How to Train a Virtual Assistant
We authors have a lot to do. On an average day, you might have to write a thousand words of a novel, update your social media accounts and put out a newsletter. If you’re a self-published author, you might also have to vet freelance editors, research book cover trends for your latest release, collect keywords for ad campaigns and check your audiobooks for errors. There are always things you should be doing to keep your fans happy; always opportunities you should explore to grow your brand. And it seems you can’t outsource any work because just one botched job could bring down everything you’ve worked so hard to build.
This is how many of us feel. The reality, however, is that you probably can offload some of your work without imploding your career. Doing so is scary and requires you to trust someone you can’t fully control, but the risk will free up your time to scale your business or gain a better work-life balance. Successful authors know this all too well, and often hire virtual assistants (VAs) to help them, knowing how much a good one can improve their life.
It’s understandable if the thought causes your throat to close in terror. Nobody wants to change a winning formula, and no VA will ever do everything just how you like it. Nor will they necessarily execute every task as quickly or thoroughly as you. But hiring one is worth it if you’ve hit a plateau in your business or are approaching burnout. The experience almost always comes with teething problems, and training will be necessary, but your reward will be more free time and potentially more money. Interested? Here are five handy tips for training a new VA. Master the process and you too can become a less stressed, more productive author.
Set Realistic Expectations
Training can be frustrating, but it’s not always the VA’s fault. Admittedly, some VAs are slow on the uptake or show no indication of ever meeting expectations. Sometimes, though, the problem lies in the author’s unrealistic expectations. Your VA, for instance, might be a hard worker but cannot possibly do what you want in your desired timescale. That’s understandable, especially if they’re inexperienced. After all, can you realistically expect a fresh graduate who hasn’t published a book to organise a podcast appearance tour or build Facebook ad campaigns at the same speed as you when they don’t know the best practices required for each task?
It pays to ensure your expectations align with their skill level before you begin. Some VAs, for example, can follow basic data entry instructions – like pasting pre-written social media posts into a scheduling app – but they can’t strategize an entire media campaign from scratch. Others are more experienced and can oversee multiple projects, all while developing strategies and making executive decisions. The latter tend to be more expensive, however, so remember that when you’re asking your $10-an-hour helper to carry out a job that usually comes with a $40,000 salary. If you want someone who acts like they have years of experience, expect to spend a lot of time training them or pay a higher hourly rate.
It’s possible to do many tasks in dozens of ways. For example, say you ask your VA to “collect details” on influencers you want to work with for an upcoming launch. What does that mean? Do you want them to input basic influencer contact details into a spreadsheet or create in-depth profiles, including information on follower numbers, genre interests and potential talking points you could include in your pitches? If you say you want a job done quickly but actually want in-depth research, that can cause confusion. Misunderstandings like this lead to unsatisfactory work and can throw off a project’s schedule.
A great way to avoid such errors is to record your personal process for tasks you want to outsource. Try doing a job one final time and record your process before having your VA take over. While you’re at it, create an instruction manual that includes each step in chronological order, including notes on how and why you’ve taken certain actions. Also note how long each stage takes you to give your VA an idea of your expected timescale. Recording your process creates extra work in the short term but it offers multiple benefits:
- The steps act as a checklist that help your VAs check their work.
- The time recording keeps them on schedule.
- The manual ensures the job gets done using your preferred method.
Over time, you can create more instruction manuals as you hand out more work. Then you can refer to them whenever your VA or another collaborator has a process-specific question.
Handing over an avalanche of tasks to a new VA the moment they start working for you and doubling your free time overnight sounds fantastic, but this approach can cause serious logjams in your business if your assistant can’t cope. This is true whether you hire a complete beginner or an experienced all-star because everyone takes time to adjust when joining a new company, even when they already have experience. Dump everything on your new assistant at once and, far from seeing them thrive in the heat, many authors find themselves fighting fires from all directions.
In most cases, it’s better to ease them into their new role. Start by giving your VA one basic task, and maybe the login to one publishing account where they can’t cause too much damage. Once you’re sure they’re trustworthy and competent, you can give them more work and access to more of your business accounts. This gradual method enables you to communicate more clearly as you train your VA, not swamping them with information about multiple jobs. Working this way takes longer to reach your end goal, but being patient minimises everyone’s stress levels, reduces any potential mistakes and delivers you a more assured employee that better understands your needs.
Have Real Meetings
You may believe you don’t need to meet your VA when a simple email can convey the same information, but meetings – even video calls – provide too many benefits to ignore. According to an article published in Bloomberg, 80% of business executives asked in a survey believe that meetings “create space for tough, timely business decisions and foster more complex strategic thinking.” And multiple Psychology Today articles state that meetings nurture human bonding and inspire trust. Put simply, hosting regular meetings helps you to bond with your VA to a degree that’s impossible with purely text-based communication. Plus, it nurtures understanding and creative input, turning two unconnected people into a real team, complete with empathy and honesty.
The main advantage of meetings, though, is their nuance. Giving feedback via email or on social media is easy but it has limits. There are only so many tangents you can include before an email creates more questions than it answers. Bad text can lead to misunderstandings and cause unnecessary offence. Meeting your VA regularly over video, in contrast, allows more opportunities for interjections where all parties involved can ask questions and clarify their thoughts. Whether you conduct meetings on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis, doing so can provide tremendous value. Just remember to pay your VA for these meetings because they count as a part of their job.
Play to Their Strengths
Publishing is complicated. Authors who succeed enough to afford a VA have often become polyglots, learning how to write, advertise, code, design and more. When you’re first looking for a VA, you’ll probably want someone who has a diverse set of skills like you. VAs like this are extremely rare, though. Even the good ones have limited skillsets so may not be able to do everything you want. Not only that, there’s passion to consider. Employees work better when they love what they do, and VAs are no different. So, even if yours does have a lot of skills, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to use all of them.
To get the best results out of your VA, and to have them stick around, pay close attention to what they do well but also what they say they enjoy. Don’t lose a good VA who works 15 hours a week for you because they hate doing a two-hour weekly task. If you’re happy with your VA but that one task is causing friction, why not outsource that simple task to a second person and have a happy workforce of freelancers who all love their work? Splitting the workload adds complexity to your job but it means getting a second assistant in the process who you can count on if your original VA disappears.
Training a VA takes time and effort. What you can draw from the experience, though, is that the process also trains you to be a better manager, giving you skills that will pay dividends as you grow your business or automate its processes. Done right, it can even increase your income while reducing your workload and stress. Consider it one of the best ways to level up your company and regain your freedom.
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