4 Key Lessons I Learned From my Rotten Virtual Assistant Experience

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Virtual assistants can be incredibly useful to your real estate investing business. I truly believe that the ability to successfully delegate (including knowing when and what to delegate) is key to the success of any business venture. Leveraging others’ time allows you to focus your precious limited time and energy on the most profitable activities in your business.

Earlier this year I hired a virtual assistant for the very first time and while it wasn’t a complete disaster, frankly it was pretty bad. The good news is that there is always something to be learned even from rotten experiences, and I’m pleased to be able to share my lessons learned with others who may be considering hiring a virtual assistant to help with their real estate businesses.

Lesson #1: Talk to references!

Before hiring a virtual assistant, ask the assistant for references whom you can speak to.  Even if you are looking to hire from one of the outsourcing websites (e.g. eLance.com, Guru.com) like I did and the person has a few positive comments, follow up with those past/current clients!  Perhaps you can feel comfortable if they’ve been hired 20+ times with outstanding feedback, but it’s always a great idea to speak directly to others who have worked with the person.

Lesson #2: Yes, sometimes you really do get what you pay for

I intentionally chose to start off with small assignments (handling my internet ads to market deals and build a buyer’s list). My plans were to start small and — if things went well — expand her responsibilities to include the majority of the online work for the business because she had the right skills and experience. We never got that far.

The truth is that my U.S. based assistant’s rates were very inexpensive compared to other assistants I’ve spoken to. Looking back on the experience, I believe that impacted both the quality of work and the level of communication.  Sometimes you get what you pay for.

Lesson #3: Fire sooner rather than later if things aren’t working

As I mentioned earlier, I thought that things were going to be great with my assistant because she had all the skills and experience I was looking for.  Within the first month of working together, it was apparent that there were going to be issues with communication primarily but also with quality of work.   A mentor of mine frequently says “The top 3 things needed in a successful partnership are #1 communication, #2 communication, and #3 communication.”

I kept thinking it would be “cheaper to keep her” and that I just needed to give it time to work itself out. Unfortunately it still didn’t work out after multiple attempts of providing feedback.

I should’ve ended the relationship after that first month and moved on rather than waste so much time hoping for the needed improvements.

Lesson #4: Try out two virtual assistants at one time and then hire the best one

I’ve never done this before, but I’m strongly considering hiring in this way after my last debacle.   Basically you do a trial run with two different assistants (and provide them with very similar work) and see which one seems to work the most effectively.  After the trial run, simply hire the person you think is the best fit for your team.  Sure, it will cost you double the money at first to have two people working, but its for a very short amount of time and can save you plenty of money and headaches in the future.

I hope you found these lessons learned to be useful!  I am looking forward to finding the right virtual assistant for my business, and now that I’ve had this rotten experience, I know what to look out for and how to do things differently.

For those of you who work with virtual assistants, do you have any success stories or tips to share?  Please comment!

Image: PhotoXpress

About Author

Shae Bynes is a real estate investor in Sunny South Florida. On her blog, GoodFaithInvesting.com, she provides helpful tips and an inside look at her real estate investing adventures -- obstacles, failures, & successes!

36 Comments

  1. Ive had my run ins with elance.com. Matter of fact, I’ve spent literally thousands of dollars on VA’s through elance and another site that has a lot of writers/web design/sales copy people on there. I bet if I went through, I could probably find at the very least $20k in money spent.

    I hated every single bit of it!! It’s so hard to find good work. I actually found out that some, meaning more than one of the outsourcing/VA’s that I hired actually then re-outsourced it cheaper to people in what I call 3rd world countries. This after making sure that the people I hired were U.S.A based and red blooded Americans.

    Needless to say, I absolutely feel your pain!!

  2. As a virtual assistant who teaches classes to legal professionals about how to make virtual assistance work for them, I really appreciate you sharing your story. I touch on all four of your points in my lessons, but I especially stress the communication.
    It’s important that your virtual assistant’s work ethic match your own, and this is where so many issues start.
    Finding the right virtual assistant for you and your business requires a bit of time and effort on your part long before the actual working relationship begins. Being very clear about what your needs are, both as far as tasks to assign, work ethic and work relationship details before you even start looking for a virtual assistant.
    If you put cost over finding someone who can communicate with you effectively or produce your desired results it’s bound to turn out badly.
    And another thing to note. Even if those references sing the praises of said virtual assistant, it doesn’t always mean they’ll be a good fit for you. Everyone has different expectations.

  3. Appreciate the comments.

    T. Marie, I agree completely that putting cost over finding someone who can produce results is a recipe for disaster. In my specific case, I honestly didn’t think I’d have a problem and the communication prior to hiring as well as in the first week was phenomenal. After that…forget about it. So I thought I hit gold right? I had a great cost and what I thought would be a great communicator who could get the work done. Oh well, lessons learned.

    As far as references, you’re right….excellent point. It all depends on expectations and specific needs. Thanks again!

  4. Appreciate and share your experience.

    I agree with Ms T.Marie Hilton, your business requires a bit of time and effort on your part long before the actual working relationship begins.wish you sucessfull.

  5. As someone who is not a big fan of virtual assistants for your online marketing purposes (social media, etc.), I do think that they can be quite useful for other purposes. I’ve written about this on many occasions and often warn people of the dangers of outsourcing their persona to a VA. I actually busted another MAJOR real estate guru this week, who was using virtual assistants to outsource his social media and blog comments, to his dismay. The work was extremely shoddy, the comments weak to spammy, and in the minds of myself and others who figured it out, they have soiled their reputation by doing so. Be warned!

    That said, these are some great tips for anyone considering a virtual assistant for all other purposes.

  6. I hear so many stories of others who think of virtual assistants as cheap labor instead of an investment to help grow their business that end up with the same results as you. All your points are very valid and your advice is right on! I know people who will give potential VAs “dummy projects” to complete to see how long it takes to complete the project and how communication is handled.

    I’m glad to hear you will be giving virtual assistants another try. If you’re looking for a place to find reliable, professional virtual assistants, post a request for proposal at the International Virtual Assistants Association and VAnetworking. I know there are members of both who are experience Real Estate Virtual Assistants as well as pretty much any other virtual assistant niche you might need!

    Good luck to you Shae!

  7. Thanks for the comments Billy, Josh, and Sherra.

    Josh, because I feel strongly on this topic too I must make a clear distinction…the online marketing activities that I’m referring to are things such as: posting ads, posting properties on a blog, posting articles, videos, etc. I would never hire a virtual assistant to manage my online persona on social media sites or blog comments. The only person who can be me is…well ME 🙂

    Sherra, thanks for the tips/links. I’ll be sure to check them out once I’m ready.

      • Now if someone chooses NOT to engage with individuals directly and simply create accounts in the businesses name that focus primarily on promoting deals, tips from articles, etc……I’m sure that works for some. Of course you wouldn’t really need a VA for that…there’s plenty of technology that automates all of that for you.

        I personally don’t think that’s the most effective use of social media because I believe that people do business with PEOPLE (ones they know, like, and trust), but I’m sure that its working for some folks. I bet this is a highly debated topic these days.

        The fact that someone would hire someone to make their comments….I have no words. LOL!

        • That’s why on BiggerPockets, members may not use company logos or advertisements for their personal avatars. We’ve also implemented other rules in an attempt to push the notion that social media is for people to connect with other people. You can’t talk to a company, but you can communicate with someone at that company. There is a MAJOR distinction.

  8. Shae,

    As a virtual assistant I agree with all of the points that you make. I would like to comment on Lesson 3 – Fire sooner rather than later. There is always a breaking in period for the partnership to work, however without communication on both ends it is doomed to fail. Trust your gut on this one. If you feel it is not working then let your VA know there are problems and see what solutions they come up with. One month’s time is usually ample to get the kinks worked out unless your processes are extremely unique. And if not, then it is time to move on.

    I am glad that you have not given up on virtual assistance and hope that your next endeavor provides a positive experience.

  9. Great article Shae! I’ve been wondering exactly how you faired with the virtual assistants. I figured it wasn’t going to well because you hadn’t mentioned it much in your posts over the last month or so. Glad I could learn through you 🙂

  10. Shae –

    Sorry your first experience with Virtual Assistants was not the best. In addition to the items mentioned, here are a few more:

    1. Does the VA operate his/her business full time or part time?
    2. What training and/or work experience does the VA have in your industry?
    3. Are you and the VA a “match”? Some of this can be a personality match.
    4. Clearly communicate your expectations including turnaround times.

    Hope your next experience with a VA is a positive one! Rather than going to Elance or Guru, I would encourage you to post an RFP at International Virtual Assistants (www.ivaa.org). IVAA is the non-profit organization for the Virtual Assistant industry.

    To your success!

    • I agree 100% that you need to clearly communicate to your VA/intern your expectations and deadlines. If you don’t give them deadlines for tasks to be completed, THEY WILL NEVER GET DONE!

      I learned this after experimenting with my interns but have since learned to give them specific deadlines on each task. It is OK to give them some leeway if they are slightly late on non-timely projects but make sure you at least give them a deadline. It’s amazing how much quicker things get done this way.

  11. I’ve used VAs on and off for years, sometimes with more success than others. What I’ve found is that everyone has their strengths & weaknesses, and while ideally you’d love to have one person to dump all your work on, two or more usually work out better. I ended up using one for regular administrative work and one for more technical work.

    Another lesson learned is to be willing to spend the money for an hour or so a week to follow-up, give feedback, and really go over what you need done. The more you treat your VA like a real assistant, the more you begin to work as a team. I found that although one of my favorite VAs wasn’t as good on marketing materials as I’d like (and I had trouble letting go of control in this area), she was great at taking all the personal bill stuff off my desk (e.g. Call Verizon for the 4th time to follow up on missing credit), so it balanced out. I found I didn’t care whether she took care of business or personal tasks, as long as they got done.

    There is a certification program for VAs. Not sure if it has true meaning yet, but I like to see some professional pride in my VA. They’re running their own small business, and I expect to see them running it like a business. That bodes well for the professionalism they’ll bring to my business.

  12. Sorry to hear about your VA challenges. I have had a great deal of success hiring freelancers for one-time projects, mainly website coding type activities. For me, the key is a very tight spec and to pick the freelancer with the best references rather than the lowest price.

  13. Cathryn and Terryn, thanks for those tips – I really appreciate it!

    Mark, I’ve also had a great deal of success with freelancers for one-time projects like graphic development, logo creation, flash development, etc. It’s those positive experiences that give me hope that I’ll also find an ongoing VA who I can work really well with. I’m actually pretty easy going – I just expect communication and expect people to do what they commit to do. Thanks for your comments!

  14. I am going to second Cathryn’s comment regarding posting your request for a virtual assistant using an RFP. In doing so you will be able to screen out people right away, be exposed to their writing and communication styles and see if they understand your requirements – all this from their response to you. I would suggest posting your request for help as a “problem” to see the different approaches. Then you can choose someone that you feel is a perfect match for you.

    I feel a virtual assistant should be considered like a business partner that is trying to help you grow your business. The right “fit” is very important for both parties.

    Great article and don’t give up, the right assistant is there for you.

  15. My experience using virtual assistants, thus far, has been extremely positive. I did research best practices to employ prior to hiring a VA and, hence was able to avoid a lot of mistakes that definitely would have been made. All in all, I got 1 years worth of work done in 3 months by hiring virtual assistants. I built a website around using virtual assistants with my own advice- see website link below.

    Other tips I would add, besides getting/ calling references are:
    1. Ask for a sample of work – if they don’t have one, offer to pay a VA to produce a small sample. Tell them hiring will be based on the result of that work.

    2. Try hiring a VA overseas. Their hourly rates are lower. This way you can try several VAs out at a time and hire the cream of the crop.

    3. Always document the work you give to a VA. By “document” I mean, write down, or create a short video that explains how to do an assignment. This way, if you lose or need to hire another VA, you can just send them that video that explains how to complete the task. (you can use Jing, which is free, to create up to a 5 min video) see techsmith.com for access to Jing. Also, some other useful resources in the videos I create.

    4. Use a resource like Odesk (see my website below and videos on this) that remit secure payments to VAs that keeps your credit card information secure. ( < this was my biggest fear in hiring a VA – how to pay them so that my info was kept secure.)… I actually read the book "the 4-hour workweek" over one year before I took the leap into hiring VAs for just this reason and the fact that I never found a place I trusted to hire a VA. – … I know sceptic to the max… oh, well, you live. you learn.

    Overall, my experiences thus far in using VAs has been great. I've lost a VA here and there that didn't want to do work I assigned, but what i have found is that if you establish ground rules up front re: communication as well as asking them if the assignment is one that they would want to do, your relationship will be long and fruitful.

    Enjoy,
    Ezra
    a Virtual Assistant Junkie

  16. I have used VAs for a variety of tasks and have had a variety of results.

    1. The first hire is still part of my team as my audio transcriber. I tested all the candidates with the same test sample and he provided the best results. We’ve smoothed out our processes with great communication.

    2. The second hire was a poser. After telling me he could complete the task, I then had to spend 3 hours training him. My failure here was not sending him a test project as I had done with the first hire. I would have seen quickly that this was a failure. He completed the project after training, but I had to slim down my requirements because I was tired of training him. After I closed the contract, he was begging me to change my ratings, and wanting more work. . . Fired.

    3. The third hire – i tested. Out of 17 applicants, she passed. She completed the task I needed in one hour, no training needed. I’d rehire her again for that task.

    4. The fourth one, I’ve hired and continue to use. Communication has been good and she fills a big need for a bi-lingual assistant.

    I would agree with your lessons. Test before hiring. . .

    Chris

  17. Sorry it has been awhile since I posted comments on this site, but I have a personal interest in how other deal with Virtual Assistants. I deal with VA’s literally all of my day working as a marketing coordinator for a Cincinnati based real estate investor. I went throught probably 10 different VA’s before I learned a good secret that Shae touched on. When I need to hire a new VA I put them through a two step audition process. I first pick out the ones I want to participate, which is usually all that apply. (As a side note even though a site may say the person has no experience on their site, doesnt mean they wont do an amazing job. One of my best had no oDesk experience when I hired him.) I start them with a simple task that I already know all the answers to and make them really work for the information. (Once hired, they have full worksheets and step by step instruction on how to get the info, but for the test they get nothing.) Once that is done I take my five or six best and offer them a paid $5 second test which is a full research task with no help. The top one or two that I choose based on speed and accuracy will get the job. I have found some of my best VA’s from doing this process and by giving them no help at all in the beginning I know I can throw anything at them and they will be able to handle without a problem.

    I do agree communication is almost always a problem, but if you are smart and understand that you get what you pay for, you can get amazing VA’s for only $3.00 or $4.00 an hour. I have found in my work with VA’s that if you go any lower than that the work is always shoddy. Also, another way to get work done faster is to offer a bonus program for speed or accurancy. If you are only paying a few dollars an hour then offering a bonus would be no real streatch. You would be amazing the kind of motivation $20 will bring.

  18. As a REVA, I offer the same advice as others have already set before you. Be sure to interview thouroghly and keep the lines of communication wide open. It’s easier for things to drop through the cracks if the communication is not strong. Sometimes clients have difficulty in letting go or micro-managing. Your VA should be professionally trained and have the skills to jump right in. My advice to both Agnets and to VAs I coach, use the initial interview time wisely. If you have ANY weird feelings about that person, then there may not be a good fit. Should you find that to be the case, cut your losses and end the relationship. I am sure I don’t need to tell anyone that undue stress is not necessary!
    Good luck to you if you are seeking a VA. Ask for references, check out their social networks and look to see how a VA shows up online. They are an extension of your business!

    • Wow, still getting comments on this a year and a half later! Thanks Kathy!

      I’ve had terrific experiences with virtual assistants since this post thanks to the lessons learned from the not so great experiences 🙂 Your tips are definitely excellent ones.

  19. Great article Shae, there is a reason you are getting comments so far after the fact! Many people have virtual assistance and in the ever expanding world of internet communication, it is not always easy where to draw the line and what to expect.

  20. Hey Shae,

    Awesome post! I’m into wholesaling properties in the Chicagoland area. Instead of hiring VAs for your business, you should seriously consider hiring interns. I work with several interns across the country. Instead of paying them an hourly wage, I just pay them on a commission base (20-50% of the profits of the deals that come through them). Now, I’m really starting to see the value of interns and how building a team of them can really take your business to a whole new level.

    VAs can be a big waste of time and money. The great thing about interns is, the worst that could happen is that you get a bad intern (I’ve had quite a few.) But in that case, just hire another one (or a couple more.) There’s no limit to how many you can work with and you don’t need to pay them unless they make money (in which case you both make money.)

    I have a recently been helping other people hire their own interns by giving them all the files and resources that I use to hire and manage my interns (job descriptions, interview script, email templates, list of tasks, etc.) I’d be more than willing to share any and all these files with you or anyone else that desires them.

    Let me know!

    • Hey Kevin, so glad that you’ve been successful with your interns! Thanks for sharing your experience and for the generous offer to share what the files and resources that are working for you. It sounds like you have a pretty awesome article that you could be writing and sharing here for the BiggerPockets community 🙂

  21. So glad to hear that you have had some good experiences since this post that has become quite popular. I believe that insisting on references and your thought that you get what you pay for are two key points in this article. One thing that you might want to look at also is a virtual assistant’s website. They should be professional enough to have their own website, and it should scream “capable and professional.”

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