My Wife had a Virtual Assistant for about 20 Hours.
The story is very simple. I was leaving for NYC for a week and I felt bad that my wife was having to take care of our wonderful dog who is going to survive nasal carcinoma, her regular IT work, and the usual ‘fun’ associated with home rentals around the holidays. Rather than search for a person that could fix a gas leak, I had the brilliant idea of searching for a person who could search for a person that could fix a gas leak. The thought process was clear – what is the only thing better then fixing her one problem; finding someone that could help with many of her problems. Blah blah blah, what is better than giving the gift of time.
Finding a virtual assistant was not not a problem. You can get an outsourced dedicated person to help you with tasks such as interviewing repairmen, rescheduling appointments, doing your shopping, etc for fairly cheap. I was unaware that virtual assistance came with so many options (all which add to the price). You can select their location, languages spoken (many services offered people speaking 3 or more languages – something very hard to find in the US for anywhere around the cost), desired skills and work hours. To keep cost down, the virtual assistant is shared between several people but you get a guaranteed number of hours for your X dollars a month.
The solutions sounded great, but I had to keep going. What if you didn’t like your dedicated person or what if they judge you for your laziness (you will understand this fully later when you see the sample tasks)? I thought we needed something more anonymous. Plus, we have really strange schedules and need random stuff done at random times – a situation not suited for one person. I stumbled on to a few solutions that looked very similar to Mechanical Turk and Microworkers. Basically, they have a pool of workers, you send your task in and the first available person who wants to earn some money does the task. There are no sick days, no vacations, and no office hours for these types of virtual assistants. But there is a downside. You will most likely be communicating with a different person each time, so you have to always over communicate to make sure the task is done properly. When you work with someone often, simple clues in previous conversations help us fill in communication gaps.
I limited my choices to three websites: Fancyhands.com, Timesvr.com, and GetFriday.com. My gut was to try Fancy Hands but I am not a big fan of using my Google login or Facebook login for 3rd party sites. I know it is supposed to make life fast and easy by only having one set of trusted credentials but I don’t want 3rd party companies knowing what I am logging into. Really it is just paranoia.
The TimeSvr website claims that they are “the quickest service of their kind – guaranteed” and that tasks should take under a couple of hours. They charge one monthly fee and you get to send in unlimited basic tasks. The examples from their website sounded exactly in line with what we needed. So I settled on a gift certificate to Timesvr.com and away I flew to NYC.
Tasks Assigned – Success and Fail
My wife was excited and decided to try out the service right away by sending some simple tasks. This was the first task:
I need 3 phone numbers for appliance repairmen in Tomball, Texas that can fix a gas stove and a dishwasher. I would like to know what their hourly rate is / service charge is. They also need to be able to accept credit card payments over the phone. Thank you!
After assigning the first task my wife eagerly waited to see what kind of response she would get. In the meantime she thought of another task – to have the virtual assistant call our health insurance company and get information about a claim she needed to make. These are just the types of phone calls we hate to make, as they are simple but time consuming. A few hours later, a super simple third task was assigned. We asked for the VA to find out what floor I needed to go to for the hotel gym. Yes, I was in the hotel and I could easily call down or stop by the lobby – DON’T JUDGE ME.
The second task about the heath insurance info was answered first in about 3 hours from posting and they answered with detailed information in a well crafted response. Not too bad.
But then fail happened. My wife kept waiting and waiting for the response on the other tasks. The third task, a 2 minute phone call, took 8 hours to answer. They gave us quality information again, however it was not in a timely enough manner to gain any benefit from delegating the task. I know you are immediately thinking – wow, firstworldproblem, dude had to wait 8 hours to find out where the gym was located instead of calling the lobby. Which is completely true, I did not let the lack of task completion stop me from getting to the gym, but the point of the exercise was to test out what kind of response we could expect on extremely simple tasks. We also wanted to see what kind of ‘jitter’, the variation in the time each task takes to complete, we would see. In order to use the virtual assistant service effectively, we need it to be reliable.
The VA took 16 hours to complete the first task assigned, and then the results they gave were not at all in line with what we asked. They provided us with three appliance repair companies (first ones to come up in google), but one of them was 30 miles away from Tomball (we live in a metropolitan area, not exactly hard to find closer repairman). They did not provide the rates/costs for any of the companies, and they did not include if they accepted credit card payments. This task was the main info we needed to find out and is right in line with the ‘find a dog walker’ example they promote in their ‘What is a basic task?’ FAQ. Big fail on this task.
Another thing to keep in mind, while my wife waited for the expected ‘couple hour’ response, she constantly logged back in to the site to see what was going on. This constant polling quickly diminishes the time you are saving. I am going to take some of the efficiency loss blame here. If you have a task that you don’t care about the outcome, it is not that big of a deal but for all three of our tasks we needed to info to make other decisions on a deadline. If we had planned our tasks better or were less excited about each of our tasks, we would have saved a few polling cycles.
After these three tasks, we gave up on this company and decided they were not a good fit for us. Their response times were too long and unreliable, and they only answered two out of the three questions adequately. A virtual assistant should make life easier, not complicate things with unknown response times and poor quality responses that require more time to clarify. The TimeSvr website offered a 24 hours free trial. We contacted them within that first 24 hours and said we did not like the service and wished to cancel and receive a refund. We heard no response from them to our several emails over the next week. Finally, after sending a forth task for Timesvr to contact Timesvr and find out why we have not received a refund (another task similar to their examples), we got a response telling us how to cancel a subscription. We did not have a subscription but just a one-month plan, so had to write them back and again state that we just wanted a refund of our service. We finally got a response that they would give us a refund. No refund appeared for another week, so we finally had to open a dispute with PayPal. It took a few more days and they eventually responded, giving us a refund and making sure to state that “Please also note that we have a no refund policy but have processed this due to your unique circumstances”.
Maybe my experience with this service was unique; but in the end, this service was more of a headache than it was worth. I still am impressed with the concept and I am not willing to give up on the ‘pooled virtual assistant’ model yet. I am hoping my time with Fancyhands.com will show me the true value of the service.