Virtual offices let entrepreneurs save money and burnish their reputation by making a professional and polished first impression

By Christopher Freeburn

Your business may be small, but you have big ambitions. You want to do business with the big guys, but right now you know your operations don't look the part. Perhaps you are running your company out of your basement, or you've rented the best office space you can afford-adequate to house your business, but not a place you want potential clients to see. If that's the case, then maybe it's time to consider a little harmless deception to help your business start achieving more success.

In business, first impressions are critical. Potential partners and clients will form their first-and sometimes last-impression of your business from the physical location they associate with your business. If that location provides an air of corporate solidity and professionalism, their perception of your business will be heightened. If not, they may have a hard time taking you seriously.

"You can't put too high a price on making a good impression," says Jill Bremer, principal at Bremer Communications, an Oak Park, Illinois-based corporate image-consulting firm. "People who are interested in doing business with you are risking their money on your ability to deliver, and they'll make the decision on whether or not to go for it based on whether they think you look like someone who can deliver."

This applies equally to your company. If a potential customer perceives your business as a struggling startup or thinks that you're running the business from your laptop in a coffee shop, that impression may increase any trepidation they may have about doing business with you.

Outsource the office
A virtual office may provide the answer you are seeking. Virtual office or workshare providers usually operate out of large corporate office parks. These companies allow small businesses to rent various services, including a corporate mailing address (usually complete with a specific suite number), a telephone answering service, fax reception, computer workstations and Internet access, work and meeting space. Use of office spaces-conference rooms for meetings or presentations, for instance-usually must be reserved ahead of time. Virtual offices provide a professional-appearing place for small businesses to meet with clients, as well as providing important business services.

For most small businesses, the corporate mailing address is a significant benefit in itself. Many businesses try to rely on mailbox companies or post office boxes for their business address. However, the post office will not accept courier deliveries, nor will many private mailbox providers, which poses a problem for a small business receiving important documents overnight. By contrast, most virtual offices have full time receptionists who will receive and sign for courier deliveries.

Some virtual office providers also offer various business services like legal counsel, bookkeeping, and accounting services in addition to renting space and receptionist services.

Fees for basic virtual office services, including phone answering and mailing address service (including receiving couriered packages and mail forwarding) often start as low as $75 a month, with additional charges depending on the services used. Most virtual office providers do not require a long term contract and small businesses can rent office space or services on a continuous, short-term, or even on an as-needed, one-time basis.

Better still, most virtual office providers are located in upscale areas-gleaming, new office parks or skyscrapers-in the business centers of most mid-to-large-sized cities. Having your business' mailing address in such a venue greatly enhances a potential client's perception of its size and credibility.

Lowering your burden
In addition to providing your business with an attractive place to meet clients, and giving it a corporate-sounding mailing address and answering service, virtual offices help small businesses by eliminating the cost of renting actual office space (and potentially being locked into an expensive long-term lease) as well as the cost of maintaining that space.

"Renting real office space comes with its own set of worries," observes management consultant C. Davis Fogg. "There are utilities to be paid, light bulbs to be changed, floors and windows to clean, office furniture to be purchased and replaced ... taking care of all of these things takes your attention away from other pressing decisions you have to make-decisions that may determine whether or not you land that next client or make a big sale." Virtual office providers handle all of those issues for you.

That reduces the ultimate burden on you, the business owner, leaving you free to concentrate on the actual running of your business. A virtual office can be a bit tricky, but the opportunity to focus on what's really important for your business is a genuine treat.

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