you need communication that everyone can use happily. We know that everyone we work with has Wi-Fi and a laptop, so we use Google Hangouts to chat and make video calls – we know when staff are online when they’re signed in. Some people prefer Skype, so we keep a Skype chat window open too.

When we have a larger group call, we use GoToMeeting – the screen-sharing ability is particularly useful. And Asana helps keep projects humming along nicely. We use it to assign tasks to individuals and attach deadlines. We know Asana sends timely reminders about upcoming deadlines too, which means less person-to-person chasing.

2. We Share Documents:
Another handy bit of kit is Google Drive, because email is so yesterday. Rather than pinging revised documents backwards and forwards, we created a shared drive with Google Docs and keep all our files in one place.

Whenever we have a call together, we make a point of keeping meeting minutes in the Drive, and requesting that ALL edited or new documents be kept in there. It also helps with visibility because at any time, any member of the team can look up a document and see the latest revisions.

3. We Schedule Regular Catch-Ups:
Everyone has a recurring conference call in their calendar. For most people it’s weekly, for others it’s two or three times per week, depending on workloads and projects. This is pretty important. Not only does it give us a chance to have a proper chat, as close to face-to-face as we can get, it also gives each team member a deadline to work towards. No-one likes logging into a meeting without something to report, so it helps keep things on track.

Another important thing about video calls is the human element. “We’ve been working with some members of the team for years, yet we’ve never actually met,” said Mike. “It seems a bit crazy, but so long as we stick to weekly calls, it works just fine.”

4. We Have ‘Alliance’ Days:
Alliance Virtual Offices employs permanent staff alongside freelance marketers. The right freelancer can bring plenty of great skills to the table – but there is a downside. Freelancers work with other businesses – not just ours – so it can be tricky to schedule work around their other marketing responsibilities or benefit from their sole attention.

To get round that problem, we started assigning ‘Alliance days’. It might be a specific afternoon or a couple of days per week. We try to work it so it fits across time zones, meaning no-one has to stay up too late or get out of bed at a crazy hour. When you know which ‘day’ is assigned to you, you have clear visibility over what that person is working on, and you can ping them via chat to ask questions or discuss ideas.

5. Communication is EVERYTHING:
The glue that holds everything together is communication. However you communicate – whether it’s by chat, phone, email, or video – you really must keep it going as often as possible.

“A lot of our people work at home, alone, or in a coworking space, and it’s easy to lose sight of objectives when you’re not sharing the same space as your team,” said Mike. “So we communicate as often as possible to keep priorities fresh and to gain visibility over tasks and deadlines.”

And so?

“We’re not a conventional company, so the conventional 9-5 doesn’t work for us,” added Mike. “This does. It’s flexible, agile, and it suits our virtual business. It suits our clients too, as working across time zones means we can react to things faster.

“These processes we’ve implemented have really reduced the number of iterations and time between iterations dramatically. One simple document that used to take 3 weeks to complete, now can be done within 3 to 4 days with much higher quality output due to the improved focus and process.”

Teach us something new! We’d love to know how you keep your dispersed team working together effectively. Let us know here, on Twitter or on Facebook.

Thanks to SumAll for the awesome images

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