Like many entrepreneurs, I was introduced to the concept of working with a virtual assistant, or VA, by Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek. He extolled the benefits of outsourcing repetitive work (or tasks you aren't good at or don't enjoy) so you can focus on your most valuable tasks. Lured by the idea of following the 80/20 rule (i.e., spending my time on the 20 percent of activities that generate 80 percent of my returns), for the past six years, I’ve worked off and on with VAs locally and around the world. They've handled a variety of tasks for me, including transcription, sharing articles on social media, uploading and formatting blog posts, audio and video editing, writing interview questions, and more.
If you’re considering hiring one -- or would like to improve your working relationship with the ones you’re currently contracting with -- here are three mistakes to avoid.
1. Failing to scope out your tasks. Well before you hire a VA, it’s useful to make a list of tasks that you’d like them to perform for you. In my case, it includes things like booking travel arrangements, uploading blog posts and sharing articles on social media. Creating an accurate task list can help you select a VA with the right experience and aptitude. Once you hire your VA -- either through personal networking, placing an ad or perhaps by using a service such as Zirtual -- you’ll also want to put the same level of advance thought into describing each individual task you’d like accomplished. This is especially critical if you’re dealing with an overseas VA whose cultural reference points may be different than yours; they may not understand that booking a Boston to Atlanta flight with a layover in Los Angeles is a very, very bad idea. You can save yourself a great deal of trouble later by being very precise in your instructions and trying to anticipate questions your VA might have or ways things might go wrong.
2. Not making time to review their work. It’s tempting to think that once you hire a VA, you can delegate the task and then forget it. But, at least at first, that’s definitely not how it works. You need to build time into your calendar to review everything they do, so you can catch problems early and offer suggestions and feedback. Some VAs may be hesitant to alert you if they’ve hit a roadblock or don’t understand your instructions. So checking in frequently and monitoring their progress in the early days can ensure they’re not going down blind alleyways trying to follow instructions they’ve misconstrued. It’s easy to get busy and ignore your VA temporarily; they’re not demanding your time the way a client would. But if you want them to be effective, plan at least 30 minutes per day to review their work early on. That gives them timely and actionable feedback, and will save you money because they’re less likely to have to go back and redo tons of work.
3. Not creating a system. One of the best things I did with my most recent VA was developing an “assistant’s manual” prior to her starting the job. I wrote down step-by-step procedures for the most common tasks I’d be asking her to do and put all the relevant information, such as website passwords or frequent flier numbers, into one easy-to-search document. (Depending on the task, you could also consider making online videos to demonstrate procedures to your VA.) That ensured she wasn’t constantly barraging me with basic questions and she could quickly become self-reliant. When she took on a new task, I also instructed her to write up the procedure and include it in the manual, so that it could become an ongoing reference tool for the future. The goal is to enable an easy transition and avoid having to reinvent the wheel when there’s been a long gap in between performing a particular task (such as uploading a blog post to a particular website with its own layout quirks).
Working with a VA can exponentially increase your productivity – but that’s only if you fully leverage their time and talents. You’ll never harness the real benefit if you’re constantly having to clean up mistakes and do things over again. The only way to avoid that is by planning in advance and setting up the systems that will enable them to succeed.