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Ten Skills Small Business Administrative Assistants Should Have 
by Robbi Erickson September 19, 2005

There are ten skills that every small business administrative assistant should have. These skills help increase productivity, reduce expenses related to service calls and tech-support calls, and improve communication within your company.


Small businesses need to utilize every asset that they have, and an efficient and multi-talented administrative assistant is one of those assets. By providing additional training in certain areas, a small business can use an administrative assistant to perform a wide variety of services that the company would otherwise have to pay for from an outside service provider.

There are ten basic skills that a small business administrative assistant should have.  They are: (1) the ability to witness contracts, (2) a basic understanding of office machinery, (3) the ability to use all of the software used by the company, (4) a basic understanding of computer operation, maintenance, and troubleshooting, (5) a basic understanding of business law, (6) advanced communication skills, (7) organizational skills, (8) bookkeeping skills, (9) time management skills, and (10) multi-tasking skills. With this arsenal of skills a small business administrative assistant can perform basic duties that would otherwise be contracted out to private notary publics, lawyers, repair companies, tech support, and designers. Even if the small business only utilizes these skills occasionally or seasonally, the savings in professional fees can add up to hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

10 Skills Your Administrative Assistant Should Have

1. The Ability to Witness a Contract

This category encompasses a couple of different activities. The first activity that an administrative assistant should know how to do is to prepare a document for signing and witnessing. This includes proper layout, numbered margins, and providing a place for the involved parties to sign, as well as providing a place for the signing to be witnessed. These document layout skills can be acquired by reviewing sample contracts and business documents, and by reviewing instructions on how to format documents. Instructions for document formatting can be found in either the instruction manual that came with the word processing software, or they can be found by navigating through the software’s help menus.

The second activity that an administrative assistant should be able to do is to notarize a document. To do this they will need to become a notary public. The steps to obtain a notary public license vary from state to state. Some states require that the notary candidate take an exam that covers the situations that a notary public will face, and what the proper procedures for notarizing a document are. After this exam is passed the notary public candidate is able to purchase a notary license and is able to legally witness contracts and documents. Other states, on the other hand, only require a notary candidate to purchase a notary license in order to perform notary services. After obtaining a notary license the administrative assistant will need to purchase a notary seal and a logbook to document the notary services that they perform.

The ability to prepare a document for signing and the ability to legally witness contracts and transactions are both very beneficial functions that an administrative assistant can perform. These functions can save a small business $100s an hour in legal fees in the drafting of contracts and documents, and can save the business time and money by having a notary in house.

2. Basic Understanding of Office Machinery

An administrative assistant should also be trained in how to hookup and disconnect the office machinery that the small business uses. This may include copiers, computers, shredders, fax machines, postage machines, and sorters. This basic set of skills will save the company time and money by not having to wait for a private technician to have time to come to your company to move, disconnect, and connect the company’s old machinery or new machinery. This could potentially save hundreds of dollars per incident. If the administrative assistant is trained in these basic duties, then proper disconnects and hookups can be done as needed for at no extra expense.

Basic maintenance and troubleshooting skills are also beneficial skill for the administrative assistant to have. This does not mean that they should be trained in advanced mechanical engineering, it simply means that they should be able to replace toner cartridges, clear jams, follow an operator’s manual for common problems and solutions, and be able to put everything back together after performing maintenance function. These skills can save the small business hundreds of dollars on service calls and repair bills, and therefore training in these areas is a good investment of the administrative assistant’s time and of the company’s training resources.

There are several low and no cost ways for an administrative assistant to gain these skills. The first way is to ask the company where the machine was purchased if they have a training program for the use of the machinery. Most companies offer this service free of charge, especially if the machine in question is a large ticket item like an industrial copier/printer. These training sessions can be scheduled to take place either at the company or at the showroom. The administrative assistant should come prepared to take notes and ask questions regarding how to perform common maintenance tasks such as replacing toner cartridges, how to run the machine, how to read and understand the display codes, how to clear jams, and what situations should they be able to handle and what situations should they always call the service department about.

Another way that an administrative assistant can acquire basic maintenance and troubleshooting skills is to read through the service/owner’s manual that came with the machinery. The troubleshooting pages should be marked so that the administrative assistant can locate the pages quickly when they are needed. Important information such a serial number, account number, model number, and service department phone number should all be written on the front of the manual and kept with the machine so that they are available when a problem arises that requires technical support.

3. Know How to Use All of the Software Used By the Company

The Administrative Assistant should also be well versed in how to use every software program that the company uses. They should be able to install and remove software from a computer, and they should be able to train new employees on how to start the program, navigate through the fields, and how to enter data (depending on the program).

To get this kind of expertise, the administrative assistant should sit in on training seminars for new software programs, and they should read through the operation manual for each piece of software that the company uses. This may seem excessive and unnecessary, however, if the administrative assistant is able to perform this function, the company will save money on tech support lines. In addition to saving the company money, this set of skills will also help to reduce the frustration experienced by other company employees by helping them in person with questions in how to use the software and what to do when a problem is experienced instead of having to get help over a phone.

One way to implement this training is to have the administrative assistant keep the instruction manual that came with the software at their desk. They should read through the entire manual and become familiar with how the manual is laid out and how to find information about the software that will be needed. When the administrative assistant has a slow period they can read through the manuals and "play" with the software. As time progresses they will be able to gain the understanding and expertise needed to assist other employees with software questions instead of having to call expensive tech support lines.

Another way to improve an administrative assistant’s expertise in this area is to send them to a training seminar for software, especially those seminars that cover advanced functions and troubleshooting. Microsoft offers many seminars for their software products like Word and Excel.

If seminars are not in your budget, then you can also buy computer-based training programs or reference books that offer the same training and information that the seminars offer.

4. Basic Understanding of Computer Operation, Maintenance, and Troubleshooting

In today’s tech-savvy business world, it is critical that administrative assistants have a good understanding of the computer. They need to know: (1) how to perform diagnostic checks, (2) run virus protection software, (3) install plug and play hardware, (4) run backup program, (5) navigate through menus, (6) use help menus, and (7) to properly clean monitor, keyboard, and tower. These basic computer skills are critical to maximizing the performance of the machine, as well as protecting it from viruses and damage due to dust and improper handling.

Training for these skills can be handled by reading the user manuals, going to seminars, and through apprenticeship training with another employees who already have these skills.

5. Basic Knowledge of Employment Law

Administrative assistants handle a lot of sensitive documents like payroll, employee records, contracts, and tax forms. In order to make sure that tax forms are filed correctly and on time, and to make sure that employee issues are handled in a legally appropriate manner, it is important that the company’s administrative assistant be trained in basic employment law. The topics that they should study include employment tax laws, privacy issues, and sexual harassment issues.

Most of the information that an administrative assistant will need to learn can be downloaded from governmental websites for free. For example employment law training material for small businesses can be downloaded from the Small Business Administration and from the Department of Internal Revenue Service.

In addition to downloading free reference materials, charts, and forms that an administrative assistant will need, the government also offers free seminars several times a year that cover these important topics. In addition to the free seminars, if money is available for training, the administrative assistant can also be sent to a seminar given by a private organization. These fee seminars usually provide the participants with training and reference materials that can be kept and used on the job. These tools are great for quick reference during the year on what to do and when. They are also helpful if other company employees have questions about an employment law issue.

You should be aware that the skills in this category will need to be updated annually, and in some cases several times a year. This is especially true of tax requirement changes that sometimes happen several times a year depending on legislative changes that are made.

6. Advanced Communication Skills

Effective communication is perhaps the most important skill that an administrative assistant needs to have because miscommunications can cost a company a lot of money. An administrative assistant should be able to effectively communicate in a number of ways including: (1) proper phone etiquette, (2) clear and concise verbal communication, and (3) appropriate and well presented written communication skills.

Phone etiquette is an important part of customer service. The first contact that a customer has with a small business is usually with the administrative assistant. This first contact will set the tone for future interactions that the customer will have with the company. If the administrative assistant is rude or disorganized, then the customer may decide to do business with another company that provides them with a better reception, and with better customer service. To ensure proper phone etiquette, the administrative assistant needs to be polite and provide the calling customer with a brief but informative greeting such as, "(Company Name), this is (Administrative Assistant’s Name), how may I help you?"

After greeting the customer they should also have the information that is most commonly asked ready to deliver to the customer without transferring them to another person. Commonly asked questions like hours of operation, fax numbers, employer ID number, mailing address, web address, price list, etc. should be typed out neatly on a info sheet, so that the administrative assistant, or any other employee answering the phone can quickly refer to the sheet to find an answer to the customer’s question.

If the administrative assistant is unable to answer the customer’s question, then they should be able to quickly and accurately transfer the call to the appropriate person. Nothing is more frustrating for a customer than to be transferred to department after department before their question is finally answered. In order to make sure that the administrative assistant is able to transfer questions to the appropriate person, they need to know what employees or departments handle what types of questions, as well as what extensions each employee has. This should again be typed out in an easy to navigate sheet with employee names, phone extensions, department, and what the department or employee does printed in large enough type that most people will be able to easily read it.

Effective verbal communication is also an important skill that an administrative assistant should have. Effective verbal communication involves being able to recall accurate information, and being able to transmit this information to a variety of people in a way that they are able to understand it. This may mean that the administrative assistant has to explain information or procedures in several different ways so that every employee or customer is able to understand it.

Effective verbal communication also involves active listening. Active listening is needed when the administrative assistant is actively involved in a conversation, as well as when other people in the office are having conversations. This does not mean eavesdrop, but it does mean that the administrative assistant should be aware of communications that are being transmitted within the office. This may mean listening to conversations between customers and employees, or by proofreading memos before they are handed out. These tasks will help the administrative assistant to identify items of miscommunications that could potentially cause a problem or dispute.

Written communication is also an important skill that an administrative assistant needs to develop. Written communication skills that an administrative assistant should have are: moderate to advanced typing speed with few errors, advanced editing skills, advanced word processing skills, and at least basic skills in desktop publishing. These skills will help to improve the distribution of information to employees through memos and newsletters.

In addition to basic office communications, these skills will also allow the administrative assistant to proofread documents that will be going out to customers or to professional agencies for errors and proper formatting. They will also be able to create advertising materials like brochures, letterhead, and business cards for your company. This will help save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars (depending on the number of employees) on professional looking printed materials.

7. Organizational Skills

An administrative assistant is responsible for completing many tasks every day, and they are responsible for making sure that monthly and seasonal tasks are complete on time. In order for an administrative assistant to keep track of every task and when it needs to be completed, they need to be organized.

Organization of tasks should be in a written form either on their computer or in a hardcopy printout. The task title, description, due date, and where it needs to go once it is completed should be clearly spelled out and understandable to anyone that reads the description. By having this information in writing, a person filling in for the administrative assistant will know what needs to be done in their absence.

An administrative assistant should also have a well-organized desktop and office space. They should be able find important papers, software, disks, or other items quickly and easily without having to search through piles of debris. This kind of organization will not only help to save time in finding things, it will also create a more attractive workspace in case a customer walks in and needs assistance.

8. Bookkeeping Kills

Not every administrative assistant has bookkeeping responsibilities, however, if the company requires their administrative assistant to keep their books and/or handle payroll, then they will need to be trained in both basic bookkeeping activities, and advanced bookkeeping functions. At first, the basics of bookkeeping should be acquired such as: debits and credits, what entries need to be made each month, how to balance to the books, and what reports need to be printed out every week, month, year, etc.

Once the basics are learned the administrative assistant should try to expand their knowledge and understanding of the bookkeeping process so that they will be able to locate and correct errors that occur. Without an extended understanding of bookkeeping, it may be very difficult to find where errors were made, or even where to look for mistakes and how to identify errors in reports.

9. Time Management Skills

Time management skills are important for all employees to have. For an administrative assistant time management skills are especially important when prioritizing work assignments. They should be able to determine which projects need to be completed right away and which assignments can wait. Prioritization of projects by employees and hierarchical systems are also needed.

In order for an administrative assistant to learn how the company wants projects prioritized, a prioritization chart may need to be drafted. This chart should include segregated listings of what kinds of projects need to be completed ASAP, and whose projects should be given a priority status. Also a way for employees to let the administrative assistant know when a project is needed by should also be devised. This can be as simple as attaching a sticky note with a "due by" statement, or a color-coded sticker system that assigns priority ratings such as red = urgent, yellow = moderate urgency, and green = as soon as you can get to it.

10. Multi-tasking Skills

While some studies have shown that too much multi-tasking can actually impede productivity, when it is used appropriately it can help to dramatically improve your administrative assistant’s productivity. Many of the tasks that an administrative assistant performs requires a lot of time waiting. For example backups, once initiated, require no further actions until the backup is completed. During this time the administrative assistant can do other things like file charts, type out letters, and answer the phones.

Knowing what can be done while certain processes are being completed by machines can help to reduce inactive periods. A list of activities that can be done while there is an inactive period should be drafted so that the administrative assistant will always be doing something productive. For example while waiting for a large batch of copies to be made the administrative assistant can: straighten the reception area, file charts, answer emails, answer the phones, update files, shred documents, etc. Keeping active will help reduce boredom and it will keep the office running smoothly


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