The technology to tackle routine office chores is out there.
Having access to an affordable administrative
assistant 24 hours a day, seven days a week sounds too good to be true.
And maybe it is, for all the things that an assistant might be able to
do for you. However, for specific tasks, there are some virtual
(technology driven) solutions available.
One of the more time-consuming tasks in most offices is dictation. Some financial advisors use traditional dictation equipment such as a cassette recorder with a dictation machine (Dictaphone), which is then used by an administrative assistant to transcribe letters, notes, etc., into text. Recent advances in speech recognition technology may render this process obsolete. As an example, Panasonic Corporation now offers a digital recorder, model RR-US380 (www2.panasonic.com) that can digitally record up to 16 hours of audio and comes with the software capable of converting that audio to text (speech-to-text feature). The software permits storing audio files in folders, and those folders can be easily transferred to a computer via an included USB cable. For use in a client appointment or just for note taking, having the speech-to-text feature is great, but having the ability to store the audio files for compliance purposes is even better.
Microsoft includes speech recognition tools in its office suite. Though the feature requires you to 'train' the program to recognize your voice, it is reasonably accurate. If you have a decent microphone attached to your computer, you can dictate directly into Microsoft Word or use commands to control your work in Excel or other Microsoft office products. In short, the speech recognition tools are there to speed up your work and make dictation more efficient. Despite its reasonable accuracy, a certain amount of editing is necessary. Nevertheless, the tools are a time saver. In a network environment, consider the efficiency of being able to dictate directly into a text file (word document) that can then be handled by your assistant. Or, with some additional steps, you may find it possible to automate letter generation and envelope printing with the touch of a button using macro commands in Microsoft Word and Outlook.
Another product, IBM's ViaVoice (www-306.ibm.com/software/voice/viavoice) offers similar features. With six different versions of the software, IBM, a pioneer in speech recognition programs, has a version of its highly touted software for you. Ranging in price from $49.99 (Standard) to $189.99 (pro), this software is an affordable alternative. With Standard Edition, users can dictate, edit, correct, and format text in the powerful IBM ViaVoice speech-enabled word processor, SpeakPad. Text dictated into SpeakPad can be exported to other text-based Windows applications through use of a single voice command, or through the Windows Copy and Paste features. Users can also dictate directly into Microsoft Word versions to easily create letters, reports, and other documents. The advanced version has higher levels of control features including the use macros. The Pro version has the highest level of command and control for advanced projects and automation needs.
Arguably one of the best speech recognition programs, ScanSoft's Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Version 8 (www.scansoft.com) has the ability to recognize a number of different speech patterns and languages. It contains a laundry list of alternatives when, for instance, you tell it that it made a mistake. The software allows you to correct your own verbal mistake by selecting the error and then saying what you actually meant. A new auto-punctuation mode is designed to insert periods at the end of sentences. However, it may prove more efficient to speak your punctuation marks. NaturallySpeaking comes in three different versions, Standard ($99), Preferred ($199) and Professional ($700+). One of the main differences between the Standard and Preferred versions is that the preferred version has support for digital recorders. And, unless you plan to use the software for advanced macro usage or other high-level use, the standard or preferred version of the software should suffice.
Moving closer to the goal of a virtual administrative assistant may require some creative thinking on how you do business. Using pre-populated forms, for instance, could significantly cut down on the time required to fill out applications. Several broker-dealers offer this service to their advisors at a discount. There are software solutions such as LaserApps (www.laserapp.com), which can be purchased outside of the B/D, assuming the trading platform, investment and insurance offerings and other forms comply with what LaserApps can do. (With over 7,000 forms in their database, it is likely you will be able to use this product) At $399 for the initial purchase, this might seem pricey; however annual renewals are currently priced at $169 according to their website. When you consider how much time is spent by you and/or your staff filling out forms manually, the cost is greatly outweighed by the benefit.
Another efficiency area for the virtual administrative assistant might be in handling voicemail messages. There are services available that convert voicemail messages to text available on select cell phones, BlackBerry phones, etc. Dictomail by Admiral (www.dictomail.com) provides a voicemail box with your own personal 877 toll-free phone number. All voicemail messages are converted to text and sent to your e-mail address (on a BlackBerry device). This toll free number works throughout North America. PhoneWire Voicemail (www.phonewire.com/voicemail) also provides a voicemail box with your own personal 877 toll-free phone number. All voicemail messages are converted to text and sent to your e-mail address (BlackBerry). These services typically range between $30 and $100 per month depending on capacity, size of messages, etc. As messages may be able to be retrieved and stored as a text file on a computer, compliance with recent SEC regulations on electronic communication could be enhanced with such services. For the hearing impaired, or simply the one-person mobile office, these services offer a more efficient means of keeping up with your voicemail messages while on the road.
E-mails can be just as demanding. For this, solutions range from receiving e-mails through your cell phone to using a pocket PC device enabled to handle wireless internet access. Using multiple locations to receive e-mail can be confusing, and could lead to lost e-mails without a clear strategy. To solve this particular problem, your main office desktop can be configured as the central source for e-mail storage. It is possible to configure a program such as Microsoft Outlook or Eudora Pro (www.eudora.com) to pull the e-mails off the e-mail server and store them on the local computer. However, doing so might prevent you from seeing them if you were attempting to access e-mails from another source, such as a PDA or cell phone. One way to work around this is to configure your computer to save a copy of the e-mails on the server. That way, you would be able to retrieve them on another device. However, you may wish to consider having the portable devices save a copy and the desktop pull the e-mails off the server. This would work if, when you are out of the office, your main desktop computer is shut down or otherwise unable to retrieve those e-mails.
Ultimately, the goal is to save time and effort. To the extent that these tools accomplish that goal, a higher level of efficiency can be realized. It might be a stretch, however, to suggest that you could totally replace what a human administrative assistant might be able to do. The goal for the smaller practice in this case might be to extend what can be done virtually so that you are able to delay that hiring decision until the scale of your practice demands a full time, live person.
David Lawrence is a practice efficiency consultant and is president of David Lawrence and Associates, a practice consulting firm based in Lutz, Fla. (www.efficientpractice.com)