9 Tips for Working With a Virtual Assistant

Last week, we talked about how to go about finding, vetting and hiring a virtual assistant. Today, we'll talk about what to do once you've hired a virtual assistant.

When people say "virtual assistant," they might mean different things. For the purpose of this article, we're talking about remote administrative help, and assume the following three things:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. They're generalists, and not domain experts. For the purpose of this article, 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 get to work!

9 tips for working with your virtual assistant

1. Establish your workflow early.

Do you expect your VA to be available at certain hours of the day, everyday? 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.

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 firm, the VA assigned to you may not be the same person you talked to while interviewing the firm. 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 firm, that might mean 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 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 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 spreadsheet, I like to give them the spreadsheet 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. Fellow OPEN Forum contributors Mashable has a list of great screencasting software (I like 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 messanging, video conference, email, or carrier pigeon.

Keep in mind that speaking is about 7 times faster than writing, and about 4 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.

I like to use email as the primary medium. It's good for giving initial instructions and getting delivery of work. For more immediately communication, we'll 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.

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:

  1. check their work to make sure their interpretation of the task jives with your expectations,
  2. update instructions to streamline the task, or
  3. 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:

Ultimate Virtual Assistant Guide (Productivity 501) - A comprehensive look at the author's experiment in hiring a remote virtual assistant. Mark looked at Upwork and other freelance marketplaces, big Indian VA firms (like Brickwork India and GetFriday), and eventually settled on a local personal assistant. Great tips and research in this article. Definitely worth a bookmark.

Outsourcing Your Life (Wise Bread) - This article by OPEN Forum contributor Nora Dunn explains how even a full-time world traveller like her can use VAs to lighten the load and enjoy life more. It's not just for business!

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