Freelance Stories: Virtual Assistant Nightmares (and Why I Automate Instead)

By Chelsea Baldwin, Contributor, on March 12, 2018

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Busy work will always have its place in the business world. It’s just a fact: There will always be emails to respond to, task lists to make, client details to collect, data to review and research to be done. Read any real-life freelance stories, and you’ll see it’s true.

While some indys may like taking a break to complete these less intensive tasks every once in a while, most solopreneurs hate doing so. They’d rather focus on their area of expertise, and who can blame them?

Traditionally, you may have been told to hire a virtual assistant (VA) to take care of all your busy work for you — which, in a perfect world, would be a perfect solution. But in the real world, VAs cost money, take time to train and don’t always perform half as well as you want them to.

And, like it or not, hiring a VA can be more trouble than it’s worth. In my experience, it cost me more money and time to manage a virtual assistant than to just do all the work on my own. In fact, it added busy work to my plate, rather than taking it off.

Nightmare #1: Producing Sloppy Work

I hate to say it, but there are a lot of “Virtual Assistants” out there who are really good at faking their competency levels before they get hired. Case in point: A couple years ago, when I did a lot of research-based writing, I hired a VA to help me with research and to work as a proofreader.

The tasks were basic, like “find a case study that shows an increase in ad clicks after integrating keyword research” and “edit my writing for grammatical errors.” I found a virtual assistant who did well on his first few tasks for me, but quickly started slacking. For example, when I asked for a link on something about networking, he lazily inserted a link to a telephone book company.

When I read back through his edits, I also realized he had at least five instances in a two-page document where he totally ignored a there/they’re/their mistake I’d made. Sure, I know the differences between these words, but I’m a phonetic typist who confuses words like “wants” and “once” because they sound so similar — especially when I’m typing quickly.

I pointed these mistakes out to him, and asked him to go back and fix things (because I was so busy with other work). He totally lost his cool, and right after I fired him for his rude behavior, he left a horrible review of me as a client on UpWork.

Plus, I still had to go back and re-do all his work. Needless to say, I’ve been turned off to the idea of hiring a virtual assistant for a while.

Nightmare #2: Causing Problems With Your Clients

If you hire a VA to do any type of customer-facing work, you need to make sure you trust them 100 percent. Even if they don’t interact with the customer directly, they can still create a headache for you if you’re not careful.

The blogger behind My Lifestyle Dream, Martin, once had a VA list a £1,300 product as only £130. This created a selling frenzy on the product, and forced him to get in touch with each customer who purchased, apologize profusely and cancel the orders they were really excited about.

Martin’s initial goal was to hire VAs who could help him create eBay product listings so he could focus his energy elsewhere. But he soon saw that it wasn’t going to be that simple.

“For each of these VAs, I gave fully detailed briefs, reviewed and [gave feedback] on their work, but they consistently made the same mistakes over and over again, which was infuriating,” he says. “For all of their listings, I would have to go in and fix a lot of what they had created, and the overall quality of the listings was terrible.”

In this case, hiring a VA cost Martin valuable time, money and customer loyalty.

Save Time Without a Shoddy Hire: Automate Tasks

Since my own VA horror story, the only things I’ve outsourced are things I can’t do myself, and things that I need to hire qualified professionals for. For example, I hired a professional designer to create my brand elements, hired a publicist to help me pitch stories and have a tech guru on retainer to help me solve website issues as they come up.

But when it comes to the “busy work” items that are still on my to-do list, I’ve started automating. Because the thing is, not every prospective client response needs to be written out from scratch every single time. Templates with a few personalized touches work really well. I can set email filters to categorize my emails for me, instead of spending 20 minutes per day doing it myself. And I can use tools like IFTTT to connect the dots on small tasks to save me upward of a few hours per week. (Because every little bit counts.)

Brittany Berger, who specializes in solopreneur automation (or, as she calls it, BYO VA), does not have a long-term VA, and doesn’t plan on changing this any time soon. But she’s still crazy productive.

“I’d been using IFTTT and Zapier to automate systems in my day job and personal life since before I had my own business or even knew what systems were,” she says. “I just saw them as shortcuts. And I’m somehow both incredibly lazy and super ambitious, so total shortcuts like what those apps can create are really necessary for me!”

Especially if you’re just getting started, automation is a great solution, and it doesn’t cost much time or money at all. So if you want to skip your own VA nightmare and move on to happier freelance stories, get automating.

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