In 2008, I plunged into the “virtual assistant” world by hiring my first virtual assistant. She was in Detroit, and I barely knew what I needed.
This wasn’t my first time hiring a contractor to help me take care of my clients … for the previous four years, I’d worked with local talent and offshore talent to build graphics and design websites for me.
I have learned a TON about building a virtual time over the last ten years. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’ve done a lot of things right. Today, I’ve got a great team of about 15 different contractors who work really hard taking care of our clients. They are all rock stars in their own right, and I’ve been able to build this team in large part because we follow the Law of Win-Win: I mindful to creating opportunities and engaging with clients only when we both win.
This is my favorite Marketect Law. I am passionate about win-win relationships—when I see my clients or colleagues struggling with their clients or team members, I can often see subtle strands of violations of this law permeating the chaos.
It is impossible to nail this 100% of the time. When you’re plunging into something new, or venturing into unknown territory, you often don’t have the foresight to be able to set win-win conditions. Let’s face it: sometimes we learn our lessons by getting drug behind a truck. We’re human. If you’re like me, you beat yourself up after the truck is done with you (I’m working on that).
When it comes to hiring our team members, I’ve learned what the conditions are that make working for me and our clients a “win” for contractors 80% of the time. And I’ve also learned what our clients need to feel comfortable working with our team.
Here are a few things we do to “hedge our bets” on setting up a win-win environment that honors the interests of SMS, our clients and our contractors:
- Think through a great job description. Before we hire someone, we map out what kind of skills and abilities we want them to have, the software / cloud programs we want them to be experienced in, and we try to be really clear in our expectations. I want someone to read our job postings and think, “That is so not for me,” or, “OMG, they are looking for ME!” We are as specific as we know to be.
If I’m hiring in a brand new “green” area (one in which I don’t have a lot of first-hand experience), I will talk to colleagues and other team members to get some help so I can attract the right person.
- Set up good cloud-based processes and systems to streamline collaboration. Our team is virtual, meaning that everyone works in their own work environment (home, coffee shop, etc). Initially, I worked with that first VA by assigning tasks via phone calls and emails. It didn’t take long for the wheels to fall off the bus: tasks were overlooked, deadlines slipped, details got confusing, steps were skipped … it was very frustrating for me AND for her.
Most people care about doing a good job. They don’t want to be sloppy. They want their boss or client to be happy with their work. Our team is very accountable (more on that later) for completing work successfully, but when things don’t go right, I don’t stop at calling out a misstep. I step back and examine our processes to see how we could have set things up to succeed from the outset. Yes, each person is responsible for their work, but if I can tweak our process so that they are able to succeed easier, WE BOTH WIN.
We use Basecamp Classic for our project management … you can’t sign up for Basecamp Classic from the 37signals website any longer. You actually have to email them and ask them to set you up in the classic version. Basecamp Classic doesn’t have the slick interface of the newer Basecamp, but it has crucial functionality around templates that aren’t part of the new program. I’ll teach you a bit more on Basecamp in a future blog post.
- Track time to the minute. I have tried every-which-way of pricing out the work our contractors execute for our clients, and the only way that I’ve been able to land on a predictable win-win is to have our team members track time to the minute. We will estimate all projects for our clients before they’re executed, but if our team members don’t use all the time, we bill only what was needed. If we run into glitches or bumps that require more time than expected, we get approval for extra time in advance.
This does a few things:
a) our contractors don’t lose their shirt on project creep or scope changes because a client can’t make up their mind,
b) our clients don’t deal with padded time where they’re paying more than they should to have work done,
c) our clients are mindful of their demands and expectations…put another way: changing your mind is expensive. If a contractor loses their shirt on one or more of your projects, they aren’t super motivated to keep working with you. Trust is breeched.
Estimating projects and tracking time to the minute is the best way I have found to balance the interests of all involved so that I could create continuity on our team.
- Projects must be completed to be billed. There is nothing more frustrating to me, personally, when working with a contractor in a virtual environment than to have to pay for work that I’m not yet able to leverage, or to have deadlines creep on and on and on with work not being completed. I know enough about human behavior to know that properly placed carrots are a better motivator than me micromanaging details.
But there’s another dimension to this, too: people who work on a contract basis consider themselves to be business owners in their own right, and they value freedom and flexibility. It is important to me to create a work environment that both gives them freedom and flexibility, and also has built-in accountability so the work is getting done.
- Enforce a strict communication policy. Early on, when a client came to me with a question on one of our projects, I’d promise to find out and get right back to them before reaching out to the team member. When it was crickets over the phone or email, I would get incredibly frustrated and even embarrassed because I didn’t want our clients to feel like we weren’t available when they needed us, or we didn’t care about their details. Sometimes, I wouldn’t be able to reach that team member for a day or two.
Communication in a virtual environment is one of the biggest obstacles to developing a cohesive team.
Over the years, our policy evolved to something like this:
- Office hours are 9 to 5.
- All team members should be logged on to Skype during office hours (either on your desktop or phone).
- If we need to reach you, you commit to respond within an hour.
- If you are going to be unavailable for any reason for two hours or more, send a calendar invite to me, your team lead and any relevant parties so that we know you’re out of pocket. You are not asking for permission, you are simply communicating your availability.
This shift was a breath of fresh air! We had fewer fires, we were able to get fires under control quicker, deadlines across the board were being met more efficiently, timeline creep drastically lessened, our team members felt more connected to each other and to our work because they were accountable to each other … this was HUGE.
Our clients, overall, really enjoy working with our team, and our team members are invested in both SMS and our clients.
It is important to me that clients feel taken care of and trust that the work is being done well. When I first started offering support services to our clients, I dealt with some skepticism about whether or not this “virtual team thing” was really going to work out for them … there can be a lot of uncertainty around trusting people you can’t see or you haven’t hired yourself to take care of your “baby.” This policy has gone a long way in helping us to get over the hump and add real value to our clients on a budget!
What are some of your biggest frustrations in hiring or working with virtual team members? Or what are some great “tricks” you’ve learned for leveraging virtual assistants or team members? Let’s talk about them in the comments!