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Can Virtual Assistants Make You More Productive? An Experiment, and a TimeSvr Review

In a previous post I discuss how I outsourced my cooking for $60 a week.  In this article, I discuss my experiences with a virtual assistant.  I also review TimeSvr, a new service offering a a team of virtual assistants, and compare my single virtual assistant versus TimeSvr’s task based processing.

I did not receive any compensation for reviewing TimeSvr.

The Experiment

I know some of the day to day tasks I do online suck up a lot of my time.  I have automated some of these tasks, such as automatic email filtering, and streamlined other processes such as how I read blogs.  I decided to try an experiment with a virtual assistant, to see if I could effectively outsource parts of my digital life.  I also compared my solo virtual assistant to a professionally managed, concierge style virtual assistant team.

What I expected

I imagined I would be able to save some time with a virtual assistant. Further, I hypothesized that the team would do a better job than my solo assistant – but would be more expensive, and it would end up being a decision based on value provided.

A Normal Sid Life Processing Flow

Before we get to comparing the virtual assistants, let’s set up the base task processing workflow.  I am one person, I have a list of tasks to do, and I do them:

Of course, we can see where the bottleneck is here: Sid.  Sid’s availability limits the amount of tasks that can be accomplished.

Sid’s procrastination doesn’t help, but is outside the scope of this analysis =).

Pros:

  • Consistent quality
  • Simple organization hierarchy – Single point of contact
  • Task progress constantly updated and available
  • Tasks are prioritized and reprioritized instantly.
  • No capital outlay

Cons:

  • Doesn’t scale
  • Single point of failure

Sid Life Processing with One Virtual Assistant

To remove the bottleneck in the process above I add a second person and delegate some tasks to them.

In this case, some of the tasks I have been delegating are:

  • Researching various items for me in spreadsheets
  • Summarizing data and articles
  • Researching sources for future articles
  • Checking my comments inbox for replies on forums/blogs to my comments, etc so I can then go back to those posts and interact with other readers/forum members.

In the new workflow, yellow arrows show processes the virtual assistant is handling, and blue show processes Sid is handling:

With two people, I’ve already increased my efficiency. I’ve given my virtual assistant (Prabhu) some one time research tasks, as well as other repetitive tasks for 2 hours per day.  These tasks are various fairly low urgency, but high priority tasks.  I pay $40 a week for his services, about $3 an hour.  I can wait for my tasks to be done overnight (because Prabhu is in India).  Further, since they are often repeating tasks, I don’t usually have to assign him anything – he has his assignments, and will execute regularly.

I still have to review the work, but it takes 5 minutes to review versus a couple of hours to do it.  While the initial set up took some time and I needed to go back and forth to get the quality up to par, now that we have a smooth system set up Prabhu is executing well.

Pros:

  • Consistent quality provided the tasks are well defined
  • Improved efficiency for my low urgency, high priority tasks. I can take them off my task queue and hand them off
  • Increased efficiency over time by division of labor – Prabhu can increase his abilities on the tasks I assign to him, while I can focus on my life and goals
  • Scales to a point – I am not using Prabhu to full capacity yet.

Cons:

  • Doesn’t completely scale – There are still some limits on hours and availability
  • Additional communications channels
  • Misunderstandings possible -  Tasks have to be communicated via email. Sometimes, details are lost in translation or need to be clarified
  • No way to check on progress without polling – I need to email Prabhu to ask where he is on tasks. Since I assign low urgency tasks, this is typically not a concern, and so far Prabhu has always completed tasks in a day.
  • No way to easily reprioritize tasks, unless I do so the day before. To deal with this, I have provided him a simple ranking of importance of tasks.
  • Diffferent time zones.  If I had an assistant here this wouldn’t be an issue.

In general, life is definitely better with Prabhu than without.  Prabhu (or equivalent) can be found via Elance or your local Craig’s List.

When I was first looking for an assistant, I had about 30 people on my list that made the cut out of about 200 that applied.  Prabhu was determined to get the position, going so far as to call me every day from India to convince me NOT to pick anyone else, insisting he was my man, and that he would stick with me.  Prabhu is more expensive per month than the team I discuss below – but can you put a price on that kind of hunger and loyalty?

Life Processing with a Virtual Assistant Team (TimeSvr Review)

I signed up for a new service called TimeSvr (pronounced “Time Saver”) that provides a task based (as opposed to assistant based) solution, where each task goes into a queue and is handled by whatever assistant is available and qualified. It was in a private beta, and they just released it to the public.  Since I was doing an experiment with a virtual assistant anyway, this looked like a great opportunity to compare and contrast.

Before I discuss the service too much, here’s the new workflow.  Now I can assign multiple tasks, and if the service has the bandwidth available, all my tasks will be worked on at the same time:

They offer a one week free trial, after which you can pay for their service or leave.  For a flat fee ($59 a month) you get access to their team of assistants with unlimited tasks. A normal task would be something like researching a topic online, transcribing hard copies of articles into digital format, making dinner reservations and various tasks related to scheduling.  The service is available 24/7, and tasks are handled by whatever assistant is available.

I think this new model is very interesting, and on the surface looks like it would be much more efficient than having a jack-of-all-trades type assistant, since each task can be handled by an optimized person.

They say tasks will be started within an hour, but often they will be worked on right away.  This was the case with my tasks I assigned them: they got to work very quickly, and relatively simple tasks (scheduling events with my friends, for example) often were completed within 15-20 minutes.  Some of the longer tasks I bombarded them with took hours, but the work was always completed same day.  I placed tasks through their web interface, over email, Skype chat, and even called in once.

By far the most fun was when I called and asked them to find me restaurants in Honolulu with a Happy Hour (alcohol and food served) at 3 p.m. on Sunday. I called at about noon and relayed my task over the phone, and requested to be emailed at my blackberry email account with results.  Immediately, an assistant looked up restaurants, called them to confirm they were open and served alchohol (from Pakistan!) and emailed me with 3 options within an hour.  Since I had my blackberry and they included the phone numbers, I could just click on the number to call directly and verify. While some of the other tasks required in depth research, this one was my favorite.

Want Examples? For examples of the research tasks they completed for me, I refer you to WordPress versus Site Build It for E-Commerce Sites and Subnotebook Comparisons.

How does TimeSvr stack up?

Pros:

  • Always available. Whether via email, their dashboard interface, skype or over the phone, I never had an issue getting my tasks completed.  I tried to assign tasks at as odd hours as I could – they always completed the relatively easy ones (5-15 minutes of work) within ~45 minutes, often much sooner. Clearly, they are serious about providing round the clock service.
  • Consistent quality – again, provided the tasks are well defined
  • Better parallelization of tasks.  The first day, I basically tried to overload their system by giving them lots of research tasks that would have probably taken 2-3 days of a single virtual assistant’s time, or at least 1-2 days of my time. I had all my research back within 5 hours.
  • Division of labor – TimeSvr says they have a trained group of English speaking aides that are assigned to be especially good at specific tasks.
  • Scales very well – Unlimited tasks for $59 a month.  They have other plans for businesses and groups who need dedicated, 6 day a week aides that I did not try out – but it’s available as an option.  For businesses and groups (or I guess an individual, if you really need this much help), a dedicated aide available 9 hours a day, 6 days a week, costs $950 per month – very cheap, about $4 an hour.
  • Progress for multiple tasks can be tracked via their dashboard.
  • Setting different priorities for tasks is possible.  Reprioritization may be difficult since I think once a task is begun, all I can do is cancel or wait for it to be completed.  Reprioritization of non-completed tasks is possible, via Skype/email/dashboard.

Cons:

  • Additional communications channels – since I don’t know who exactly is working on a task, if I want to speak with them I have to call, have the specific aide located, and then I can contact them.  I am not sure if this will be available via the Dashboard.
  • Misunderstandings possible – Tasks have to be communicated via email, Skype, phone or dashboard. Sometimes, details are lost in translation or need to be clarified. I had no examples of this, but YMMV.
  • No way to check on progress without polling – I need to check the Dashboard on their website. This is better than my single virtual assistant, but not as efficient as having the progress in my head.

Overall, I am very pleased with TimeSvr. I am guessing their model is based on knowing everyone is not going to have urgent tasks all the time, and thus they are able to prioritize and keep all the tasks flowing through the system.  They can expand “your” team to handle multiple tasks when they have the bandwidth available, and reallocate those same aides to other people when you don’t have any tasks.  I imagine they handle low priority, time consuming tasks overnight when it is daytime on that side of the globe, similar to my single assistant – though this was never the case with my tasks, as all mine were always completed whenever I assigned them.

They were also very helpful when I contacted them via email.  Their COO didn’t know I was writing a review, but took the time to answer some questions about the service in detail anyway.  They pride themselves on being able to manage your online digital identity, a concept I found interesting so I followed up with him about it.  They have a system where you can input your passwords for various sites, which are then stored securely on a server in the US.  The aides never see your password, but the system somehow allows them to use your digital identity to handle tasks for you – purchasing items on Amazon, setting appointments on Google Calendar, and in my case sending out invites via Socializr.

The monthly service fee for TimeSvr is also less than half what I pay my single assistant each month so it may be a better deal for some.  Switching over to them is something I am considering as well, since they could likely handle all the tasks my assistant is doing for me each week, and the TimeSvr service has been excellent.

Comparison of Approaches

Comparing TimeSvr (a virtual assistant team) versus my single assistant:

  • TimeSvr ended up handling about 20 hours worth of work over the course of a week, while my single virtual assistant handled and saved me about 10.
  • The TimeSvr tasks were research items that I would have probably put off if I didn’t have the service at my disposal:  so there was about 4 hours of actual time saved, and 16 hours of additional work accomplished.
  • Prabhu is doing tasks that I have always done, and thus clearing up additional time in my life.  TimeSvr could have handled all the tasks Prabhu is doing as well, given the quality of the research they did for me.

So, what are the main benefits of each approach?

  • No assistants:  The biggest benefit of having neither is simplicity. There is overhead in providing assistants enough details so that they can complete a task without your intervention, as well as reviewing their work.  Delegating is not as easy as it looks =). The downside of course is you have to complete all your tasks yourself.  If you’re happy and have enough time, enjoy yourself: if it ain’t broke – don’t fix it.
  • Single virtual assistant:  A single assistant provides you with a consistent, loyal workforce you can depend on, such as in my case.  The downside here is if your assistant is sick/unavailable, that’s too bad – unless you have a backup assistant, you likely are going to be without help until they are back to 100%.  Over time, they will become more skilled to your specific needs and likely not need any retraining.
  • Virtual assistant team: I think the biggest benefits of TimeSvr versus a single assistant are 1) the quick turnaround, 2) the multiple aides working on multiple tasks at a time and 3) 24/7 access.  Also, for TimeSvr specifically, the dashboard is awesome – having insight into what tasks are being done is great for people like me who have to know exactly what is going on all the time.  The quality of work done, generally speaking, was better than my single virtual assistant. Will the quality hold up as the service scales? Time will tell.  I was wrong about one thing: I thought this would be a more expensive option, but it turns out, depending on your needs, TimeSvr can be cheaper than a part time assistant, since it’s less than $15 a week.

Conclusion, Recommendations – and Your Thoughts

Overall, I am very pleased with the quality of both my single assistant as well as TimeSvr.  Here are my recommendations, depending on your situation:

  • No extra tasks, I can handle everything and/or I don’t like delegating: Don’t hire anybody.
  • I have consistent repeated, reasonably skilled, easily outlined, low urgency tasks: A single virtual assistant will likely suffice. TimeSvr may also be a good option, depending on how many hours of work you need.
  • Varied, occasional tasks that can be very urgent and require a timely response – for this situation specifically, you might consider a service like TimeSvr with a team of round the clock assistants, or a local virtual  (or even real life!) assistant.

How about you? Any thoughts?  Do you have an experience (positive or negative) with a virtual assistant you would like to share?

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By Sid Savara
Published February 30th 2014
4.2 Stars
281 votes