personal productivity

How to avoid pain in working with Virtual Assistants.

As a part of a focus this week in helping church leaders kick start the new year . . . I’m focusing on hiring Virtual Assistant(s) within the church context.

You’re convinced you want to make the leap and try your hand at some remote administrative help. You may have even identified a handful of tasks that you can try out.

You are about to cross over into a whole new way of looking at the work you do.  There are going to be some positives about working with remote help . . . but like working with anyone there is bound to be disappointment and pain.

As an example . . . here are things I’ve experienced with VAs that have kept me cautious about this approach to administration:

  • I was working with lone provider VA on the other side of the world . . . she was new to the business . . . and hadn’t seem to figure out some basic customer service expectations.  There wasn’t a language barrier . . .but I think I missed a cultural barrier.  When tasks goals went missing she just disappeared.  I didn’t hear from her for weeks.  I ended up having to take the tasks back onto my list.  Eventually we reconnected and picked up again . . . but I’ve been cautious of this provider.
  • I was working with a VA within the States . . . she was working part time doing VA work for people.  Things in there home life kinda fell apart . . . again the VA went AWOL.  She left tasks uncompleted and I still haven’t heard from her over a year later.
  • I got a leader friend of mine sold on using a VA for a bunch of his admin work.  It seemed to be going well.  But then the provider had increasing internet issues on their end of the equation.  They missed a few Skype check in calls.  Tasks started to dropped.  I felt stupid for advocating Virtual Assistants . . . felt like I lost some chips with a trusted colleague . . . not to mention the fact that it created more hassle for him.

I can understand how some people feel about the risk of trying something new like this.  In fact . . . I felt the same weirdness at the beginning but in spite of the problems I’ve run into I have found the benefits outweigh the risks.

Here are some simple principles to follow when working with a Virtual Assistant to help avoid some of the potential risk . . .

Systems > Talent

Think about how you can over define your tasks as a series of clearly laid out steps.  Break it down into a system . . . think templates and flow charts and “if this . . than that” sort of statements.  If things don’t work out with a particular VA . . .you can take those instructions and systems and move them to another provider.

Go face to face.

Don’t let all the communication ride on email or text messages.  Book regular check in Skype calls.  Pay them for that time . . . and talk through the projects.  Let them in on what your organization goals are.  Relate to them as people . . . not as a cog.

Be clear on deadlines.

How much time do you want someone to spend on the task?  When is it due?  Make sure it’s über clear what you are thinking on timelines.  Set “progress check-ins” so you can track how things are moving along.

Leverage Technology.

Use all the collaboration software and systems available to you.  Your VA can make recommendations on this front.  But you need a common virtual work space that you can check on the work at any given moment.  Don’t fear the technology . . . leverage it.

Walk before you run 

Try small tasks first.  Then as you get comfortable try more complex and important tasks.  Test the VA out with tasks that aren’t mission critical to start.  Then move closer to what you want them to do long term.

. . . have fun!

Do you enjoy your interactions with your VA?  Don’t shy away from worrying about a positive relational connection.  Notice your emotional response to interacting with them . . .if you are bored or not enjoying the interaction . . . that might be a sign to find another provider.

This month I’m giving away 15 hours of free Remote Assistant work from The Office Escape.  To qualify to win you need to be signed up for my weekly email updates.  [Click here for more information on this month’s give aways!]  Also the email subscribers are getting a special bonus this weekend that shows them where to find a great VA to start working with today!


  1. @Rich – Glad you showed the ups *and downs* of working with VA’s. I’ve had similar experiences where VA’s don’t hold up to the professional standards that I personally have and expect of others on my teams.

    One of the tactics I have started to use during the hiring process (one of many, this isn’t one that I rely upon solely of course) is to include a very specific but simple task assignment in the job description when posting to one of the usual outsouring marketplaces (the 3 marketplaces I use can be seen here: ). This is usually something like:

    “Please reply with specific relevant experience against the common tasks bullet pointed above. For the absolute first line of your response message, please copy/paste the entire title of the most recent blog post at before you respond with your qualifications in that message.”

    I do this for a couple of reasons — First, I want *detail-oriented* assistance. It seems quite easy, but in reality, the majority of respondents don’t take the time to read or do the task. Another reason is that this makes a very tangible and relevant cut-off marker for applicants. VA’s abound and you’ll get tons and tons of responses to any job post. This is one way to quickly weed out the applicants that don’t care enough to take you seriously from the beginning.

    Managing a VA is just like managing someone in person — there’s a learning curve to figure out the best ways of communicating (both directions). So in the first weeks of working together, it is a good idea to pay attention (as well as make very very explicit commenting on your intentions, etc) to what you say, how, when and where you communicate it.

    @Darren — Your question is a great one. This gets at what I just mentioned last. Since the whole point is to reduce friction in your daily workflow so you can do more “work” i think it really depends on your own preferences.

    I’m on the run a lot, and so being able to call or text new assignments or updates is freeing for me. I’ve had a VA set-up a Google Voice account and monitor it. There are a couple of great factors here: 1) I get a US-based tel # to call, even if the VA is elsewhere 2) both voicemails and texting come to the same account 3) there’s an archive of messaging 4) Voice-to-text transcription helps the VA with ability to hear the actual voice message 5) Since it is a voicemail box, I can call 24/7 without worrying about disturbing the VA in a different time zone 6) G Voice sends the text via email. The VA can simply reply via email to that message and it sends a text back to my phone. 7) If i’m texting someone else, I can simply “cc:” the VA google voice number to keep them in the loop if it is relevant to a project they are working on without any other follow-up.

    Other suggestions to explore for collaboration:
    >> Dropbox
    >> Co-Tweet or HootSuite for social media admin — you can “assign” responses and tasks to different people on your team.
    >> Google Docs / Google Apps
    >> MeetingBurner webmeeting
    >> JoinMe or TeamViewer for screensharing
    >> – iphone version has an app which allows you to record, control the call live
    >> Screenr or Screencastomatic when I want to record instructions on repetitive tasks for training
    >> Freedcamp – free version or Basecamp project management tool

    Hope that helps!

    Kenny Jahng

  2. I will bravely admit that I have been guilty of “disappearing” too. You were so right in all those points you mentioned, Life, internet problems or simply cultural or timezone difference are just some of the reasons why VA’s disappear. Sometimes its the working relationship itself that makes the whole set-up fail.

    But I have learned a valuable lesson as a virtual assistant. Trust, once lost, will be difficult (if not impossible) to regain. I have lost valuable amount of clients in the past because life knocked me out of my game. It was only last year that I managed to really absorb all the learning, and realizations as a virtual assistant and a business owner at the same time. Thankfully, the mistakes and failures paid off… as our team manage to maintain zero negative feedback from clients last year.

    It is important that either you or your virtual assistant have concrete systems that will help ease the communication and collaboration. Most importantly is that you and your VA maintain open communication with each other at all times. Yes, we may commit mistakes few times but dont give up on us right away. A true valuable VA, accepts his/her failures, learn from it, and address the areas that needs improvement.

  3. I thought “KillerChurch” was an unconventional and a catchy name for a religous organization. But the name was too amusing to ignore and it made me clicked and checked out your site. Cool site, I must say.

    I am a virtual assistant too (and online business manager to some clients). I’ve been outsourcing projects and employing some VAs of my own and I agree with your suggestions. I have had also a few not-so-good run ins with some VAs in the past and thus the reason why I came up with this article: Top 10 Virtual Assistant Newbie Mistakes

    I also recently outsourced a project to a VA firm and yeah, I got the “disappearing act” too and specific targets that were not met. Oh my! Good thing it was just a small project with a fairly small budget involved.

    Overall, I’ve had more positive experiences over negative ones. Would I still outsource? Yes,definitely!

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