Episode 172

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Before the ’08 recession, most agency owners couldn’t fathom the idea of remote employees, let alone working with a virtual assistant they’d likely never meet. But with sites like UpWork and elance teaching us that sometimes it makes good business sense to source work from with someone we’ve never met, the concept of working with virtual assistants has grown in popularity.

In my world, on both the agency and AMI side – we’ve found it to be a very effective way to get a volume of work handled effectively and efficiently.

This is definitely an ongoing topic of conversation with agency owners. How do we keep up with the needs and demands of clients in a cost-effective way, without putting quality or the client relationship at risk. For any agencies, virtual assistants are one of the answers to that question.

On episode #172 of Build a Better Agency, I talk with Barbara Turley of The Virtual Hub. She recognized the need for high-quality VAs and decided to create a business around that need.

We discuss the many upsides of hiring one or more VAs – like freeing up your most scarce resource: time. But we also discuss some of the pitfalls to avoid, especially around rigorous training and expectations on both the VA and the agency side. I found it to be a fascinating conversation and I hope it’s incredibly useful for you.

Barbara is the founder and CEO of The Virtual Hub – a business she started by accident that exploded in the space of 12 months to become one of the leading companies that recruits, trains, and manages virtual assistants in the digital marketing and social media space for businesses who need to free up time and energy so they can go to the next level.

 

 

What You Will Learn in this Episode:

  • How to set expectations for a virtual assistant – and your agency
  • Understanding the difference between hiring within your national borders and offshoring
  • The right questions to ask about prior training
  • How to share processes around tasks and check in
  • Why you should consider a virtual assistant a permanent and integral part of your team
  • How to integrate a virtual assistant into your team
  • How to choose the right virtual assistant for the right tasks
  • Your role as an agency owner as it relates to virtual assistants
  • Which unwanted tasks you can hand off to a virtual assistant

The Golden Nuggets:

“If you can get a offshore team running as part of your scalable business strategy, your agency will grow.” - @virtualhubltd Click To Tweet “You have to be realistic about onboarding a VA. Don't think a VA is going to walk in on day one and solve your problem. They won’t.” - @virtualhubltd Click To Tweet

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How to Contact Barb Turley:

Speaker 1:

Are you tired of feeling like the lonely light housekeeper as you run your agency? Welcome to the Agency Management Institute Community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make. The Build a Better Agency Podcast is now in our third year of sharing insights on how small to mid-sized agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. Thanks for joining me, if you are new to the podcast, welcome, glad to have you. Every week we try and talk about a different topic that I think will help you build a stronger, better, more scalable agency, more profitable, and also one that is a little more worry free, not that I think agency ownership is really ever worry-free, but a little bit more anyway, and something that you can continue to enjoy, and that will help you meet your personal and professional goals, so that’s my purpose. If you are a regular, welcome back, thanks so much for sticking with me.

Tonight’s topic is an interesting one, I’m not sure why I said it was tonight, well, it depends on when you’re listening, maybe I know that you’re listening to this in the evening. Today or tonight’s topic, depending on when you’re listening, is one that I think many agency owners like in theory, but either have tried and had a bad experience or are leery of trying. As agencies struggle, A to hire well, B to retain good employees and C to get a scalable margin of profit into what I think of as task work, all of those challenges are presented to us every single day.

The topic today is really about how to use virtual assistance to augment your ongoing staff and to build out a team of people who help you do the tasks that quite frankly, no one in your shop really wants to do, it’s difficult to monetize them because they’re very labor intensive but clients don’t understand it, things like reporting, grabbing data and putting it into a dashboard, link-building, some administrative elements of SEO work.

For some agencies, what they’ve done is they have, as I said, augmented their staff by adding some virtual assistants. Now, we’ve all heard the horror stories and I certainly am going to be asking our guests about those, in terms of language barriers, time barriers, inconsistency, not reliable in terms of showing up or the quality of work isn’t what you want it to be.

I think that my guests, [Barb 00:03:12] Turley, from the Virtual Hub, has solved some of those problems. Here’s what I’m asking for you to do is as Barb and I talk over the next hour, what I’m hoping you will do is just stay open to the possibility. Some of you as soon as you heard me say virtual assistant, you went, “Nope, not going to do it,” or “Nope, did it, never doing it again.” But I do think that there probably is a place for this, and when you think about… Many of you swore to God that you would never use outsourced copywriters or art directors, and today many of you are doing that. I suspect this falls into that vein, that this is one of those things that wasn’t how the business was built back in the day, it’s a new concept, it certainly has some pitfalls that we have to figure out how to avoid, but it is a way for us to bring some smart economics to our business.

We’re going to dig into all of that, how to find a good virtual assistant, what work makes sense to give them to do and what stuff you should not ask them to do, and then what’s your role as an agency owner or leader in making sure that that relationship works and that the output of work is of a high quality and actually serves your clients and your agency well.

With that, let’s jump into the conversation. Barb, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us today.

Barbara Turley:

Thanks so much for having me, very excited to be talking to your audience today.

Drew McLellan:

You live in a world that I think a lot of agency owners and leaders have this fuzzy understanding about, and in theory they go, “Oh, a virtual assistant, that might be nice to have,” but there’s a lot of fear around it, a lot of fear about finding the right one, about consistency, I’m going to get somebody in my groove, and then they’re going to go on and do something different, is this really a career choice or is this somebody doing this in between gigs. When somebody calls you and they’re interested in this, how do you dispel those fears so that they’re willing to give it a shot?

Barbara Turley:

Well, the first thing I would say is all of those fears that you have listed are absolutely legitimate fears and things that do happen. I wouldn’t necessarily dispel those fears because in the broader direct market, if you’re going to go to the Philippines, which is where I specialize in, but obviously any of the outsourcing markets, you may come up against people who will ensure that those fears come to life for you. I always say to people, it’s an amazing thing to get right, if you can get it right especially for an agency, because it’s a great way to leverage a team that’s off shore, it’s much more cost-effective and all of those lovely things, but it’s not as easy as people think because the recruitment part of it and the management part of it, that’s where we come in and we will remove the fears around all of those issues you just brought up, because we actually take care of that on the ground. I’ll tell you now, it is extraordinarily difficult, those fears are real.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, I bet. I’m an agency owner, which actually I am, what things am I doing right now that a virtual assistant could do for me and take off my plate? Because if there is one common ailment that agency owners and leaders have is that there’s too much on their plate and they can’t get it all done and they’re working 60 or 80 hours and they feel like the hamster in the wheel.

Barbara Turley:

Absolutely. There are so many things that you shouldn’t be doing as an agency owner, but if I was just to narrow it down, some of the biggest ones are things like, let’s say you are a digital marketing agency and you have an SEO part of your business which involves link-building, which we all know is an excrutiatingly arduous task of sending lots of emails, and it’s very much an admin task actually, your job as the owner or as the agency head or whatever, is to come up with the strategy, the process, how it’s going to work, how you’re going to get success, and then your job is to delegate that. That’s a perfect task to be delegating to a virtual assistant where you could be paying 10 bucks an hour instead of paying one of your project managers who might be on a hundred bucks an hour, it’s classic.

Another great one, and we’ve got some Facebook ad agencies that are using virtual assistants to tinker around in Power Editor and come up with a lot of the reporting. A lot of just the admin part of getting the reports out and the analytics, again, you’ve got to set that up and you’ve got to do a bit of training with your team and you’ve got to take ownership of how they’re going to be doing that, but it pays so much dividend to get that right in the end.

Another example, those doing social media, granted you can have people off shore do your social media content calendars and all that sort of thing, if you want to maintain control of the content, which a lot of agencies do, part of the job is creating canvas images, creating and loading everything into Hootsuite or HubSpot, or one of these scheduling tools for all your social media accounts. That’s another classic one.

The list goes on really, blog optimization, all this sort of thing can be done by virtual assistants.

Drew McLellan:

As the agency owner, how do I screen a candidate to see if they actually have the chops to do that work? Because what a lot of agency owners probably are thinking is, “I’m not sure a virtual assistant from Philippines can optimize a blog post or can understand Google analytics enough to pull a report.” If I were going to hire someone, how do I screen them to know that they actually know what they’re doing?

Barbara Turley:

Yeah. I wouldn’t screen them to know that because they’re probably going to tell you that they can do it and then you’ll find out pretty quickly that maybe they can’t or their experience was limited. You’ve got to accept that if you’re going to be going to the Philippines, as I said, it’s a very cost-effective leverage strategy for any business, but you have to take ownership of the training demands. In my experience, we’re an agency as such in that we recruit, train and manage, we actually do our own training programs and all that sort of thing. But we do encourage clients particularly agencies that know exactly what they’re doing, that you have to then take the person that we’ve pre-trained and you’ve got to have your own processes already ready to go and you’ve got to do some training with your new team to get it to pay the dividends that you want.

I wouldn’t just be like, “Okay, you say you know how to optimize a blog post, here’s a blog, off you go, goodbye, I’m not going to talk to you for a month,” you have a bit of engagement with any team. With optimizing blog posts, again, it’s quite a big job, but there’s lots of little jobs within that like keyword research, narrowing down lists based on competition and search and all these things, and you can create your own metrics around that and give it to a virtual assistant to bring you back the data.

Again, you’re not hiring a specialist, you’re hiring someone that you’re going to work with, and that’s the mistake a lot of people make when they’re offshoring, is they think they’re going to get an expert and you might hit a home run, you might, but it’s actually quite difficult. It’s just accepting that in order to get the benefits of it, you have to have that approach to it.

Drew McLellan:

Well, honestly, I don’t know that that’s any different if you’re hiring a VA from the States either.

Barbara Turley:

I agree.

Drew McLellan:

You have language issues maybe in some of those cases, but the reality is, if you hire a virtual assistant from anywhere, the more precise your system or process is, because you’re really asking them to follow prescribed steps, right?

Barbara Turley:

Yes, absolutely. The reason I stress that point is that you would be surprised the amount of people who still show up on our doorstep at the Virtual Hub and say that they want somebody who’s going to show initiative and the lines get blurred between what is strategy and what is process development and what is actually execution of a process that is very detailed and has been trained on for a VA.

Drew McLellan:

Right. What you’re saying is that the best use of a VA is a repetitive task that they can learn and then just follow the recipe over and over and over again.

Barbara Turley:

Absolutely. Then you work together. The next step that people miss sometimes is they roll out a process that’s recurring, and then they never really have a check-in point with the virtual assistant to see how it’s going and to improve the process or to get better results or to engage them in what you’re trying to achieve so that they feel like they’re not just a monkey in the Philippines doing a repetitive tasks, they actually feel like they are a really important input to a strategic business decision or direction or whatever they’re trying to achieve.

That’s a key thing as well, to make them feel part of the business so that they can get more success for you and they’re more engaged. If you just give someone a repetitive task and ask them to do it every week, and you have no engagement strategy with that person, you’ll find that mistakes will slip in naturally. That applies to any country like you say, it wouldn’t matter where the person was.

Drew McLellan:

Right. If I’m the director of account services and I am going on behalf of my agency, I’m going to engage with a virtual assistant, how often should I talk to them? How often should I check their work? How engaged are they with the team? What’s the best practice around all of that?

Barbara Turley:

Yes. That’s a really great question. Number one, I’m sure most agency owners would agree with this, we’re big fans of using a project management tool and not using email for internal and team and task communication flow. For example, I’m a huge Asana user, but there’s Trello, there’s Teamwork PM, there’s all these different ones. Number one, you’ve got to bring them in, if you work with an offshore person at this level, my advice is to not treat them like a contractor or a freelancer. I would probably steer clear of freelancers as well for other reasons, but you want to bring them fully into the business, you want to give them an email address that is part of your business, so it’s [email protected]. You invite them into your project management tool, your Slack channels, you bring them into any other meetings that you’re having with the team, so that you fully incorporate them into the team.

Also, it’s good to set expectations when they first join around the communication flow that already exists within the business. For example, are you the type of person that likes to deal with questions or problems or roadblocks immediately because you’re available all day or are you in meetings all day and it would drive you nuts if somebody was asking you questions all day? You got to set that expectation with the person from day one. Then you’ve got to set your meeting rhythm, you probably have a meeting rhythm already with your team, maybe you’re running daily huddles, maybe you’re running weekly strategy meetings, I would encourage you to include a virtual assistant in those meetings.

I’m a big fan of the daily huddle technique, which is like a short 10 minute meeting where you address, what have I done, what am I planning to do and where am I stuck, that’s the big one. To do that with a virtual assistant is very powerful, 10 minutes a day and have it as a non-negotiable in your diary, especially in the first six to eight weeks of working together.

Drew McLellan:

Does that imply that I’m working with this person 40 hours a week, as opposed to that I might buy 10 hours a month from them? That sounds to me like I have an employee now.

Barbara Turley:

Yeah. Just dealing with what we do, at the Virtual Hub we specialize in dedicated staff, we do part-time contracts of 20 hours per week, or full-time at 40 hours per week, that’s how we operate. You’re going-

Drew McLellan:

Okay. If I was hiring a virtual assistant through you, the minimum I’m getting is 20 hours a week?

Barbara Turley:

20 hours a week, yeah, it’s more like you’ve got to have a good, strong task list. Now, if you are going for a virtual assistant where you’re just doing 10 hours a month or whatever, that’s can work great, but I think at the minimum you want to have some check-in points during that month. Maybe it’s a bi-monthly meeting, or I wouldn’t do monthly, initially you want to do maybe a little bit more often, but you just have to have check-in points where you address the roadblocks and how it’s going.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Right. Typically in your model and in your view of this, are they transparent to the clients? Are they interacting with clients? Are they completely behind the curtain? I know you work with a lot of agency clients, how did they integrate this part-time contractor, because that’s really what it is, part-time or full-time contractor, how do they integrate them with clients?

Barbara Turley:

Yep. Typically the agencies that we’re working with have their virtual assistants doing the backend work, but they are very much engaging with the team, even if the team’s only two people, there are engaging. When I say back office, I don’t mean they’re just way off in the Philippines, nobody speaks to them, they’re very much part of the team. We have a couple that have a VA doing some client facing work, but it’s more like an onboarding process, they may have the VA emailing to follow up for documents that are needed or contract to be signed, but that again would be a process.

But in general, it is more the back office [crosstalk 00:17:20] internal team that I would recommend. Unless you build them up, I don’t think you’d want people of that level engaging with your clients, you want to show your agency wants to have the top people engaging with your clients, I would think.

Drew McLellan:

Right. What are some of the mistakes? One of them, obviously it sounds like is not having enough touch bases with your virtual assistant. What are other common mistakes that agencies or business owners or business leaders make when they engage with a virtual assistant? Again, regardless of where they live, to me that’s irrelevant, how can I mess this up?

Barbara Turley:

Oh yeah. The biggest mess of point is in the first four weeks, probably the first week. Usually where people mess up is they come in with an expectation that this person is going to hit the ground running and the reason I’ve said it that way is because we hear this all the time, “I thought we were going to hit the ground running,” I’m like, “Look, even if you hire somebody who’s an MBA qualified U.S. in your business, nobody comes into any business and hits the ground running.” They might, but really you’re shaking your head because I agree, people have this perception that if you hire the right person, they’re going to hit the ground running.

Usually with a virtual assistant then, in the first week they go, “Oh, I don’t know,” and then they panic because it’s off shore, they immediately go, “This doesn’t work for me.” That’s a huge mistake and it’s a mindset issue that you have to come in, you’ve got to make sure that you do not have that bias before you come in. You’ve got to come in with an open mind, you’ve got to come in prepared to potentially take a pause for a month in some processes to get them delegated effectively. After that first hump, you need to have an onboarding time with a new person in your business, you got to tell them about what you actually do, what you’re trying to achieve, all that stuff, and then delegate the processes slowly, don’t slam someone on day one with a recurring task list. That’s number one.

The second one I see all the time, I call them the lemon squeezers, I’m sure the agencies have clients like this, where you hire somebody for whatever, 10 hours a week or even 40 hours a week, doesn’t matter, but you actually try and shove a full-time job down the throat of a part-time person and then you blame them because they can’t get the results for you. That’s a major issue that we see there, people think, “Well, I can do it in four hours a day, so why can’t they?” I go, “Well, they possibly will get to that level, but again, you need some time.” Again, if it’s costing you 10 bucks an hour, or if you go direct you can get much cheaper than that, it doesn’t matter if it takes a bit longer or they take their time with something, [crosstalk 00:20:17].

Once you get through that first four to six week hump, let’s say you get through there, the next major milestone is after three months, people tend to see slippage or mistakes happening. Usually the problem with that is that there’s no leadership, you’re not doing the check-in milestones, you’re not leading that person in your team. Those are issues that happen in any business, it’s not just with Vas, but we see those happen quite a lot.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I would guess, I’m surprised that one of the mistakes that you didn’t list and maybe it’s coming next, is that agencies come in expecting the VA to have a process. I hire a VA to let’s say optimize blog posts, but I don’t feel like I should have to teach them how to optimize a blog post, they should just know how to do that and they should know how to do it the way I want them to do it.

Barbara Turley:

Oh, yeah. The good thing about our agency is that actually, our business at the Virtual Hub… This was a problem in the market and I decided to go after, that’s why we were doing quite well, because we run massive training programs where we train on specific processes around all of these things and we give the process to the clients, we say, “You can have the process, your VA has been trained in this process and we will ongoingly help and support along the way, but you can modify the process to your own liking or just use it or not use them, use your own,” that’s how we operate.

We’ve eradicated that issue a little bit. In the direct market though, you will still find freelancers that will have their own process, the problem with freelancers, and I’m probably going to get nailed here on this for saying this, I love freelancers for certain jobs, but what you got to remember, I heard, I think it was Gary Vaynerchuk the other day did one of those Facebook Lives on this, and he was talking about, the problem with hiring a freelancer is that you’re hooking up and dating when actually what you’re looking for is a marriage, it’s tricky. They will come in and have their own process, it may be completely misaligned to your process, even if they have experience, and then it’s very hard to break that and get them to do something else because they have their own idea about what they want to do.

Drew McLellan:

Well, one of the things, agencies have begun to embrace this idea of, find a contractor for a specific skill, hire them for a specific task, and then you move on and we certainly use outsourcing for maybe certain art directors or things like that. But what I’m hearing you say, which is an interesting mental shift, is that really the best way to use a virtual assistant is to not think about them as a temporary hire, but instead to think of them as you’re augmenting your staff through a contract relationship. Again, they’re not an employee, you’re not obligated in that way, but ideally this is someone who is going to stick with you for a period of time. Again, that-

Barbara Turley:

What I’m really talking about, you’re right, is that my back