Today we are looking at Working with a virtual assistant.
When people say “virtual assistant,” (VA) they might mean different things. We’re talking about remote administrative help, and assume the following three things:
- They work remotely. Your VA will not be sitting next to you in your office or someplace near. All your communication will be online or on the phone, and you may never meet your VA face-to-face even if you work with them for years. A remote working relationship has its own quirky challenges.
- They’re global. That is, they don’t live and work in the same state or country as you. The customs, laws and standard business practices they know may be different from the ones affecting you.
- They may be generalists, and not domain experts. For the purpose of this episode, we’ll assume your VA is not a domain or industry expert. They provide administrative help, not specific consulting.
Now that we’re on the same page about what a VA is and isn’t, let’s drill down
1. Establish your workflow early.
Do you expect your VA to be available at certain hours of the day, everyday? (I.e. The Philippines is two hours behind East Coast Australia in the winter and 3 hours behind in Summer) Or can they mostly work on longer tasks and just give weekly updates? Set expectations for when you want to be online and available to reduce the frustration from not being able to reach your VA when you need them the most. It’s always a good idea to have a regular (i.e. weekly ‘work in progress ‘ (WIP) meeting.
Discuss your potential task list with your VA. Hopefully, you already did this during the vetting and hiring phase, but it helps to go through the list again with your VA after you’ve hired them. If you’re hiring a service provider, the VA assigned to you may not be the same person you talked to while interviewing the service provider. By giving your VA an idea of the work coming down the pipe, they can better prepare for it. When you’re dealing with a service provider that might means getting sub-VAs that specialize in the tasks on your list.
Ask them to send you a weekly (or daily or monthly, depending on the number of hours you’ve booked) breakdown of tasks they’ve done and how long it took each task.
Preferred communication. Your VA will be able to handle whatever communications medium you prefer. It may be by phone or Instant Message (IM) or email. While you’re at it, tell them how you prefer to be reached, at what times and for which problems. You don’t want to have your VA sending you an email when they should have called about a question on a time-sensitive project, and conversely, you don’t want them calling you at all hours of the night for trivial questions.
2. Try different tasks in the beginning to gauge your VAs strengths and weaknesses.
During the vetting and hiring phase, hopefully you found a VA that specializes in the tasks you will be assigning. However, and this is especially true of microbusinesses that have few people doing a large variety of work, you may have a range of tasks that require different skillsets. For example, sending you an email and responding to responses requires people skills, whereas data entry requires being very detail oriented.
When you first start working with your VA, don’t be afraid to try different tasks. You may find that your VA can accomplish more than you hoped for. If that’s the case, you may assign this VA higher-level tasks that require some thinking, and choose to hire a lower cost VA to do the data entry work.
3. Give very detailed instructions.
When writing instructions, assume nothing and be as specific as possible. At least until you know your VA’s ability to “read between the lines” and/or “anticipate your needs,” make sure your instructions contain step-by-step explanations. Do not assume that your VA will be able to infer anything. They work on many types of tasks across all industries, so unless you hired a specialized VA, don’t assume they can fill in even the smallest holes in your instructions.
Show an example of the finished task if possible. Or give them an example to follow. When assigning a task that involves filling in a spread sheet, give them the spread sheet with one or two rows already filled out.
Marked up screenshots are a great way to explain a task. The Firefox plugin FireShot makes it really easy to create a screenshot and add annotations to it.
If the task is more involved, you can also use a video screencast. Follow OPEN Forum contributors; Mashable has a list of great screen casting software (i.e. CamStudio) and a very comprehensive guide to making video tutorials.
4. Communicate using the appropriate tools.
A good VA will be able to use your preferred communications medium, whether it’s voice calls, instant messaging, video conference, (i.e. GoToMeeting) or email.
Keep in mind that speaking is about seven times faster than writing, and about four times faster than typing. So once you have a good workflow going with your VA, and you’re confident they understand your needs so you can have less detailed instructions, try to integrate faster communication methods into your workflow. However, for longer project-like tasks, written instructions are better so your VA can reference it.
Email is good as the primary medium. It’s good for giving initial instructions and getting delivery of work. For more immediately communication, use IM and sometimes voice calls (using Skype makes international calls free). IM is especially good for asking quick questions while doing the task.
5. When you assign the task, ask the VA to verify that they understand the task. (Active Listening is the most valuable skill a VA can have)
For example, you can add one or more of the following into your instructions:
- Tell me exactly what you’re going to do to accomplish this task. (Basically, ask them to explain the task back to you.)
- What is your estimate for how long this task will take?
- Is anything I said unclear at all? Do you have ANY questions?
What you’re looking for is verification that your VA understands the goals of the task and your instructions for accomplishing it. By asking for this verification up-front, it lessens the chance your VA will waste the time you’ve paid for doing the wrong thing.
The key: make sure your VA acknowledges and understands the task before they start working on it.
6. Check in on the task about 10-20% of the way in.
If you expect a task to take 10 hours, ask the VA to come back after 1-2 hours with their progress. This will allow you to:
- Check their work to make sure their interpretation of the task jives with your expectations,
- Update instructions to streamline the task, or
- Cancel the task if it turns out to be a bad idea.
7. Allocate two to three times more time for the task.
If you can do the task in an hour, expect your remote assistant to take 2-3 hours.
In the beginning, when you guys are just getting used to each other, it might take 3-4 hours. Once you’ve gotten into a good working relationship, and have found the perfect assistant for the set of tasks you tend to assign, it may only take the 1-2 hours.
But regardless, they will never be as fast as you. Even if you hired locally, the smartest college student you pay minimum wage won’t be able to complete your tasks to your specs at your speed. So don’t expect miracles.
8. Significant savings comes with volume (and trial and error).
The first month you work with your virtual assistant, it might actually take you more time to accomplish the task. By the time you write up instructions, vet candidates, get used to working with the remote employee, send back work with more instructions, and spend your time fixing mistakes in the final product, it might take considerably more time than if you had done the task yourself.
Some folks will try hiring a VA and give up quickly. Their rationale is “if it takes them as much or more time as me, I’ll just do it myself!” But experienced small business owners will take the long-view and realize that even if the VA is not as fast as them, outsourcing low-level work frees them up to accomplish higher-level (higher profit) work.
The benefits of outsourcing come once you’ve found a good remote employee that is well suited to the type of tasks you assign, and when you’ve learned how to efficiently communicate and work with your virtual assistant.
The takeaway: keep the long-term benefits in mind, and don’t give up after the first few tasks. The first 100 hours of working with a remote employee is going to feel like an expensive waste. But if you stick it out, you’ll see significant cost savings over the next 10,000+ hours.
9. Learn from other people’s experiences.
The Four-Hour Workweek
– Tim Ferris’ book and site has done more to grow the virtual assistant industry than anymore else in recent memory. Follow Tim’s blog to learn about his lifestyle of automating as much work as he can, so he can travel the world and live the life he wants. Especially useful links:
- The Holy Grail: How to Outsource the Inbox and Never Check Email Again
Describes the processes Tim uses to have his VAs be his frontline email corresponder.
- The Art of Letting Bad Things Happen
– When you trust someone else to do the work you know you can do really well, some bad things will happen. As Tim says, “oftentimes, in order to do the big things, you have to let the small bad things happen.” And as the owner, you’re the only one who can do The Big Things, so it’s necessary to let some small things slide.