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Virtual offices help expand businesses without the real estate headache

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Virtual offices are gaining in popularity across the U.S. In Chicago, companies like Amata are helping out-of-town business owners expand their organization to Windy City locations and skipping the monstrous rates of Loop pricing.

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Business owners have the ability to choose the location for their virtual building; choose a private office or conference room; purchase a lobby listing; buy an office number that an in-house receptionist will answer; create an office voicemail for this new location; and have mail sent to this office for an in-house mail clerk to open, scan or file away until the business owner visits the virtual location.

So what's the catch? There are very few for the business owner and only one for customers who work with the business owner.

The company itself won't just appear to be expanding. Business owners actually have the ability to physically use their virtual offices from the real estate owners. When the business owners are in town, they can use the offices or conference rooms to meet clients.

For business owners who are passionate about virtual office owners not outsourcing the jobs, this should be one of the first questions asked before doing business with any real estate owner. In the case of one of Amata's business partners Roger Koeppen, he confirmed that his Chicago-based company for the past 11 years does indeed hire people to physically work in the office.

So a customer who thinks she's calling a Chicago office will be talking to someone who is physically in the office of that Chicago virtual office location instead of the receptionist or male clerk or other reps being hired somewhere overseas.

Another pro of a virtual office is being able to use the space without paying for upkeep. The real estate owners pay for all maintenance upkeep, and the business owner doesn't have to step foot inside of the office all year but still has a legal right to use their personalized address, phone number, fax number and so forth.

So why should a business owner not choose rental space instead of a virtual office? That's an individual decision, but the business owner should take into account that they'd also be responsible for maintaining their rental offices and hiring a staff to handle business. Virtual offices already have a ready-made staff, in addition to the physical space, office and electronic setup.

The only part that gets shaky about virtual offices will come from the customer's standpoint. With scam artists always on the lookout for new ideas to take advantage of people, not every real estate owner who has virtual business locations does background checks on the company. Real estate owners may do a "soft" background check to see if the company has a Web site, but customers and the real estate owners must be careful to make sure companies aren't just using the address to appear legitimate.

"If it's a brand new business, we do a credit background," said Koeppen. "If it's a business that's five years old, we're probably more likely going to check out their Web site, do a soft background check on them. The scams are those new businesses. Those are the ones that are doing it more. Or, when we get a company from another country that says, 'Hey, I want to set up an office so you guys can receive packages,' we run away from those."

The purpose of a virtual business isn't to be a post office, in other words.

Amata doesn't shy away from international businesses though. According to Koeppen, 15 percent of their clientele are international businesses trying to break into the U.S.

"It's the first logical step of opening a business of any line in Chicago," Koeppen said. "Here's why. You have to get a business license. You have to register with the city. Register with the state. And you have to have an address to do that so a virtual office is a stepping stone in many ways even if going to be a large company taking 5,000 square feet of space."

So what are the things that business owners should look out for before purchasing a virtual office?

  • Make sure that the company does have a physical office at that address. An in-person tour is the most ideal verification. Observe how professional the lobby staff and (if available) security team are, too.
  • Inquire or investigate whether the company is accredited by the Better Business Bureau. Keep in mind that not all legitimate companies pay for BBB accreditation. However, it doesn't hurt to ask. Or, at least check out customer reviews from sites like Yelp and BBB. For customers with malicious reviews, check out their other reviews to see whether this is a pattern.
  • Compare rental pricing with the business rates of each virtual office. For clients who would rather work with digital freelancers to handle office duties but have a rental location, the expenses may be less. But for clients who just don't have the time or energy to hire work-from-home digital freelancers from various states to complete different jobs, a virtual office may be a one-stop shop to get the most basic office needs handled at once.
  • Decide whether a virtual office would be profitable. For business owners who already have a receptionist, mail clerk, fax number, etc., in their original office, the amenities may not be necessary. But for business owners who have multiple clients in other states who don't desire or can't afford to constantly travel to the owner's original business location, the virtual office may be worthwhile for meetings alone.
  • Make sure the real estate owner's hours of operation match the business owner's current needs. Business owners who have virtual offices on completely different time zones may need to make necessary tweaks for incoming calls.

Editor's Note: The Chicago Personal Finance Examiner has no business connection whatsover to Amata. This entry was written for informational purposes, not as a sales pitch. After calling one of their five virtual office locations, located at 150 N. Michigan, it was confirmed that they do have physical offices.

Follow Shamontiel on Pinterest for all of her latest Chicago finance, employment and savings tips, or subscribe to her Chicago Personal Finance channel at the top of this page.

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