PERSPECTIVE: The Secretary Who Never Sees Her Boss; in the Second of a Three Part Series on Personal Assistants, Jane Truscott Reports on How the World Wide Web Is Turning PAs into VAs

Article excerpt

Byline: Jane Truscott

Mel Cowley does almost everything that a PA does - apart from making cups of tea for her boss.

That is because, with one exception, she has never even met the people for whom she works.

Mel is not a PA but a VA, a virtual assistant. That means she provides total business support for her clients who are based in such places as Brussels, Switzerland or the US without having to leave her office in Sutton Coldfield.

"I rarely meet clients or even talk to them on the phone," she said. "Everything is done via the email, which for me is the quickest and most effective way to communicate."

Virtual assistance is a rapidly growing industry. It started in the US ten years ago when Christine Durst, from Connecticut, persuaded the wives of US military, who had times on their hands, to provide administrative support to companies remotely.

Today membership of the International Virtual Assistants Association has spread to 16 countries - including a very significant number in the UK, which also has its own organisation known as the Alliance of UK VAs.

Mel was one of the original members of the alliance when she set up her company Dataplus Solutions six years ago.

Equipped with computer, broadband connection and a digital transcription machine, the 45-year-old mother of two employs 15 freelance VAs and had a healthy turnover this year of pounds 50,000. She is hoping to double that next year.

The system works by the client dictating all the work to be done on to a sound file.

This may be letters, reports, interviews, minutes of meetings or conferences that are sent via email to the VA to transcribe and send back by email.

In addition to transcribing the VA can provide a telephone messaging service, schedule appointments, undertake research - in fact practically any service provided by a PA can be provided by a VA.

"One of my clients is Masterfoods part of the Mars Group and based in Brussels," she said.

"My client regularly organises teleconferences for his team who are spread across the world.

"He then emails me the sound file, which I transcribe and email back to him and his team within hours.

"That really is efficient business practice on a global scale and all made possible thanks to my small office in Sutton Coldfield."

Among her impressive list of clients is a Dusseldorf based Patent and Trademark Attorney.

Why should a German businessman employ Mel who speaks no German and is based hundreds of miles away?

"Because of the nature of the work he needs a completely confidential quality service with a quick turnaround," says Mel. …