Leva Duell, creator of The Secretarial Business-In-A-Box, explains how to start a secretarial service. She shares important tips about the types of services you can offer, secretarial training, what you need to get started, finding good customers, and more. [16 min.]

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Tell us what a secretarial service does and the types of services you can offer.

Well, typically a secretary at an office provides typing, which today is called word processing, and in addition to just plain typing they also provide a variety of office support services, which could include filing, anything that a business needs, basically. To be more specific, typing can mean typing letters, invoices, proposals, it can be business plans, contracts, papers, applications, and even complete books or procedure manuals, anything, so as a secretarial service you will get small jobs and you will get large jobs. Another service that’s quite popular is what people refer to as data entry, and most of that really means typing addresses and putting on mailing labels. In addition to some services like typing, some people will offer additional services that require more advanced skills, and that can be fliers and brochures and newsletters, which is traditionally called desktop publishing. When the Macintosh came out with Pagemaker, it was called desktop publishing. Today I don’t hear that term that much, but I refer to anything that requires more layout skills and also you may be asked to answer telephones, record keeping and so on, although practically it happens very little that home-based secretarial services provide answering service. There are people that actually put up a whole telephone system, and there are people that even provide mailing services and have specialized mailing equipment. So it can really vary from typing services to anything that people need. It can be Internet research, it can be even resume writing, most secretarial services do provide resume typing, but if you really want to learn the skills of resume writing it’s not that hard to do, and it can create additional profits. Transcription is one of the things that I recommend that everyone provide because it creates a lot of additional hours of work and it’s very profitable and you can get a lot of repeat business when you do transcription. And I’m not referring here to medical transcription or legal transcription. It’s a little area that’s not very well known, what they call business transcription. You can transcribe anything from interviews that your clients will do, like a writer who needs interviews transcribed, Insurance companies, public speakers use a lot of them. It’s a good area to get into as a secretarial service.

What about payroll and bookkeeping? Are these the types of services that are provided by some secretarial services?

They can be. Mostly not payroll services because they’re more advanced kind of work, they’re more specialized. But regular bookkeeping is provided by some secretarial services, but not by the majority of them.

What’s the difference between a secretarial service and a virtual assistant?

There’s not that much difference. A virtual assistant considers themselves more experienced. They also do a larger variety of work. They can do Internet research, they can specialize in Web design or copywriting or other promotional writing. They need to be more Internet knowledgeable because they have to be able to upload files and download files. In general, they feel superior to secretarial services, but the main difference really when it comes down to it is that the secretarial service typically provides services to local people, where the VA can provide services to anyone. But you can call yourself a VA when you’re a secretarial service.

What are some of the advantages for companies who hire secretarial services?

There’s quite a lot of advantages. Businesses don’t have time to type, they don’t have time to do their own filing, so they farm those jobs out because then they can do what they’re doing best. It’s a more productive way for them to work conduct their business. They don’t need extra computers, they don’t need extra desks, so they’re saving some space. You usually can do a better job when you’re creating documents than the owners of a business would do because that’s what you’re specializing in. And they don’t have to learn a bunch of stuff they don’t want to do.

Is it hard to learn how to do? Are there secretarial schools or can you take a secretarial course?

You have to have typing skills. You don’t have to be fast, but you have to know how to type and you have to be able to learn some of the formatting features that your clients are going to want. You have to know how to line up paragraphs nicely, how to create bullets, things like that. In general, you can learn it yourself if you want to, that’s basically what I personally did with a few extra classes that I did take. I do recommend that you do take a couple computer classes. You can take Windows classes so you don’t get in trouble using your old computer. You can take word processing classes, Excel classes, anything you want to learn. A good place to do that is look at your local community colleges. They’re very good. There’s also career centers, there is regional occupational programs, they’re called ROP. There are traditional secretarial schools. They’re really used by people who want to work in an office. No one will ask you for a degree. None of your clients will ask you for a degree. A lot of the VA websites are actually selling certificates for VA’s, but the bottom line is your clients are not interested in a certificate or in a degree, what they’re really interested in is that you can do the job, and that you do it well. So regardless how you learn your skills, the bottom line is you have to do them and you have to do them well, and all the rest is really not that important.

Do most people who start a secretarial service have previous experience as a secretary or administrative assistant?

The secretarial business appeals to people that have the experience that have been secretaries in the past, but I also know a lot of people that had no experience whatsoever, that just had a computer, they know how to type, and they wanted to make money at home with their computer. So they answer is some do have previous experience and some don’t. It helps if you do have the experience, but it’s not necessary.

What do you need to get started? I mean, how much does it cost to get started in this business?

If you have a computer and a printer, then it costs very little. Of course if you don’t have a computer, it costs you the cost of a computer, but you can have any basic system if you’re just going to provide word processing services. Any computer that you buy today, any new computer will do everything you need done. You can buy used computers for almost nothing, some people will give away their old computers, so it doesn’t have to cost anything if you’re a little bit creative. You do have to have a printer, so that’s one expense that some people have to make because they may not have a printer for their own use. And pretty much you get a ream of paper, you make business cards, you get a telephone, and you can be in business.

Can companies hire you for just a small job, or do most secretarial services require some sort of longer term contract, or can you work on a retainer basis?

Yes, you can do that when you first get started. You will get a lot of small jobs. Personally I don’t really want to do them anymore, but at the beginning I took just about any work I could get. What’s important, though, is that you charge a minimum fee. I will charge $20 even just to change an address or change someone’s name, or anything, even a one-line change, a five minute change, will cost them $20. And people really don’t complain about it. There are people that make an agreement, and that’s a really, really good thing to do, but very few people actually do it. The people that do it do very well. You can have an ongoing agreement for a minimum amount of work. And let’s say your client will pay you 20 hours of work and in compensation for that you give them a discount on the work. It works for both people, and you’re guaranteed to get that work. So it’s a very good marketing technique, but that very, very few secretarial services are actually using.

Can you offer a secretarial or virtual assistant service to businesses say in another part of the country, or do most people limit their services to their local area?

I recommend when you first get started, that you contact your local clients. It’s easier to get local clients than to get clients that you don’t know that are far away. It has the advantages that you can meet with people the first time, although I hardly see any of my clients. I see them the first time, and then everything else is done by e-mail, most of the time, so I hardly ever see my clients. I even have a pickup box where when the work is done, if it’s physically work, if it’s printed work that they have to pick up, they can just come to my door and pick it up from the outside without really even coming in. But it is harder for someone who gets started to work like a VA does to get clients that they have no personal contact with.

How much do most secretarial businesses charge for their services.

The prices are all across the board. You have students that only charge like $10 which is really ridiculous. And if you really want to be a professional secretarial service, you have to calculate all your non-billable hours, it’s not because a secretary in an office makes $10 an hour that you should only charge $10 an hour. You’re not going to have forty hours a week billable time. You’ll have to spend some time marketing, you’ll have to spend some time doing administrative tasks and so on, so my recommendation is that you charge a minimum of $25 an hour, and you should ideally get about $30 an hour. But it varies, mostly depending on how confident you feel about your services. That’s really the bottom line.

What are some ways you can find customers for your secretarial service? What kind of marketing and advertising do you recommend?

The best kind of marketing is word-of-mouth. And of course that takes time. I love referrals personally, but you don’t get them when you first get started. So at first you have to start doing a lot of networking, contacting people in person, talk to your friends, ask them for referrals, ask them who they know, visit businesses, do yellow page advertising, do direct mail, you can send out letters, you can hand out business cards to anyone that you meet, you can send out fliers, any of those things. The main thing with marketing is you want to do it on an ongoing basis. People think, one mailing I send out twenty letters or even a hundred letters, and they don’t get results immediately and they get discouraged. Well, that’s not how direct marketing works. You have to send out letters or postcards. Postcards is actually what I recommend more than letters. You send out postcards and a month later or two months later, you send them out again, and then again. It’s just not a one time shot. It’s an ongoing thing.

Are there a lot of typing scams out there? What are some red flags you should look for?

There’s a lot of people promising things they don’t deliver. One of the main scams are people buying lists of clients, and they present it as people that have typing work. Number one, those people don’t have typing work, they just use lists from the phone book, I mean you’re better off actually compiling your own local lists of the types of businesses that you want to work with. There’s also your old envelope typing scam, which is worthless as you know, but people still fall for that. Just a lot of promises of people that don’t deliver. I actually have a really good report about typing scams on my website. If you go to the website at the top right there’s a little box that you can click on to get a report about typing scams.

Should you offer to pay referral fees if customers recommend your service?

I don’t recommend paying referral fees, but I do recommend giving people an incentive to give you referrals, and one of the incentives can be that you give people a discount, you give them part of the work for free, but they still always have to buy something. Like you can give people a free resume update or something. You could give them a one page free if they buy a minimum of thirty dollars, something along that line. It’s really good to give them an incentive. And another thing is also to upsell your existing clients. Not only ask people for referrals, but also tell them what other kind of work you can do for them, so you get more work from your existing clients.

Are there useful magazines or books or websites related to this industry that would be helpful?

There’s no magazines that I know of, there used to be some newsletters. The books I’ve found in the past were really all outdated and I haven’t seen any good ones or know of any good ones recently. What I do recommend is really look on the Internet, subscribe to some on-line newsletters about marketing about small businesses, even bookkeeping for small businesses, things like that, copywriting, because anything you promote involves copywriting, so those are all good skills that you can learn and that you can find online by subscribing to some ezines or newsletters. There are a couple good products out there that I am aware of that I have read, and one of them is Michelle Miller’s book about medical transcription, and the other one is Lisa Taliga’s book about becoming a VA. There used to be an organization for secretarial services, and today everything is targeting towards VA’s. There is an organization for virtual assistants, it’s called the International Virtual Assistants Association. I also recommend that you join local computer user groups. I used most of what I learned at the beginning from going to, at the time what was a Macintosh user’s group, I don’t recommend today that you get a Mac, basically because of the incompatibilities, and because most of your clients are using a PC, but there are a lot of computer user groups, and they’re very useful in learning your computer skills basically. And I do recommend that you network with other secretarial services, and if there’s no organization in your area you could start an informal group yourself and network with other people. I have a breakfast with other secretarial services on a regular basis here locally and that works very well. You get referrals from people, you get information, you can have someone that you can call and ask a question, you get a lot of information when you form a group like that that people normally wouldn’t give you if they don’t know you.

What are the biggest mistakes people make when they’re just starting a secretarial service?

There are two big mistakes that people make, and the first one is that they charge too little money. And you can’t stay in business if you don’t charge enough for your services. That’s the biggest mistake I know people make. And the other mistake is they really expect business to come to them instead of going out of their way and marketing their business on an ongoing basis. They think they can just market once and be done with it, and then they stop marketing.

Leva Duell is the creator of The Secretarial Business-In-A-Box.