If you're a freelancer, you use a lot of tools. Interacting with clients means having to adjust and change your tech tools to fit the needs of your employer for that project. Even if you work with clients who use the same platforms you do, a lot of tools freelancers use only handle one specific area of a business and may not integrate with one another.
Technology is meant to make life easier, but the average freelancer ends up using a ton of apps and services to interact with clients and organize projects. Keeping track of all these tools can get overwhelming.
"Especially in the consulting and freelancer space," said Jevin Maltais, founder of AI product consultancy BoomLabs.ai. "It can be really overwhelming for people – either clients and consultants – to have a number of different tools they're using at the same time."
Microsoft is looking to solve this problem with Skype Professional Accounts. This program is geared specifically toward remote professionals, and integrates scheduling, a payment system through PayPal, video calling and a business profile into one place. Microsoft is aiming for this tool to be a professional's go-to program for their entire remote-based business.
It's still in preview for select users now, so information on pricing, scalability and other features have yet to be seen. Its full-scale release will mean another tech tool for freelancers to consider for their business.
It can help integrate tools
Cassandra Van Valkenburg is a freelance content creator who works as a copywriter and social media manager. She uses Hootsuite for social media management; Buffer for social media scheduling; G Suite for scheduling, email, word processing, and document storage; ZipBooks for tracking hours and issuing invoices; PayPal and Google Wallet for payments; SEM Rush Software for social media analytics; and Skype for video calling and instant messaging. And that's with the added convenience of all her clients already using Google Drive so document collaboration and sharing is simple. With that many tools already in use, a Skype Professional Account could help Van Valkenburg.
"I could benefit from this," Van Valkenburg said. "Even though I use Google and they have so many tools, when I mention video calling to a client, their first thought is still Skype. Skype still has top-of-mind awareness for a lot of people."
Yet, there are features that are still murky. Van Valkenburg was skeptical of how useful the payment system would be despite saying she already accepted PayPal as a form of payment. The other factor that hasn't been addressed, being that this technology is still in the preview stage, is what the cost would be for this service. For freelancers like Van Valkenburg, sometimes the best programs are the ones that are free.
"For a freelancer like me who can't yet afford to pay for comprehensive customer management software, having all these free tools is great," she said. "I can do most everything through Google, even video, but most clients don't think of Hangouts, so I end up using Skype."
It will only work if clients are using Skype
The big disconnect with Skype for freelancers is how the service will work if a client isn't on Skype. As a freelancer, it's important to slip into a client's workflow and communicate using their platforms. If you're a freelancer who relies heavily on Skype, what will you do if a client has built their business on Google's tools?
"As a consultant, my goal is to be seen as part of the team," Meghan Kelleher, founder of MKTC Consulting, said. "Using their preferred platforms makes everything easier for them to see me that way and interact with me … If my clients aren't using Skype, it also becomes a challenge to push them to do so."
In addition to using what is easiest for your client, some have said that Skype's existing interface must address its own connectivity and user-experience challenges. Maltais, unlike Van Valkenburg, said that he knows other freelancers and consultants who haven't been pleased with their existing Skype experience.
"Lots of people I know have moved off [of] it to other tools," he said. "For [Microsoft] to, kind of, add new tools and try and bake in an entire system with these other features, I'm really skeptical if that's going to work … People already have their preferred tools that they like to use."
Microsoft announced earlier this year that Skype for Business, the company's business and enterprise-level Skype service, would be integrated with Microsoft Teams, an internal-office messaging app with instant messaging and video call capabilities. Skype, while it started as the premier peer-to-peer video chatting service, has faltered in recent years and now faces absorption from Teams.
The announcement in mid-November about Skype Professional Accounts begs the question as to whether this service will become part of Microsoft Teams as well, or if it will exist as a standalone for individual remote professionals. A Microsoft spokesperson said that Skype Professional Accounts would not become a part of Microsoft Teams and, instead, will be an ideal service for remote workers who already rely heavily on Skype.
Microsoft also said that while Skype Professional Accounts wouldn't be integrated into Microsoft Teams, it is a service that would be integrated with the capabilities of a Microsoft 365 Business subscription plan.
Who is this service meant for?
Both consultants and some freelance content creators have questioned whether this service will make their projects more efficient. But that doesn't mean Skype for freelancers can't be utilized by a group of remote workers who rely on face-to-face communication with their clients, like musicians giving lessons or teachers teaching private language classes.
"It seems heavily geared toward people who are doing services online that are very much based on the conversation," Maltais said. "These are things where you have to be present doing it with the individual, and so it helps to manage your scheduling for those things."
Microsoft provided the example of a guitar teacher in one of its blogs about the program. For freelancers who need to interact with their client to complete their work, this kind of program could prove useful. But for others who spend most of the time completing their work on their own, like programmers, writers, or designers, it's not clear whether this tool would add value.
Where does this fit in?
In 2015, Google closed Google Helpouts, a similar service that featured a network of experts accessible by video chat. The service included payment options and was built to be a go-to source for people looking for paid or free expert advice on a range of topics. While Skype Professional Accounts initially looks geared only toward freelancers and remote workers, blog posts by Microsoft say that a business profile will be included in the service. There's no telling whether this is a first step toward a service like Helpouts. If Google already failed to make this kind of service well known, it's not clear whether Microsoft will have better luck – or if they are even going in the same direction.
This question is worth asking because of Skype for Business's integration with Microsoft Teams. If Skype for Business is going away, why would Microsoft release a preview of a professional version of Skype a few months after the integration was announced?
Microsoft has a wide range of apps, many of which overlap in the services they provide to both businesses and individuals. So maybe Skype Professional Accounts is the latest installment in Microsoft's attempts to have an app or service for an individual's every imaginable need. Without a clear direction on this, it's still murky as to how Skype Professional Accounts will establish itself amid the host of video communication apps that are already in use – and are free.
While Microsoft's motives for releasing this product aren't clear, what is clear is that this program could be beneficial for freelancers looking to integrate tools into one main area. While it's going to be great for some freelancers, it likely won't be great for others who are at the mercy of slipping into a client's workflow like any other member of the team.
"Most of my clients have tested other services and found already what they like best for their teams," Kelleher said. "If a client preferred Skype, I would have no problem using that system. I've just had more clients lean toward others."