Large corporations, as early as late 80s, had started setting up offices or partnered up with local back office service providers in South and Far East Asia to take advantage of cheaper talent pool. These companies had the financial muscle to open offices, train employees, and adapt management techniques to fit the local environment. This option was not viable for Small-to-Mid size Enterprises (SMEs) for financial and economy of scale reasons. All this has changed with evolution in Virtual Assistant Services concept and the advancement in broadband internet access and remote connectivity tools. Virtual Assistant Virtual Assistant Services Providers now not only provide basic services but also web/desktop application development, business analysis, online marketing, and bookkeeping support to new a few.
So how do we differentiate this new crop of Virtual Assistant Services Providers from standard outsourcing firms? In my view, today’s successful Virtual Assistant Services Providers operate in a make-to-order environment with flexibility to accommodate the needs of a SME. Their flexibility and lower cost structure actually makes them attractive to any size business. The question then becomes how do you find a quality Virtual Assistant Services Provider and how should you engage the provider in a mutually beneficial relationship. While there is no silver bullet, the following seven points will improve your probability of finding and sustaining a good match.
Characteristics of Good Virtual Assistant Services Providers
First define what your needs are. Take some time to make a list of tasks using 80/20 rule; 20% of the tasks that take 80% of your time. How many of those tasks are repeatable; for example, regular content updating on your website or ad postings on a daily or weekly basis is a repeatable task. Once you have your list, then search online for providers that provide those services. Pick three to five Virtual Assistant Services Providers that have a solid website with testimonials section and provide a range of services. Google these providers to find out what good/bad information you can find. Read their testimonials, ask for references preferably from one of the clients in the testimonial list, and ask for work samples. Generally, you can expect responsive service if your requirements are at least 20hrs/week.
Expect Learning Curve
A common mistake made is not accounting for learning curve. No matter how experienced a Virtual Assistant Services Provider is and how much a client has utilized a Virtual Assistant in the past, it always takes some time to understand requirements and implement solutions. Clients that factor in the learning curve have the highest success rate. If you are going to test a Virtual Assistant Services Provider’s productivity against a specific benchmark then you must help the provider to perform at it best. In few extreme cases we came across, the client’s focus was on proving that Virtual Assistance arrangements do not create value and as a result, the relationship was more adversarial to begin with than a potential partnership. While virtual assistance many not work in all situations, the value it creates is well documented and beyond doubt. If you’ve your doubts about productivity, discuss those with your provider so an accurate assessment can be made.
Initial Settling Period
Once you have selected your Virtual Assistant Services Provider, the focus must be on building a process that suits your requirements and creates value. You must understand the variables involved. The most common variables are:
1. Time Zone Difference
By understanding the time zone difference, you can actually make it work to your advantage. If your Virtual Assistant Services Provider is located in South Asia and you are located on the American East Coast then most likely your provider is 10 to 11 hours ahead of you. If you are located in Sydney, Australia then you are most likely 4 to 5 hours ahead of your South Asian Service Provider. The main idea is that you find out what working hours overlap so you can communicate with your Virtual Assistant and clarify any issues.
2. Language and Cultural Difference
Your assigned Virtual Assistant most likely speaks and writes English well but the differences between South Asian English and wherever you are located do exist. Add cultural difference to that and it becomes all the more important that you clearly state the task/project, explain any underlying assumptions, and leave some time margin for your VA to ask questions.
Task/Project Management and Reporting
When you assign a task/project make sure you articulate the problem statement clearly. If there are any underlying assumptions make your assistant aware of those. The effort (hours) allowed for the task/project and the project delivery due date must be clearly communicated. Most Virtual Assistant Services Providers should have a basic project management tool that could be accessed via their website. It should, at the very least, convey the status of your task/project (%age complete) and authorized vs. consumed hours. Some providers will include other information as well, such as your plan related information, and payment status to name a few.
Bottom line, you must provide complete task/project information and your provider should have a mechanism to update you on the status without you having to ask for it.
Organizational Issues in employing Virtual Assistant Services
Any outsourcing of tasks/projects will be met with resistance unless those affected are involved and not threatened by it. Organizational dynamics must be carefully considered before any Virtual Assistant relationships are considered. There are numerous cases where the company management was excited about the possibilities but the employees were not on board, and as a result the collaborative benefits were not fully realized. Virtual Assistant Services Providers when employed to facilitate growth by increasing capacity, improving capability, and enhancing collaboration result in successful relationships; as opposed to, when seen as an exercise in work force reduction.
When employees understand and believe that resources freed up by Virtual Assistant collaboration can be redeployed for revenue generation activities hence improving the health of the company, the arrangement becomes a win-win situation.
Avoid Hasty Conclusions
If your Virtual Assistant misinterpreted the task and went in the wrong direction, that doesn’t mean that you have conclusive evidence that this type of relationship doesn’t work. This is actually part of learning for both you and the associate. Make sure you find out what caused the confusion and what needs to be done by you and the associate to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. If your Virtual Assistant continuously underperforms, then talk to your provider and most likely they will assign you another associate. Understand the difference between a good provider and the underperforming associate. Good Virtual Assistant Services Provider is what you should be interested in. Virtual Assistants will come and go.
While we all would love our assistant to hit the ground running, the reality is all relationships take time to develop and Virtual Assistance is no different.
Sustaining and Growing the Relationship
This is as important as finding a good Virtual Assistant Services Provider. Open communication in a closed feedback loop will ensure consistent performance. Mistakes will happen and lessons must be learned. However, the key is how your provider reacts to rectify the situation. Openly communicate your concerns and suggest ways to help the situation. This will signal to your Service Provider that you are a partner and you want to help in straightening things out.
The term virtual in “Virtual Assistant” is somewhat misleading; these are real people working in a real office with all the issues of any business. Sometimes clients expect the assistant to be available at the drop of a hat and that is not a realistic expectation. If you have subscribed to a 10hr/week plan then taper your expectations accordingly. Part-time support means your assigned Virtual Assistant is supporting multiple clients, if you need dedicate support then subscribing to a full-time plan is required.
Utilizing Virtual Assistants is a great way for SMEs to improve capacity and capability, and reduce cost at the same time. All supporting activities of your business are candidates for back office processing. By tapping into a Virtual Assistant relationship clients also get access to a number of other skills. You may be able to get bookkeeping support, website maintenance/development, invoicing, research etc. all through your assigned Virtual Assistant. And this is what makes a “Virtual Assistant” extremely valuable.