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Summary:

Even the most efficient of web workers may occasionally feel overwhelmed by the nitty-gritty details of running a freelance business or the more-to-do-with-fewer-resources stress of working for a company. In either case, when you find yourself in the thick of things, there’s help available in a […]

Special Keyboard - HelpEven the most efficient of web workers may occasionally feel overwhelmed by the nitty-gritty details of running a freelance business or the more-to-do-with-fewer-resources stress of working for a company.

In either case, when you find yourself in the thick of things, there’s help available in a new breed of ready-to-work, would-be productivity saviors called virtual assistants (VAs). If you’re uninitiated into the world of VAs, they are administrative assistants who work independently via the Internet and phone to provide support to busy entrepreneurs, tired telecommuters and hard-working corporate types.

But as appealing as turning over your to-do list may seem, it’s not all a bed of efficiency roses. Witness my own first foray into hiring a VA. I made the classic mistake of not screening carefully enough and ended up losing $500, but also gaining insight into how to make the process work for me. But there’s no place for bitterness here — and besides, it inspired me to write this article. Since then, I’ve have some great experiences with VAs — all of which have helped me to increase my productivity, take on more business, and provided peace of mind.

If you’re thinking that a VA might make a difference in helping you get through your day with more speed, efficiency and sanity, here are three things to consider before taking the leap.

1. Determine if hiring a VA will help you improve your productivity by giving you more time to focus on higher-priority projects. “I hired a VA this year after thinking about it and putting it off for some time,” says Sharon Delay of Boldly Go Coaching. “Quite frankly, I would rather keep my money than pay someone else. However, I found myself doing a lot of ‘chores’ in my business that I simply didn’t enjoy; and the time I spent to work up to getting these jobs done, not to mention taking the time to do them, was actually costing me money when I realized my billable rate was better spent on building my clients,” she says. Sue L. Canfield, virtual assistant with AwesomeAssistant.info, suggests considering a few other factors that may influence your choice to hire a VA. Including are you:

  • Missing out on opportunities because you forgot or haven’t followed up on certain items?
  • Spending a lot of time trying to find information your accountant needs to file your taxes because you have no bookkeeping system in place?
  • Having a hard time finding client and prospect contact information because you have no database?
  • Working extra hours just to try to stay on top of routine administrative tasks?
  • Lacking the time and energy to get new clients because you’re overwhelmed handling the day-to-day activities of running your business?

2. Follow a set protocol to find the right virtual assistant for your needs. “Of course, you want to find someone you can trust and depend on,” says Canfield. Easy to say, not so easy to do. Start your search by asking colleagues and business associates for referrals. Once you have a short list, do your due diligence to make sure that you end up with the right person for the job and interview the VA by phone. Kathy Goughenour, an expert in VA training, suggests a few things to pay attention to about how VAs handle the interview.

  • Are they on time and prepared for the call?
  • Are they confident and articulate about what they can do for you?
  • Do they inspire feelings of trust?
  • Do they listen carefully when you speak?
  • Do they exhibit interest and curiosity about your business?
  • Does they ask smart, relevant questions demonstrating knowledge in the area you need help with?
  • Do they expertly guide you through the interview process as an experienced VA should?

Lastly, for each task you’ve identified you need help with, ask for specific examples of how the VA has accomplished these with past clients, and the results they have achieved. For example, if you’re using a VA to write an email blast letter — ask to see a sample of a similar product he or she has written before.

3. Watch out for the warning signs. “My No. 1 pet peeve with VAs is that some of them inflate their skills,” says Goughenour. Beware the VA who tells you he can be all things to all people. Instead look for specialists who have a depth of knowledge and expertise in the areas you need the most help with.

Goughenour also strongly suggests avoiding retainer contracts. A retainer is a monthly payment you make in advance of receiving the work. “Essentially, what you’re doing is paying the VA up front so that you receive some level of assurance that they will have the time set aside for your project,” says Goughenour. “If you don’t end up needing (or wanting) the amount of work you’ve paid for in your retainer, you do not get your money back.” This is how I lost the above-mentioned $500. Bottom line: Don’t enter into any agreement with a VA where a retainer is involved — it could set you up for losing your money.

If your productive time is being sucked dry by the minutia of administrative tasks, take a chance and hire a VA on a short-term basis. Who knows, it might just be the virtual cure to all your real-world productivity woes.

Have you hired VAs? Did they help boost your productivity?

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  1. I’ve used TimeSvr (www.timesvr.com) to organize my (too frequent) travel and scheduling. They have a 10% miss rate on most things, which is fine because its pretty cost effective and 24/7. I think they, and other guys like ODesk, etc. offer full time VA’s for the really pressed for time.

  2. Tip #1 is the real point. Otherwise, you JUST DON’T NEED A VA

    (says the guy whose company would like to be yours)

    But actually, I DO say that, all the time. VAs are about freeing you to do the stuff you want/need to do. Any other point is MISSING the point.

    Now with that said, yes, you need to look out for gotchas such as in the other points, but really you can figure those out as you go. Be more concerned with when if at all it’s OK to go with low-cost, offshore help; this is fraught with difficulties. And yes, that statement is self-serving, but it’s also true.

    Jeff Yablon
    President & CEO
    Answer Guy and Virtual VIP Computer Support, Business Change Coaching and Virtual Assistant Services

  3. links for 2009-10-27 | dekay.org Tuesday, October 27, 2009

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  4. Great post. However, I have a different take on the retainer agreement model. My clients and I work on retainer. We do this so that it is easier for them to budget their expenses – they know exactly how many hours of our time they get for their retainer, and they receive a detailed report of how those hours are spent. And yes, it is easier for me to budget my time this way as well.

    The types of clients that we typically attract actually prefer to pay on a retainer basis. We very rarely use less than what is allotted in their retainer hours. When that happens, we are happy to roll those hours over into the next month.

    The key here is to be very clear up front exactly what you are agreeing to. Make sure a contract is in place that states what you are paying for, how many hours that includes, and how those hours will be tracked.

    The right VA for your business will be one who stays on top of those hours and is in communication with you along the way.

  5. “If you don’t end up needing (or wanting) the amount of work you’ve paid for in your retainer, you do not get your money back.” This is how I lost the above-mentioned $500. Bottom line: Don’t enter into any agreement with a VA where a retainer is involved — it could set you up for losing your money.

    Retainers are great for clients that are in good control of their businesses. The majority of my clients are on retainer because it is more cost-effective for them since retainer rates are typically lower than hourly rates, they can budget their money more effectively, and we can budget our time more effectively to provide better service. If you are only looking for services provided on a project by project basis or sporadically, then no … don’t enter into a retainer agreement with your VA. However … if you have specific tasks or services that are to be performed on a continuing basis, work with your VA to find out how much time you will need each month and enter into an agreement that will make the best use of your money and your VAs time. Don’t enter into an agreement for a specific number of hours with a Virtual Assistant (or any other vendor) if you haven’t done your homework and don’t know what you really need. We keep our retainer clients apprised of how much time we have used month-to-date on a weekly basis so the client knows whether or not they need to use more hours or possibly postpone having us do something until the next month because they don’t want to go over their retainer. And … if we see that the client isn’t using all of their retained hours each month, we will re-evaluate and amend the agreement to better meet the client’s needs.

    Don’t poo-poo the idea of a retainer agreement just because it didn’t work for you … but instead, re-evaluate your relationship with the VA to determine why it didn’t work for you. If YOU make the decision to agree to a specific number of hours per month, then in addition to it being the responsibility of the VA to keep you apprised of how much time you are using, it is your responsibility to make sure you have enough business to support those hours. A successful client/VA relationship is a two-way street, and can be a fabulous partnership when both parties take responsibility for their own roles.

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  7. Francie Dalton Tuesday, October 27, 2009

    Great post. Please consider this:
    Nationwide lay-offs have created unprecedented opportunities for subcontracting arrangements. Among these opportunities are virtual arrangements that allow stay-at-home-moms to integrate work with motherhood. Now it’s easier than ever for them to fulfill and nourish both personal and professional aspirations. They have the experience to make particularly outstanding virtual executives.

  8. Dave Churchville Friday, October 30, 2009

    We’ve worked with a variety of virtual professionals, with mostly good results, and a few not so good results.

    A few thoughts:

    1. I’d say retainer packages are a good fit for ongoing support such as email management, a monthly newsletter, etc., where you as a business owner have a pretty solid idea of how much time you’ll need each month. You can save money, and also get reserved time from your VA or freelancer.

    Not a good fit for one time projects, or short-term relationships where you’re not yet sure about the specific provider you’re working with.

    2. The best working relationships are based on a build up of trust, which takes some time. It’s been best for us to start with small projects, work out any kinks in the communications or expectations, then expand from there, or move on to the next provider.

    3. You really need to be clear on your goals, budget, and expectations before outsourcing a project or role. Again, it can take some time for a provider to learn your business and your style, and it’s unlikely to happen magically without some back and forth communication and tweaking. Jumping from one provider to another based on an initial misunderstanding can be a huge waste of time and effort, defeating the purpose of outsourcing in the first place.

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