Why Offshore VAs have their place

The world is getting smaller – it’s official.  Technology makes it possible for me to work from Glasgow and yet I am able to answer your phone calls as if I was sitting right next to you in the office.

So if I can do that from Glasgow, what’s to stop me being in Bangalore or the Philippines?  Absolutely nothing at all.  I could actually already **be** there and I doubt you would notice the difference.

About two years ago, in the interests of research we decided to see what the competition was offering – we decided to send them a couple of our own internal tasks and see what the results were.

We used a couple of different offshore virtual assistant companies but strangely had a similar experience with all of them.  Here’s my findings and top tips:

Deadlines mean nothing

Whether it’s the time difference or simply because they think it’s okay to miss deadlines, the work was always late.  To mitigate this we provided the offshore assistants with www.timeanddate.com and also established that all deadlines were UK GMT time.  Being VAs ourselves, we had a reasonable idea of how long all these tasks should take, so we weren’t guesstimating an unreasonable turnaround.  Deadlines were still missed and I concluded that we couldn’t rely on the offshore VAs to complete anything with a set deadline – it was supposed to be saving me time, not costing me time!

Virtually Sorted’s deadline on all work an hour  long is next working day. Larger projects will be quoted on a case by case basis and you will get an estimated delivery time when you book your project in.

Speak like a child

Tim Ferriss who recommends using offshore VAs in his bestseller “The Four Hour Work Week”, advises that you need to keep language really simple and produce a step-by-step plan for your offshore VA.  There’s also a degree of micromanagement involved because you need to check part way through the task that they have understood your meaning.  If you have the time to be that hands-on, great.  Otherwise you may end up with a large bill, useless results and the feeling that “I might as well do it myself”.  You need to break down your project into simple steps, relay that info in child-style language, and then check up on the progress at least an hour into the project and then once per day.

All our VAs are UK citizens and work from their own small office environment.  Our office hours are 9am-5pm Mon-Fri and during these times your project will be acknowledged within 30 minutes maximum. Our VAs are trained to ask you the questions they need to know so your project turns out exactly the way you want it.

Team/Individual

You may feel happier working with a team of VAs.  In our experience using the offshore VAs, this doesn’t guarantee a team back up system you can often be left without a VA and still paying their monthly fees.  The benefit of the company-style model was that it was less risky than sending Paypal payments to a hotmail account…

We’re a UK based sole trader – we’re happy to accept Paypal/cheques or indeed can provide you with our BACS details so you can use internet banking.

Time/Billing

My idea about time and their ideas about time were very different.  For example, I know that to change a couple of links on a webpage and upload it via FTP takes maybe 30 minutes.  I couldn’t understand why I was getting bills for 2 hours on tasks like these.  So the cheap rate I was getting was offset by the added time it took them to either comprehend or complete the task.  We usually set out an explanation of the task, a deadline for the task (which was at least the day before we wanted the actual work!) and also an estimated total time for the task.  This didn’t solve some of the more “inventive” entries in their timesheets but it did mean we had some recoil to challenge it.

Billing was in US$ converted from Indian Rupees so the exchange rate fluctuated all the time.  A lot of the companies will hound you to sign up to their pre-paid plans.  Don’t!  The work quality really suffers and you’ll find yourself hounding them to do your work once you are on a monthly plan.

With Virtually Sorted you have an estimated time and charges for all tasks and access to all completed tasks in your own billing area.  No unpleasant month-end surprises!

The things we loved

The prices: they range from $5-$15 an hour.  Going out to dinner (which the offshore VA had booked) with friends and listening to them ranting about Indian call centres – we said nothing!  The wonderful and slightly strange emails we got wishing us a pleasant day.  The drudge work – they transcribed an entire year’s bank statements into an excel document overnight for example.

Offshore VAs aren’t all bad – but it depends on the kind of task you are delegating.  Our VAs can advise when tasks can be offshored and also monitor them for you.  We also have access to “Smartsourcing” a tool that lets you outsource small repetitive tasks to an army of homeworkers for a fraction of the cost of a traditional VAs.

Local is good

I did find the Indian VAs EXCELLENT at sorting out BT issues.  Because of course, BT’s call centre is also based in Mumbai and they could speak to each other easily.  What was less effective was getting them to call up and get quotes for venue hire in the UK – I got a lot of internet search results and no actual prices because the venues hadn’t been able to understand the offshore VA’s accent.

You might need the VA to call up a prospect and book in a meeting – how do they know how long it takes to get from your house into Central London?  Or for example, how do you explain the intricacies of Royal Mail’s special/recorded delivery to a non-native?  Despite the world getting smaller the cultural differences still make it difficult to work with an offshore VA.

The Verdict:

In general terms, the offshore VAs have their place.  Say you want to recreate a document which you only have in hard copy format or need your VA to type up the entire UK phonebook or even to visit all your competitors’ websites and create a database of prices and services offered…  Brilliant!  “Grunt work” is what these guys do best.  I actually recommend using this kind of outsource offshore VA to my clients if they have a project like this which is non-time-specific.  It would be fairly criminal to take £25/hour for something they could get for $5/hour, plus it’s boring for our highly-trained VAs to do.

Am I worried by the competition?  No.  It’s not the same service at all.  Our VAs are highly skilled, native English speakers who have a variety of skills suitable for small businesses in the UK.  They understand where to go for information, what it really means when someone says “the cheque’s in the post” and how UK business actually works.  Clients want to be able to speak to them during office hours and not have to micromanage each and every thing they do.  They want quick turnarounds and perfect results.  In essence, our clients are looking for someone who is able to understand their business and create practical solutions to their “big picture” ideal.

But did I keep the VA on just to deal with the dodgy offshore call centres?  You bet!

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