Jack wrote to tell me that he’s not had much luck finding long-term success in working with VAs, and wondered what I’ve seen, and if I have tips for making things more “sticky.”
Having my third relationship with a VA (full disclosure; all of them came from your company) end on a sour note with my VA walking away from the gig I offered, I’m wondering now if I am the issue–if I’m behaving in ways that are causing things to blow up. I admit that I tend to get bent out of shape when something doesn’t go the way I think it should. If there are things I’m doing that I can change, I want to do that; these experiences are painful!
Having talked with oodles of other people who have asked me things similar to Jack’s questions, I imagined I could answer him from experience, but hopped on the phone with him to get more specifics. With one exception, his challenges match things I’ve heard before.
Here are the challenges he presented, and what I suggest to shift the outcomes.
Jack thought of this as a gig he offered–a gig that a freelancer would love
Shift that thinking, pronto. While there are VAs who see themselves as freelancers and see the work as gigs, professional virtual assistants don’t, and you want to work with a professional VA, if what you’re looking for is something long-term, collaborative, and worthy of your time and investment.
If you have a little work you need to have done here and there, now and then, maybe you want something else, that’s true, but for this sort of relationship, you want to think of it as looking for a pro, someone whose butt is in her office chair (whether in an office or not), and her commitment is to her VA business.
You wouldn’t look to offer a gig to a freelancing doctor if your wellness needed tending to. Don’t offer the keys to your business to someone wanting a gig.
Jack spoke with a VA for only about 20 minutes before deciding to work with her
If you want this to work well and if you hope that it’s a long-term relationship (which you should, or you’re probably better served by looking for a different type of help), you need to go into it with the long-term aspect in mind.
You wouldn’t likely marry someone you spoke to for just 20 minutes and expect that to last, so it stands to reason that that wouldn’t be a smart move here.
While not all of them do it, the model we teach the VAs at AssistU calls for at least three phone calls: the first is about 15 minutes long and designed to show you both whether or not you can easily shoot the breeze—if you can’t, your relationship is pretty much doomed; the second is where you discuss things like how your business runs, what your goals are, what you want to delegate, and the VA tells you how her business runs, how her fee structure works—all the things you would need to know about her and how she’d help you; the third is where the two of you dive into things that could cause your relationship to derail—an easy one to share is how the two of you see time (Are you on-time or ish-time folks), and another is how you communicate being upset (Blaming? Shouting? Calm—first looking for solutions?).
It’s not unreasonable to spend between three and four hours talking across a week or two. The goal should be to know, to the extent it’s possible to know anyone, that the VA you’re talking with is ideal for you before you move forward. If you see red flags, walk away. If you want to talk more, talk more. But don’t try to make this happen fast. You want breathing space and space to process. Just remind yourself that you don’t want the business version of a quicky-Vegas wedding that needs to be annulled the next morning.
Jack had only ever experienced “hiring.”
The beauty of working with another business owner is that the “hiring” type of interview model goes away. You aren’t bound by the legalities of interviewing, and so you can have far more organic conversations, and discuss whatever the two of you feel you need to discuss.
I also suggest letting the VA lead the process. It’ll show you a lot about who she is and how she’ll be in the relationship with you. Plus, she’s the expert in working this way—not you.
I always say that if you call a plumber to fix your toilet, you don’t stand there and tell him how to diagnose your problem. The same goes for working with any professional—including a VA.
Jack looked for the wrong things
More than anything else, fit matters. The VA has to fit with who you are, how you see the world, your company culture (which you may or may not consciously know you have, but you do!), and she has to be on board with what you want to accomplish, and be your match. Then you want to look at skills. Remember, skills can be taught, but fit can’t be faked.
Jack didn’t realize the search process isn’t one-sided
When you talk with a VA, evaluate everything she shows you about who she is, how she sees the world, how she works, how she steps up to lead (or doesn’t), and know that she’s doing exactly the same thing.
This is a relationship, and both people have to see the other as their match for it to work.
Jack didn’t realize that idealness (who he is and how he’d fit into their practices, and the relationship) matters to VAs
It matters. When you have a business where you can only work with a handful of people, and you work closely with them and want to work with them long-term, idealness is a huge deal. If you’re at all confused about whether you are or you aren’t ideal, you could ask.
Jack had unrealistic expectations; he expected his VA to know it all, be able to do everything he wanted—including the work of other sorts of professionals (an accountant, a marketing strategist, a graphic designer), and expected them to do tests and trials to prove themselves to him.
VAs are experts and specialists in the realms of administrative and operational support. That’s what they do, all day, every day. And while they know a lot, and have resources to help them with even more, there’s no way anyone will ever know it all or be able to do it all, even within the realms they work in.
I think people get confused and ask them for more competency than they likely have because they can assist with so much. For instance, while your VA can help you implement marketing strategy, that doesn’t make her a marketing consultant or strategist. Asking her to create a strategy for you is likely to have disappointing results, so ask a professional, not a VA.
As for tests and trials, would you ask your spouse-to-be to do a trial marriage, or tell your doctor you want him to do a test run in examining you? Of course not. While we all know that we can end any relationship we get into, we never go into anything that’s important thinking, “Oh, I can get out of this if it doesn’t work out.” Instead, we go in wholeheartedly, pledging to make it work, and doing our best to help it succeed. Do the same in your new relationship with your VA and you’ll likely see greater success.
Jack believed himself to be the boss
While you are the boss in that you own/run your own business, you need to remember that the VA isn’t your employee. You aren’t her boss, and never will be.
Asking her for her help will always be more appropriate than telling her what to do. Boss behavior, in general, needs to be put aside for a far more collaborative, and respectful model.
Jack expected to pay $25/hour, was resentful that he was paying more, and repeatedly threw that in the faces of the VAs he worked with.
The most helpful thing to do is shift your thinking to be grateful; you cannot be grateful and resentful at the same time.
To get to a deeply grateful place, examine how you really see your VA. What you want is to really embrace your VA as a professional—no different from you, a doctor, a lawyer, a consultant.
Recognize that you’re not paying someone a “little bit on the side.” You’re paying another business owner to help your business do whatever it needs to do, and to hold a lot of history and information to be used to support your business over time. You’re paying another business owners to have your back the way no one else does. You’re paying another business owner to know what you don’t, and do what you won’t (or really don’t want to). That’s incredibly valuable!
And the person who brings all this goodness to you deserves to be paid well. What does it say about you if you think you deserve to be paid well, but want to pay everyone else as little as possible? Don’t be that person.
You need to shift to thinking how amazing it is that your VA brings so much to your life, see her as a consummate professional you’re fortunate to work with, be grateful, and pay her whatever she asks.
OR, go find a monkey to pay peanuts to.
Jack didn’t understand why his VA couldn’t always be immediately available when he wanted something done
What’s needed here, too, is a shift in thinking. Employees sit at desks and wait for work. And you pay them for that availability, whether they have anything to do or not. VAs are business owners, filling their time with clients and their projects—and you are an important client to your VA but only one piece of the puzzle that makes up the business she runs. You’re paying for, in reality, very few hours of her time each month. You don’t pay for instant availability and have no reason to expect it.
Although your VA will absolutely want to help you in every way she can, with the need to manage multiple clients, she simply may not be available at the precise moment you need something done. This is why someone who has frequent emergencies isn’t a great candidate for long-term success with a VA.
Let her help you look ahead and plan the work. Things will get done much more easily. And for those things that do inevitably show up now and then without much planning time, ask her when she can get to it, and rest easy knowing it really will be as soon as she can manage to do it.
Jack believed his VA’s work should drive revenue
Your job is to create revenue. Your VA’s job is to do the administrative and operational things that support you in doing it. If you can’t use the time you buy yourself by delegating to generate more of whatever you most want to generate (including revenue), consider working with a coach to get to the bottom of why, and figuring out a plan about how to change that. But never make your VA responsible for it—it’s just not hers to be responsible for.
Jack believed that it wasn’t his responsibility to make sure that his retainer hours were used, and was vocal about it when he lost hours because the VA’s policy was that unused hours don’t roll over to the next month
AssistU VAs generally have an agreement clients sign before the relationship truly begins that stipulates that this is the way things roll. If you aren’t ok with it, don’t sign the agreement, and find someone else to work with who does it differently. But ask yourself, if you’re the owner of your business and have the ultimate responsibility for it, why wouldn’t it be your responsibility to use all your retainer hours? And why should it be the VAs?
And the one that I’ve not heard too often:
Jack knew he was buying time, but didn’t understand why there wasn’t an unlimited amount of it available to him whenever he wanted more.
In the US, we think of 40 hours being a “regular” work week. In many companies, “full time” is far more like 60 hours/week. Many VAs escaped employment because they were killing themselves to meet those sorts of more prevalent crazy requirements.
But here’s something you probably don’t know. Doing administrative and operations work in an employment situation is vastly different from doing it when you own a business that provides those services. The difference is in what I call “active braining” time.
Employees who work an eight-hour day aren’t 100% productive with their brains engaged on your behalf. You pay for them to use the bathroom, to take a call from a family member, to shoot the breeze with co-workers. And they need that down time so that when they do focus on your work, they do a good job.
VAs only bill you for 100% productive time. Keep that in mind. Potty break? Off the clock. Getting a cup of coffee? Off the clock. Taking a stretch break? Off the clock. Your time is well used.
But also keep in mind that because 100% of their work time is 100% productive, VAs can’t be available 40 hours/week. It’s just too much “active braining” (my term for full-on, brain-engaged work).
And while you might be thinking a VA has at least 160 hours/month to give to clients, the reality is that she may only have 100ish—and that’s if she’s working full time. Not all of them do.
So let’s suppose that she has 100 billable hours to give to clients. The next thing to understand is that in order to maximize revenues, she needs to keep those hours filled, or close to it.
And if you have 20 hours on retainer, and she’s worked to fill the other 80 with other clients, you can see why she might be able to do overages from time to time, but she simply doesn’t have an unlimited number of hours sitting around just in case you need more help.
At some point, the reality is that working with a VA may not be the right solution. If you ultimately look at the dollars and time equation (how much you pay, how many hours of help you get, and how long it takes you to manage all the things that go hand-in-hand with it), there’s a breaking point at which, for you, hiring an employee may make sense.
By way of an example—Jane works with her VA Sally. Sally bills at $55/hour, and Jane is on a 15-hour retainer, for $825/month. Jane doesn’t actually need more time than the 15 hours. And, the amount of effort it takes to manage having a VA involves paying the invoice each month. So, total “cost” is really about $825/month
This is a good model for Jane.
If she were to look at hiring an employee, she’d have to add to the managing aspects of things tasks like having payroll done, paying her share of payroll taxes, providing the employee space and equipment, dealing with legalities of employment, Federal mandates such as OSHA and ERISA, maybe benefits…the list goes on.
To hire a really skilled administrative assistant, she’d need to pay at least $25/hour (based on Bureau of Labor statistics), plus add the cost of her own time to deal with all the above (or pay her employee to do it). She could get nearly 33 hours from an employee for the same $825/month if she didn’t have all these other expenses (including the expense of her own time). But chances are, she’ll actually get significantly fewer when the dust settles on the expenses involved.
All to be considered. Plus this: Virtual assistance was created to be the convenient, effective, and efficient alternative to hiring employees. It was never created to be the low-cost alternative.
What you want to remember is what you’re investing in, which is, bottom line, time.
And there you have it.
My hope is that Jack can use some of this to improve his next relationship with VA. I’m truly grateful he’s willing to try. Working with VAs is amazing, but there’s a learning curve most people don’t even notice there. If you’re struggling with it, feel free to ask questions in comments, or if you’d like to cover them more privately, consider a Wise Help session.