Why the Virtual Assistant Business Sucks (but we do it anyway)

November 17, 2016

Virtual Assistants – The Best Bad Idea

The movie Argo is a fictionalized account of a CIA exfiltrator’s rescue of marooned embassy workers during the Iranian Revolution. The plan posed them as a film production team scouting Tehran for a low budget science fiction movie called Argo. The CIA director interrogates the equally audacious and harebrained scheme here:

Tony Mendez: [proposing the Argo idea to the DCI] There are only bad options. It’s about finding the best one.
CIA Director Stansfield Turner: You don’t have a better bad idea than this?
Jack O’Donnell: This is the best bad idea we have, sir. By far.
CIA Director Stansfield Turner: The United States government has just sanctioned your science-fiction movie.

The best bad idea is my take on offshore virtual assistance as a service. The best bad idea for the businesses and entrepreneurs. The best bad idea for the offshore providers that offer the service.

The Good

The rationale for virtual assistance is fairly obvious. For lean teams, start-ups, ‘preneurs of all stripes, and so on; a virtual assistant can handle time-consuming and/or process-oriented work. This liberates people from difficult, distracting, or low-value activities that siphon time away from creative, high-level, or core activities.

In most cases, these services can be delegated to a virtual assistant less inexpensively than a making direct hire. Since a virtual assistant is, well, virtual, she doesn’t require contracts, government contributions, office equipment, office supplies, or benefits. Offshore virtual assistants yield greater economy since they command lower fees. Both domestic and offshore assistants promise payment exclusively for productive work rather than breaks, travel, social networking, and the like.

With the advent of ubiquitous internet connectivity and better tools for remote management, communication, and collaboration like Skype, Trello, and Goto Meeting; hiring a virtual assistant has become a relatively common affair.

A typical example is a group of three developers who design and create an app for business that becomes modestly successful. In the early going, they probably handle tasks based on “what needs doing now.” When a customer needs support, any one of the three might handle the call, email, or chat. Someone will be nominated to audit their revenue periodically checking remittances from iTunes, Google Play, miscellaneous income from direct downloads received through PayPal, etc. Perhaps the group decides to try some direct marketing to drum up business, up-sell existing customers, or develop a community of devotees. Then one of the trio will have to collect and review data, add it to a CRM, then manage an email campaign targeting potential and existing customers.

Because the app is successful, these and other myriad tasks mount over time and distract the team from:

  • building an online knowledge-base to give customers direct access to support information,
  • working through user requests to improve the app with updates,
  • developing a new app that addresses new opportunities discovered when they deployed their current product.

The Bad

It all sounds pretty good, especially if you read Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek, Expanded, and Updated with its rosy depiction of your life designed and styled. The book (which is worth a read) explains how to free up time for important pursuits by hiring a virtual assistant who can handle life’s many mundane tasks in this fashion. Things like bookkeeping, data collection, answering email, or correspondence. Ferriss quotes Esquire’s editor-at-large, AJ Jacobs, “…why should Fortune 500 firms have all the fun? Why can’t I join in on the biggest business trend of the new century? Why can’t I outsource my low-end tasks? Why can’t I outsource my life?”

 

The author lays out some important rules for outsourcing success: learn to delegate, be clear on outcomes, and try before you buy. The outsourcing model is an important aspect of the 4-hour Workweek. As Ferriss suggests, “[Outsourcing your life] is also a litmus test of entrepreneurship: Can you manage (direct and chastise) other people?”

Sounds great. Except when it sucks. The reality is often a far cry from delegating a series of tasks and waiting for the results to arrive.

We Explain Virtual Assistant Commerce

Before I enumerate on ways that outsourcing tasks can suck, let’s take a quick look at the things you might find when you search “virtual assistant.”

  1. Freelance Marketplaces — These are online markets where workers post profiles of their capabilities, and people who need work done can post jobs and solicit bids from the member professionals. Each has a slightly different take on payment and bid structures. Usually, there is a mechanism to hold funds in escrow to guarantee quality and performance. These services include Fivrr, Freelancer, Guru, and Upwork. These are typically funded by transaction fees and subscription fees paid by the providers.
  2. Virtual Assistant Recruiters – Because quality among freelance marketplaces is quite variable, and because trust can be a major issue for certain assignments, there are a quite a few companies that position themselves as agencies that locate suitable talent and present them for interview. Recruiters may also handle ongoing payment and secure (often steep) transaction fees along the way in addition to a flat fee for locating the agent.
  3. Virtual Assistant Providers – In the offshore outsourcing world, many providers offer VA services for several reasons. Often this sort of work will emerge from other projects or because a customer needs something beyond an original assignment for tasks like customer service, search optimization, or online management services. Since the general business zeitgeist and open sourced technology makes entrepreneurs of us all, the market for virtual assistance has blossomed in the last decade. In this spirit, business process managers understand virtual assistance as sort of competency buffet of services they currently offer. Rather than strict focus on a single task, VA’s use a range of best practices to deliver the goods.

Back to the Dark Side of Virtual Assistance

Using a Virtual Assistant can become very cumbersome when you don’t have clear, achievable outcomes; aren’t ready to embrace consistent, granular instruction; and generally assume that common sense will guide a VA’s work. This naive view supposes that common sense is a universal notion where people should just fundamentally understand how things should work. Of course, common sense is a cultural contract and not a universal constant.

Take, for example, booking international travel using an independent offshore VA with no organizational operating procedures to govern this activity. Say you want to plan a trip from the United States to Eastern Europe and look in on your coding team. On the way, you decide to take a short sojourn in Dubrovnik. Because your VA is somewhere in Bangalore or the Visayas and hasn’t traveled internationally, they probably don’t know that you need three hours at a minimum to connect in Heathrow. The Heathrow minimum connection time challenge is an extreme example, but one I’ve seen happen to a personal assistant working for a colleague. The ensuing phone call wasn’t pretty.

Disconnects arise in any number of ways unless the VA is highly experienced, competent in the assigned task, and fluent in your flavor of English. Experience provides some sense of context for daily communication. Americans can seem brusque via email. Our bluntness often seems obnoxious to people from high context cultures like the Philippines or Japan. Task competency either through direct experience, organizational SOP, or independent learning on the job is mandatory. You want things done faster, better, and cheaper than you can otherwise manage. Why else hire the VA? If you require email correspondence work or content marketing, offshore workers will inevitably have global English (Globish) “tells” that must be managed to avoid confusion, inappropriate word choices, or broadcasting your use of an offshore VA.

The above customer issues are manageable, and many, many happy VA customers pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, save money, get more work down using Virtual Assistants.

And Now the Ugly

Consider the businesses that provide VA support. Depending on their arrangement they are either: hands-on with mechanisms for project governance or sport a more laissez-faire approach wherein clients deal with their assistant directly with no management overlay. The latter is dicey in my opinion and prone to customer dissatisfaction.

When a customer builds a close relationship with their VA, they may opt to hire their assistant away by paying them directly —and usually under-the-table using PayPal or direct transfer. For organizations that offer little in the way of managerial infrastructure, direct hiring is pretty common. Hence the recruiter model discussed above.

This is generally a bad idea because the assistant loses any access to government benefits. The approach circumvents local taxation with long-term negative implications for the assistant’s home country. Unless the relationship is the black swan of unusual duration, the assistant will find himself unemployed in a few months or, at most, a couple of years, trying to get back into the job market without local references. Moreover, this structure means that the worker commits to an unsupported relationship with their client — no organizational resources like redundant internet, labor protection, and domain experts for complex activity.

From a managerial perspective, mapping the innumerable processes that VA must routinely execute is a nightmare. Dealing with everything from efficient online research practices to event planning requires extensive forethought, planning, design, documentation, and training (if you’re doing it right).

The time investment is necessary for VA work that scales efficiently. Otherwise, you are stuck relying on someone else’s training or letting the VA’s just figure things out as they go along. This kills efficiency, silos knowledge, and runs the risk of massive faux pas downstream. Just imagine the calls I might get from a customer waiting (with clients) for a phantom dinner reservation.

From this discussion, you can conclude that the system has inherent flaws from everyone’s perspective. I didn’t even cover the downsides from the individual assistant’s perspective — just start with all the reasons that working for a racially entitled tyrannical asshole and imagine the rest.

The Best Bad Idea — Managed Offshore Virtual Assistants

With all of the above, I suppose Virtual Assistance is a best bad idea. That’s because VAs generally work well enough to justify their cost. Of course, this model works best for people who, for whatever reason, place a premium on their time.

For Atelier Lumikha, offering a competency buffet of services deducting hours as the tasks are accomplished and quality checked is a solid model. Centralized task management using a single management/customer portal to track performance work handled, assess quality, and solicit feedback presents a useful fulcrum for vending out work based on skills and availability.

This approach offers flexibility and permits us to leverage best practices gleaned from BPO fare like SEO, customer service, lead generation, and data collection. It also gives us access to a wide range of interesting and dynamic customers who require quality services at low-cost services.

Read a fun review of Argo here.

Read the book by the CIA officer who organized the rescue here.

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