A virtual assistant (VA) is a person who provides full-time or part-time administrative support to small business entrepreneurs that typically do not have the budget to hire a full-time, in-house assistant. Virtual assistants can perform a variety of functions, through the miracle of technology from anywhere on the planet, including emailing, bookkeeping, web site maintenance, transcription, research, marketing and many more. Once your business has taken the decision to hire a virtual assistant and outsource certain business processes and functions, the ultimate success of this venture will be determined by the relationship you establish with your assistant.
Keep technology simple
Some of the modes of interacting you may want to employ to communicate with your virtual assistant include:
• Instant messaging
• Audio (telephone) conferencing
• Video conferencing
• Online workspaces such as internet and social networks
• Fax machine
However, technology should support your virtual assistant, not hinder them. Fast internet access and compatible software are essential. Skype allows your virtual assistant to take calls on your behalf remotely without your customers’ knowledge. Although there is this wide variety of communication platforms to choose from, you would to well to consider that the most important characteristics are simplicity, reliability and accessibility. Telephone and email technology answers to all of these requirements. As Mark Mortensen and Michael O’Leary advise in the Harvard Business Review:
Rich interactions don’t require rich media.
Communication is key
Be sure to make frequent check-ins with your virtual assistant – this will give you an opportunity to share information, give feedback and invite questions from your assistant. Let your virtual assistant know what is expected in terms of status reports, set hours of availability, response times, participation in conference calls, etc. Frequent, honest and constructive feedback is critical in maintaining a productive working relationship.
However, there is a difference between frequent two-way communication and being meddlesome.
Theodore Roosevelt said it best (in an age before gender equality!):
“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
A productive communication schedule with your virtual assistant might include a weekly chat, daily emails, and forum and task comments where necessary.
Be precise and explicit when assigning tasks. Set milestones that can be monitored at regular intervals in order to keep a project on track. It is a good idea to give a list of tasks that will keep your virtual assistant occupied for a few days – this way your assistant won’t have any downtime if you are offline for a day or two and you do not have to spend time every day assigning tasks.
There are a variety of software tools you can utilize to monitor the progress of your virtual assistant. A worksheet may help you identify whether your assistant is taking a reasonable amount of time to complete specific tasks. Status reports will also help to ensure that your assistant is on track with longer projects.
Keeping things human
If your virtual assistant is in a different time zone, respect the fact that your office hours will be very different to theirs. However, face time is still the next best thing to an actual in-person meeting, and a Skype meeting or video conference once in a while will go a long way in making up for dozens of cold emails, faxes and instant messages. This can also give your virtual assistant an opportunity to be introduced to others in your office and will establish a human connection that will lead to a more productive outsourcing relationship.