Years ago, when my husband, Dan, and I wanted counseling to resolve a disagreement, the search for someone we liked took months. Ultimately, getting help, well, helped. But finding it was costly, time-consuming and discouraging. If solid advice weren't so hard to come by, I'd seek more of it. At times I've wished for input from a mental health therapist, lawyer, interior designer and accountant—but not badly enough to spend a ton of time and money to get it.
Lately, though, experts in most fields have discovered they can expand their client base by hanging a shingle in the virtual world. Many offer perks like a free introductory session, discounted rates and e-mail follow-ups. I wondered how cyber-help compares to the "real thing." Toronto-based marriage therapist Nicole McCance (nicolemccance.com) touts virtual therapy for pure logistics—no drive time, traffic or similar hassles. Squeezing our Skype chat into a workday while my kids (14 and 12) were at school was easy. It might not work for someone with serious issues, but for me, convenient and relaxed was perfect.
Another topic on my wish list: decorating. I often see photos of homes in magazines and long for that look. However, hiring a pro is not in my budget. Enter DeAnna Radaj of Bante Design (bantedesign.com) in Milwaukee, who says her virtual clutter counseling and feng shui business is more popular than her in-home service, and cheaper too. Clients walk through the house with a laptop in hand, sending Radaj a video feed. She encourages them to pare down and suggests ways to rearrange furniture for more effective use of space. I've been selling unneeded stuff on eBay and Craigslist since we spoke. No one offers a service like this near me. (Most would want me to buy more furniture.) So being able to tap an expert elsewhere is a plus.
Some sites offer one-stop shopping, with a wide range of experts on hand to field your questions. Recently Dan and I had a real estate issue, but finding a lawyer—and paying the bill—seemed daunting. So I went to JustAnswer.com and posted my query. Within minutes I had a detailed reply from a qualified real estate attorney, for $28. Fast, cheap, accurate—that's my kind of expertise.
How to Click Wisely
Stick with commonsense consumer rules.
Remember, you are buying a service. Inquire in advance what it will cost, if a free trial is possible, whether any commitment is required and how payment is rendered. If you're considering a mental health therapist, check any candidate's credentials with the state that issued them. For a national directory of licensing departments, go to Checkatherapist.com.
Ask a question.
JustAnswer.com has pros to address queries on just about any topic—mental health, car repairs, you name it. Experts go through rigorous screening and answers typically cost less than $30. You pay only if you are satisfied. Or opt for a live chat, for which you pay by the minute, at LivePerson.com/experts.
Take advantage of Skype.
Many virtual therapists prefer Skype (skype.com) because it allows both parties to see each other easily. The software is a free download, and your laptop very likely has a built-in Web cam.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.