Cellphone on KeyboardThe key to successfully outsourcing tasks is effective communication: if you aren’t able to clearly describe the tasks you want completed, it’s only a matter of time before a virtual assistant can’t complete a task to your satisfaction.

Talking about tasks

When you’re laying out a new task or project for your virtual assistant, it’s important to be specific. Say that you want estimates on a new fence for your home. Rather than telling your virtual assistant that you just want a new fence, tell her the type of fence, criteria for companies to do the installation — location, testimonials, etc. — and other details. If you give your virtual assistant enough information to work with, she can move forward quickly — those estimates might be in your inbox before the end of the day.

For some tasks, information may not be enough. For open-ended tasks, you’re going to need to set some limits for your virtual assistant. Perhaps you want to outsource research. On some topics, a person could do forty hours of research and still have many lines of inquiry to pursue. Rather than letting your virtual assistant spend all week on research instead of completing tasks, you should put a limit on that research: maybe you need only an hour’s worth of information on a topic or perhaps you just need an answer to a very specific question.

Communication tools

Your virtual assistant may not be in your time zone — let alone in your city — so calling her up via the telephone to discuss a small change in plans may not be possible. Given such a communication constraint, this is where virtual tools come in handy. Email and instant messages are standard communication tools for virtual assistants. Many also use Skype, in lieu of phone calls. There are benefits to using Skype, just as there are benefits to using email. With Skype, you can get more of a face-to-face conversation, and can often pick up on nuances that show your virtual assistant knows exactly what you want, or that show she’s a little confused. With email and instant messages, however, you have a record of your communications — you can easily go back and see exactly what you told your virtual assistant.

Depending on the types of tasks you need to outsource, you might want to consider ways to share documents such as task lists. There are hundreds of ways to share documents and other files. Such web applications as Dropbox, Google Docs, and wikis can provide easy options. You’ll want to consider how easy you find a particular application to use, as well as security, when choosing a method to share files.

No matter which method of communication you find works best for you and your virtual assistant, it’s important to stick with one method as much as possible. If your personal assistant is expecting you to email tasks, she may not notice an update to a shared document.

Make yourself available

Clearly describing your tasks is good, but the virtual assistant you’re outsourcing work to will have occasional questions. In order to handle those questions — and to make sure that your tasks are completed to your satisfaction — you should make sure your virtual assistant knows how to get in touch with you. Make sure she has your email address, Skype screen name, or phone number, of course, but you should also tell your assistant when the best times to reach you are and your preferred method of contact. It’s up to you to ask for the same information from your assistant, as well: if an issue comes up on your end, you’ll need to know the easiest and fastest ways to get in touch with your personal assistant.

Communication is a two-way street. If you don’t feel that your virtual assistant is communicating effectively, there’s nothing wrong with finding a new assistant.

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