It's funny. What started out as a couple of nice, friendly emails a week turned into more than 20 hours a week of stressful emails three years later.
I used to enjoy reaching out to customers (and I still do), but after a while it became less and less personal and more of a chore because I was getting so bogged down with sending emails every day. I wasn't able to do to things that I really wanted, or needed, to do. The support issue had become a bit of a nightmare.
What's worse was that I knew customer service is probably the most important part of any business, and the customer must know that they are valued and that we have all the time in the world for them. In reality though this wasn't true, because while I was writing the emails I knew I was supposed to be getting on with some development or a new marketing campaign.
The emails I was sending to customers were getting shorter and less friendly. Not good. I was getting stressed by it, and the business was being affected.
Enter the VA
The solution? A virtual assistant.
I had thought about hiring someone full time to do support. I figured that getting someone full time would be better because they'd have more time to 'get' the business and be much more committed long-term. However, the budget was tight and we couldn't really afford it.
I had also been reading a book by Rob Walling about staying lean in your startup. He makes heavy use of virtual assistants (VAs) and talks a lot about it in his book. His methodology is to have lots of small, automated businesses that use virtual assistants for marketing, development, and of course, support.
I didn't think you could even hire a virtual assistant for customer service; I thought they were just for things like "make a spreadsheet," or "create some backlinks." Rob encouraged me to explore oDesk for some VAs, to create a job posting and see what happens.
My First Job Posting
I was very excited because I was about to make my first hire. Apart from me and my wife, there was no one else on the team. We'd hired a few local contractors from time to time on a project basis, but I'd never hired anyone in the U.S. dedicated to a particular task, either part time or full time. So this was going to be a fun project.
The job posting went up, and within about two hours I had about 30 requests for the job. Wow! Most of them were actually people who fell outside of my requirements, but I had a short list of about five to work through.
Hiring is an interesting process. One the one hand you have the side of you that wants to find the perfect person for the job and who will benefit the business. On the other hand there's a side to you that thinks, "I really want to help this person out and give them a great opportunity to work for a cool startup."
There were some who looked less experienced in the field but more likeable characters, there were some who seemed like they really needed work and could have valued the opportunity, and there were others who were really experienced but were expensive and seemed rather cocky, like they just expected that you would hire them.
I then came across someone who ticked most of the boxes, but what stood out was that she had taken the time to read about us and actually respond to my points in the job posting.
She wasn't the most experienced and also looked a little less comfortable in tech and startups, however I had good feeling about her and wanted to give her a shot. The fact that she had taken the time to research us and also expressed a passion for learning about what we do made me quite excited about the prospect of hiring her.
So I did.
The next few days were incredible as she basically learned our system in about 24 hours. She also had initiative, which was the main thing I wanted but couldn't really describe in a job posting. She went over and above what I asked, and did things like read our blog when a customer asked a question about something she didn't know. She only reached out to me when absolutely necessary.
After a week she was very comfortable responding to emails and she knew the system pretty well. She was even taking the initiative to create a training manual, documenting what she had learned so she could ultimately pass it on if necessary.
Now I don't know if all of that is just her, or if that's the general experience you will get from a virtual assistant, but I was very impressed.
The results were that after a week or so, I had stopped needing to spend three hours a day on emails. I was now spending about 10-20 minutes a day on emails, if I wanted to. Also, the speed at which customers were getting replies was dramatically improved from about 8-10 hours to 1-2 hours on average.
Happy Customers, Happy Business
Customers are now happier, and so am I.
I've been able to spend time doing other important things like marketing and development without worrying about support emails. Also, when I do jump on the emails, I'm a much nicer person!
We are also saving money, as she will only work the hours she tracks time for. You can also set a weekly budget so she won't go over the number of hours I specify. For a growing startup, this is perfect.
At the end of the week I can find out exactly what she has been working on, with screenshots, as well as find out when she worked and how much for. The report is then emailed to me at the end of the week for me to look over.
4 Tips for Finding an Amazing VA
So here are some tips that might help you in hiring the right VA.
- Put together a cover letter with specifics on what you want from the candidate and details on the company. Give them something to read through and you'll notice those who actually took the time to read about the role and those who didn't.
- Don't be in a rush. Take your time to prepare the job posting and take time to search through the candidates. Don't be afraid to wait for candidates to come in a few days after posting. You'll get those that initially respond but then those that come a few days later who might be just what you're looking for.
- Arrange an interview over Skype or phone. Be friendly with them and see if they are behind what you're trying to do. Get a gauge for their enthusiasm and passion, because this is what will make the difference to your business.
- Welcome them to the team and be really proud of them. Make sure you encourage them once they are hired so that they don't just treat it like another job. Don't forget they are likely working for other businesses too, so you want yours to be their favorite.
Good luck, and let me know how you get on via Twitter (@stulogy).
Stu Green is the founder of Project Bubble, an online project management and time tracking tool for small businesses.