The jobs SME owners love to hate… and how to outsource them

Delegation has had a makeover. It’s now called outsourcing and, amongst the small business set, it’s rather a la mode.

Why? Because all kinds of new sites and apps are making it easier for SMEs to grow, without having to actually grow – if you see what I mean.

Businesses can expand on a modest budget by making the most of skilled professionals based off-site, who’ve shunned the daily grind for rural idyll or to live the dream abroad.

If you have the right systems in place, outsourcing work to freelancers can be incredibly financially efficient: the costs of office space, computers, annual leave or sick days are out of the equation, and delegating the tasks you don’t have the time or inclination to do enables you to focus on the important things.

And the most hated jobs are…

It’s probable I don’t need to tell you which jobs are always bottom of your pile, but a straw poll of Time Etc’s army of virtual assistants reveals all. In spite of it being critical to cash flow, chasing late payments is top of the most-hated list among their clients, followed closely by processing expenses. Other tasks that are frequently outsourced include formatting documents, booking travel tickets, and email inbox management.

Such tasks can easily tag two hours on to the end of the typical 12-hour working day of a small business owner, who may not be in a position to take on administrative staff.

Figuring out what to outsource relies on asking a simple question: what are your key strengths that help drive the business? If you find time that could be spend on growing your client base, for example, is being eroded by tasks that don’t, it’s probably wise to outsource them.

This is why it’s often the simple, repetitive tasks that are most easily outsourced – but it might very well be something that requires specialist knowledge. You might already outsource to web developers or graphic designers. If you’re not a particularly good writer, why not outsource blog writing or social media content too?

To avoid seeing your inner control freak, follow this rough guide

Small business owners can find it hard to relinquish control, especially with client-facing tasks like chasing payments. If you’ve never met your freelancer, and you can’t see or hear them doing the job because they’re based remotely, it’s hard to put your faith in them.

There are two solutions to that. First, dedicate time and effort into finding the right freelancer for the job. This might be through a recommendation from another business owner, or through a freelancer platform that carefully handpicks and vets its network. Secondly, assign a dedicated project manager to oversee their work. This could be an employee you already have, although Time Etc offers project management to all clients as part of the hourly rate.

Be clear about what role they need to play and make sure this is properly communicated. Perhaps you or your clients work overseas and you’d prefer a virtual assistant who could work early mornings or evenings due to the time difference. Or maybe you want a freelancer to update your twitter feed at regular intervals within your specific guidelines. Much the same as taking on a new employee in-house, business owners have to devote a little extra time at the beginning in order to properly train freelance staff.

Just your freelancer needs to understand the nature of their role to be effective, they also need to know the nature of your company. A video conference call can help here. Talk them through how your business works, your customer base, and where you operate. If they are picking up phone calls for you, or taking messages, they should know every member of your team and your client base, and be able to identify important callers. They are an integral part of your business operations, and they need to understand and care about what the business does.

There is no such thing as too much communication. Ask them for regular updates, which could be as simple as a bullet point email at the end of the week or day. Manage targets continually but – and this is crucial ­– don’t micro-manage. If you fall into this trap, the timesaving benefits of outsourcing are actually counter-balanced, and the whole point is lost. If you’ve found yourself a good freelancer, given them proper training, and articulated your expectations, this shouldn’t be an issue.

Finally, get to know the people you outsource to. Just because they aren’t a physical presence in the office doesn’t mean they aren’t an invaluable asset to your team. Indeed, when properly embraced and trained, a virtual workforce may the best investment you make for your SME.

Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder of virtual workforce platform Time Etc

Barnaby is the founder of virtual workforce platform, Time Etc, which was founded in 2007. The company provides remote help and assistance to busy business owners, entrepreneurs, and high-flying professionals. Any task can be outsourced – from the mundane – including credit control and virtual filing – to the outright bizarre (including a PowerPoint presentation for Madonna).