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WORK & FAMILY
By Jill Hamburg Coplan
MARCH 15, 2000


Let the Concierge Fetch Your License Plates

Hiring a service to do household chores and other tasks could be a life-enhancer for the entrepreneur

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This column is only two weeks old, but already I see a theme in your letters: managing the time crunch. Entrepreneurs are struggling to keep work pressures from overwhelming their personal lives. I wrote about some solutions last week -- carving out a separate work area at home, enlisting family members to help you disconnect when you're "off-duty," and setting limits with clients.

The problem is that it isn't just work that gnaws away at family time. Household chores and managing the social side of business life take their toll, too. One way to snatch back a few hours is to hire a concierge service. Such services aren't cheap -- they generally charge between $12 and $25 an hour or on a per-fee basis. (If you use the service for business, you may be able to deduct some costs when you do your taxes.) Grocery shopping typically costs 20% of the bill, a reminder call 75 cents. Some are drop-in services -- you call when you need them. Others charge a retainer, which can run several thousand dollars a year and essentially buys you service on call. Most offer a range of service options. Until you know the provider well, you can't be assured of the quality. But if you don't have an endless supply of selfless, available friends, neighbors, and relatives, the idea is worth considering.

A brief introduction to the concept: A French word, "concierge" has multiple connotations -- all referring to those who render a range of services. The term originally referred to the keeper of the keys to the palace, according to the National Concierge Assn. Today, in most U.S. metropolitan areas and tourist destinations, you can hire a concierge service to take on such unrewarding tasks as waiting around for the cable guy, buying obligatory gifts for distant relatives, booking travel, or getting license plates.

POPULAR PERK.

They're very accommodating. I've heard of chain saws procured in under an hour and an elephant delivered to a birthday party. Concierge services are fast becoming a popular work-life perk for professional staff at such corporations as Microsoft, Arthur Andersen, and McKinsey. They still don't seem to have caught on with small-business owners, though the names and mottos of the services sure seem to target small biz: Helping Hands in Washington; Uptown Runaround in Houston; "Consider it done"; "Your busyness is our business"; "Giving back the gift of time."

R.J. Valentine, owner of the real estate developing and insurance concern MBA Group in Braintree, Mass., swears by one local service, Concierge of Boston, owned by Gordon R. Jones, who left Kidder Peabody 12 years ago to start the company. "He arranged a traditional New England clambake for me on 15 minutes' notice," Valentine says. "We entertain on a regular basis. I couldn't run my business without him."

"What would take a one-person business three days, we can do in an hour," boasts Jones. "Small businesses tend to have less support staff. We'll get Red Sox tickets, handle travel, plan functions, oversee events -- the duties an administrative assistant might have to do." Jones gets a hefty $6,000 annual retainer but swears he can save small companies more than that in time and discounts of up to 20% from local vendors with whom he does volume business. Valentine says the service is a lot cheaper than hiring an assistant.

ONLINE EASE.

Most concierge services are local companies offering personal service. But quite a number are Web-based, taking job orders and communicating with clients electronically. There are also national companies that take job orders online and subcontract the assignments to local partners. Concierge at Large Inc., a San Diego-based company, offers both one-time services and contracts, starting at $199 a month. Boston-based Circles, a national "virtual personal assistant" service geared to corporate customers, handles requests via its Web site as well as a 24-hour call center.

Circles partners with local errand services but doesn't accept one-time jobs. You pay an annual membership fee (starting at $20 per employee per year), which rises with the level of service. The options range from LifeConcierge, a package for the rank-and-file that offers a range of errands and household services, to PremierConcierge, a service that companies can offer clients, which will take practically every personal task you can imagine off your hands.

Unless you were born into money, it may feel a little weird to hire someone to do the tedious chores that seem the lot of a normal adult life. Or you can look at it this way: Life is too short to stand in line at Motor Vehicles.



Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y.



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