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Using a Virtual Secretary: Sid Savara on Virtual Assistant Services

by Andre · 3 Comments

Bangalore Virtual Assistants Last year, virtual outsourcing made it on my list of 10 Technologies I Resist. Adding a virtual administrative assistant to my workflow seemed like a solution looking for a problem. There wasn’t much that I could imagine a virtual office assistant doing that I couldn’t do personally in much less time and with less management overhead. More importantly, I didn’t want to end up creating activities just to give whatever virtual secretary I retained something to justify my investment.

At the time I wrote:

It’s on my Someday/Maybe list to try the likes of Guru or AskSunday. At the moment I don’t have any tasks that seem onerous enough to dump on a developing country. Maybe I’ll brainstorm a list of tasks and outsource them just to be fashionable and say I’ve done it.

sid_profile_shot_max_thumb This year, my new schedule is a problem looking for a solution, so I began reexamining my assumptions about the value of a virtual assistant (VA) and looking for use cases that weren’t silly. In my research, I came across a couple of posts by personal development and productivity blogger Sid Savara that gave some of the most detailed examples of using personal outsourcing effectively. He generously agreed to answer some follow up questions I shot him.

Andre: In your post, The Price of My Dreams – $60 a Week, you discussed your experiments with outsourcing your cooking and laundry. Are you still maintaining your domestic outsourcing, or have you expanded the scope of it?

Sid: Yes, I am still outsourcing my cooking and I love it.  At this point it’s truly changed my lifestyle – I no longer shop, I no longer cook and I no longer even think about what I need to eat.

I am also experimenting with a maid service (The Maids). Full disclosure, my parents own The Maids franchise in Honolulu.  One cleaning takes them about 1.5 hours, and saves me a total of about 6-8 hours.  They also do a far better job than I do, but if we’re just talking about time saved, it saves me about 6 hours every two weeks.

I’m interested in outsourcing my event planning (calling friends, organizing potlucks, etc) but so far my friends have done an admirable job picking up the slack, and I use Socializr to send out on email and then handle the RSVPs.  I had my TimeSvr aides send out the invitations for me, which saved me a few minutes of work each time as well.

Andre: You’re on record of having used Craig’s List and TimeSvr. Have you tried any other outsourcing resources, like Elance or Guru?

I have used Elance, but never Guru. My understanding of Guru is they are focused more towards heavily technical projects. As a software engineer myself, if I have something especially technical I want done, I tend to write it myself or collaborate with friends.

I have had a good experience with Elance.  I’ve hired a couple people to do minor, fairly mundane tasks (analyzing values in a spreadsheet for example) and it was always well worth the money.  My single virtual assistant that I used for much of my blog set up and research I also found from Elance. I asked Prabhu to find the best posts for me out of the mounds I read, cull my RSS feeds, look up names and contact info for various blogs and moderate comments. In addition, I had him do some minor proofreading etc of posts.

The most important thing is to find a good assistant.  I am sure there are bad ones out there, but I tend to be ruthless in my questions. If someone doesn’t show enough drive, or sounds to me like they’re trying to fool me into believing they are something they are not, I reject them.

Andre: What’s your judgment process for deciding to offload a task rather than doing it yourself?

Sid: I would love to offload more tasks.  I think the main issue is finding someone capable of doing it for a reasonable price, and looking at whether it is worth the effort to give the job to someone else. Any outsourcing requires a certain level of management or trust, and that’s the biggest issue I’ve had.

For example, I’d like to outsource more of my email responses as I get hundreds a day. I’ve discovered though that with judicious GMail filtering I can get it down to a manageable 30 or so “real” emails a day – and the responses tend to be customized.  If I was running a mail order business, perhaps I could outsource more, but as a software engineer and writer, most of my replies tend to be based on my experience and judgment calls.

Cooking, laundry, cleaning, car service, car washing etc are all activities that are solid candidates to outsource because I am sure I can get someone who can do it at least as well as me, and at a price that saves me enough time to make it worth my while.  Similarly, event planning (calling my friends) doesn’t require a lot of skill – but perhaps requires my personality,

Andre: What are the biggest mistakes to avoid when delegating tasks and projects?

Sid: I think there are two main mistakes people make (and by this I mean, these are the two main mistakes I made).

The first is assuming that the person who has been delegated the task knows as much as you do about it.  Knowledge that I take for granted and skills that I find basic may be foreign to my assistant.   Assume that your assistant has no skills, and that you’ll need to explain each step in plain english – the first time they do it.

The second is assuming that you know how to delegate. Most people are great at delegating tasks to one person: themselves. In order to effectively delegate, instructions need to be laid out very clearly with all the decision points explained. The type of results expected, the format of documents, etc should be specified in advance so that the assistant knows end to end what the process should entail.

Finally, one cautionary note – don’t assume silence is a good sign.  If you tell your assistant “I’ll expect it Monday, email me if you have questions”, and then don’t follow up by Monday, you may be in for a rude shock.  Oftentimes silence can indicate your assistant does not even know what questions to ask. Come Monday, you’ll either have a confused assistant asking for more time, or worse, the completely wrong task completed because they were too proud or too ashamed to ask for better direction.

Andre: What are some common assumptions made about outsourcing that you’ve found through experience to be exaggerated or false?

Sid: I think one large misconception is that foreign assistants are of inferior quality.  From my (admittedly narrow) experience, foreign assistants are skilled enough to handle data entry and analysis tasks given accurate instructions. Their command of the English language is strong enough, even though some may have accents.  So while they may not be suitable for speaking on your behalf at a keynote, they can certainly put together the excel spreadsheet and pie chart you present.

Another misconception that I had was that it would be difficult to get started.  I thought it would take weeks to find someone, to bring them up to speed, etc.  This is false – in all my experiences outsourcing, finding a provider was the easy part. My assistants were ready to help the same day – they are hungry for work.  The hard part is the delegation, and learning how to effectively get the most out of your assistant for mutual benefit.

Andre: In Can Virtual Assistants Make You More Productive?, you talked about your experiences with your individual VA, Prabhu, and with the team of VAs at TimeSvr. In the comments, you mentioned that you would be keeping Pradhu after your trial of TimeSvr lapsed. Was that out of loyalty, better rapport or better results? Which approach would you recommend to others: an individual VA or a team?

Sid: It certainly wasn’t out of loyalty – if I had a superior experience with TimeSvr that blew Prabhu away, I would likely have given him a couple weeks notice, perhaps tried to find someone else to take his services, and leave.  The main issue was that Prabhu was a well oiled machine by the time I found TimeSvr.  I had been with Prabhu and we had settled on a process to handle my tasks.  While TimeSvr benefits from economies of scale and can offer a large number of tasks (with specialized assistants for each tasks), Prabhu handled a few tasks that were especially time consuming and did it well – for minimum expense.  TimeSvr is a fantastic service for someone who wants a general purpose virtual assistant, or who wants solid reporting on individual, discrete tasks.

In my case, I had a few tasks that I needed done, that Prabhu did well.  The prices for both would be approximately the same to me (since I was likely paying Prabhu a rate similar to what TimeSvr assistants make).

I would recommend TimeSvr (or another VA team) to people who want a variety of tasks and a variety of different aides to do them, or if you are not sure what you are going to outsource just yet.  On the other hand, for a long term relationship with a few specific tasks an individual assistant and the teamwork that comes with that may be superior.  I believe that firms with VA Teams, such as TimeSvr, offer this dedicated assistant service as well. If I recall, the pricing was very comparable to what I was paying Prabhu – I just had no compelling reason to switch since he already performed efficiently.

Andre: Can you illustrate how outsourcing saved you time or effort with one or two of the most graphic examples?

Sid: I think cooking is still probably the best example.  Cooking is a process that requires so much more than simply frying up something in a pan – it involves looking up a recipe, driving to the store, purchasing ingredients, storing those ingredients until I have time to cook, cooking, and finally cleaning the pots and pans.  Compare that with just going outside and having food dropped off in tupperware, and it turns out to be a monstrous saving.

Having my apartment cleaned by the Maids is another great example.  They sent a team of 4 people, who are all trained to clean, with tools specifically made to clean.  My shower looks cleaner than it has in months, and my kitchen is spotless.  My friend remarked that to get his bathroom to look the way it did after they cleaned it would have taken him 3 hours of scrubbing.  I think part of this is because it’s their job, they work harder and faster than we would if we were unmotivated and cleaning it on our leisure time.  I will gladly trade some of my hours earning money developing software for a few of their hours spent cleaning and sanitizing my home.

Andre: In the latter post you mentioned “better parallelization of tasks” as one of the advantages of outsourcing. Will a VA team actually work of multiple tasks you assign simultaneously?

Sid: This depends on the VA firm, so it would be best to check with whoever you are going with to ensure your expectations are appropriate.  I gave TimeSvr so much work during my initial test that I don’t think they could do anything but parallelize if they wanted to give me good service.  I also emailed for status updates and heard back from different VAs on each task, which leads me to believe they had multiple people working on my account at the same time.

Andre: You documented how you dispatched a couple of research tasks: one for comparing e-commerce solutions, and another for comparing subnotebooks you were interested in purchasing. What would be your top tips for assigning tasks right the first time?

Sid: If it’s a research task, I absolutely recommend specifying exactly what format you want your research in. If you want a spreadsheet, tell them you want a spreadsheet. If you are interested in 5 specific features, ask for those columns to be listed.  This was a slight misstep I made with the e-commerce solution task, though the results still turned out fine. In the subnotebook task, I was much more specific with my request and ended up getting results that matched well with what I requested.

Bottom line, if you don’t ask for it – you won’t get it.

I would also caution against tasks that require some implicit cultural knowledge. For example, rather than saying get me the biographies of 10 popular US basketball stars, I would name the basketball stars by name – or risk having a few on that list that may not be popular anymore.  Another reader commented to me they assigned task similar to this asking for popular groups in a specific niche and their assistant ended up misunderstanding and providing them with useless information.

Andre: What’s the most fun experiment you’ve conducted with outsourcing?

Sid: I enjoyed having my assistants call friends and restaurants to make reservations “on behalf of Mr. Savara.”  I always felt like the restaurants treated me a little better because my assistant had called, though that could also just have been the enjoyment I got from having someone else call to make the reservation =).

(Photo credit: miss_rogue)

Tags: Lifestyle Design · Productivity · Technology


  • DuffNo Gravatar // Feb 28, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    Interesting review. Reading this solidifies my perspective that I do not need a virtual assistant. While cooking, cleaning, and laundry are not necessarily tasks I enjoy, I find these “hand work” tasks refreshing after a day of knowledge work.

    Although perhaps my perspective would change if I had a full-time coaching practice, as I would certainly rather coach another client than do laundry!

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Mar 1, 2009 at 8:46 am

    @Duff: There’s not much point in outsourcing activities that fall well within your available time. It only makes sense if you need to clone yourself to get them done at all.

    There are really two issues: reclaiming time, and using time in the most fulfilling way. If manual tasks are personally fulfilling, rather than simply decompressing, it would be counterproductive to dispatch them to others. But if they’re done for lack of anything better to do (much like consuming info porn), it’s worth considering alternative activities that are more compelling.

  • Chris C. DuckerNo Gravatar // Jan 24, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Outsourcing, particularly a virtual assistant role (because of the sometimes ‘personal’ nature), is very much something that one will come to decisions on their own time.

    Whether you feel you need a VA (or whatever) now, or not, is totally down to you. The fact of the matter is that the majority of people that I know and have worked with when it comes to outsourcing have pretty much ALL said that it has made their life easier and more productive in some way, shape or form.

    One thing is for sure – its staying. Outsourcing aint going anywhere…

    Nice article.