Ever since the virtual assistant (VA) industry exploded about a decade ago (largely thanks to a little book called The 4-Hour Workweek), people have been trying to find ways to maximize the effectiveness and profitability of their VAs. So let’s talk about how a VA or three can benefit someone looking to be a part-time landlord. But first, a few tips on making any virtual assistant more efficient and useful. We’ll get to the landlord-specific details in a later article.
Core Concept #1: Process-ization
OK, so we basically just made that word up, but it should be obvious what it means. The most important thing you can do for your VA is to carefully document and write down every single step of every single task you expect them to do. This is easy to say, but it is startlingly difficult to do — you never really pay attention to how many small exceptions and weird edge cases exist for all of your everyday routines until you start trying to document them well enough that a complete stranger with no knowledge of the business can take over.
But that’s just the first step — because guaranteed, as your VA starts doing whatever tasks you have, they’re going to have questions. (In fact, in many ways, the more questions they have, the better the VA, provided the questions show that they’re understanding and applying active thought to the process.) The proper response is to encourage those questions — and then to write down every question they have and every answer you give. Basically, build a FAQ as you go.
The reasons behind this are two:
- Unfortunately, you can’t count on a VA sticking with you for years and years. By carefully documenting everything and then organizing that documentation into an easy-to-use format plus a FAQ for the details, you can ensure that if you need to suddenly switch VAs mid-stream, you can get the new one up and running as quickly as possible.
- You may grow your VA team and reassign duties. The better your training documentation, the easier it’ll be to train subsequent VAs. You may even get to the point where you have existing VAs training the new ones!
Core Concept #2: Collaboration
The second thing you absolutely need to understand about VAs is that in general, they may have a good understanding of a given set of tools, but they need help to best understand how to apply those tools to your specific endeavor. Asana, Dropbox, Skype, WordPress — you shouldn’t have any difficulty finding a VA who understands all of these in at least moderate depth. But unless you seek out (and pay more for) a VA who specialized in, say, real estate, you’re going to have to work very closely with them to ensure they “get it.”
But “work very closely with” doesn’t mean “micromanage.” It means “collaborate.” Micromanaging is going to lead to frustration on everybody’s part because you’re not getting the free time you hired the VA for in the first place, and they’re also wondering why you’re not just doing it yourself.
Collaborating means trusting the VA’s skill set to handle the foundations, but being willing to step in and carefully sculpt the final result. For example, say you gave your VA the job of posting your real estate listings to the MLS system. Though you may not remember from when you first started, the MLS system is stupidly complicated and unintuitive to someone with no real estate experience. You should expect to give them the process you’ve written, have them follow it, and then sit down and talk through each of their mistakes so that they understand what they should be doing and you understand how your documentation needs to be clarified.
Collaborating also means not holding your virtual assistant to unrealistic expectations. Even with perfect documentation, you make mistakes the first few times you do any modestly complex task. Accept their mistakes as part of the job and as a learning opportunity, and be realistic and humble in owning your own imperfections openly in front of them. Then, whenever a mistake occurs, see if there is a cause (a miscommunication, most often) that can be corrected so that the mistake can be avoided in the future. Do the same thing when you make a mistake, and do it openly in front of the VA — the more they understand that the appropriate response to a mistake is to fix it rather than throw blame around, the more open they will be when something goes wrong in the future.
Core Concept #3: Tracking
The final core concept behind using virtual assistants is tracking their performance. One of the most commonplace and crippling oversights it’s possible to commit as a virtual manager is to neglect these three steps:
- Develop a metric for measuring the performance of your VA.
- Inform them of the metric you’ve developed.
- Review their performance and compare it to the metric you’ve developed, with bonuses for exceeding expectations and (minor but telling) penalties for dramatic failures to meet them.
By far the most challenging step is the first one — much like the workflow documentation mentioned above, you can expect to edit your metrics several (or dozens of) times before you get them “right.” There are two reasons: First, like the workflow documentation, you’ll be amazed how much of an intellectual understanding you don’t have of what you actually want and need from your virtual assistant. Second, VAs are humans, too, and they will get absorbed in their own everyday life at some point and do just barely what it takes to beat the metric — so you have to have a metric that actually requires them to meet your business needs.
Say, for example, you hire a virtual assistant to take care of all the correspondence you do with the city, state, and tenants. What about the job of “take care of the correspondence” is measurable? (Metric literally means “measurement,” so you can’t have a metric without measuring something.) Let’s say you come up with a simple one: All incoming correspondence is scanned in, added to a database, tagged for easy searching later, summarized, and that summary is added to a webpage that you visit to catch up on what’s going on with who. The metric is simple: Every incoming message needs to have this process completed within one hour if it arrives during normal office hours or by the start of normal office hours if it arrives outside of those hours.
What happens when that VA receives an email from a tenant that they have a busted sewer main in their yard and there’s black water leaking into their basement? You can’t expect the tenant to remember your phone number if they’re not willing to walk into their sewage-smelling house, but it’s obviously not acceptable for you to leave them sleeping in the yard overnight, either.
Yep — you have to make that metric a bit more complicated so that it includes taking the time to read and comprehend each letter, determine whether or not it’s urgent, and call you if it is in fact urgent. Why? Because you don’t want to sign on to any agreement that rewards your VA for doing a job that doesn’t actually meet your business needs, that’s why.
Once you have your metrics down, make sure that they’re visible to (and understood by) the VA, and then get together with them regularly to make sure they’re keeping up. Weekly check-ins should be the minimum for when everything is going right, with regular get-togethers if things start to look like they might be slipping.
With these three core concepts — process-ization, collaboration, and tracking — you’ll be on the way to making any virtual assistant useful. And once you’ve developed that skill set (or at least wrapped your brain around the theories), it’s time to figure out just what parts of the landlording job you can actually offload on your VAs. We’ll get to that next time.
What has your experience working with VAs been?
Let me know your thoughts with a comment!