One of the biggest struggles for small businesses or agencies looking to outsource is how to work effectively with a virtual team member who is not an employee.
This person might be a web designer, virtual assistant, programmer or bookkeeper, but the key is that although she is paid for her services by your company, she isn’t an employee, doesn’t work on site, and often doesn’t even work during the same hours you do.
The good news is that in most cases you’ll be working with another business owner who understands that her own business will grow as a result of having a positive impact on yours. So at least you’re properly aligned.
But that doesn’t mean you can just abdicate responsibility for your project to your team member without putting a certain structure into place.
Here are some basic principles for working with virtual service providers that have served me well:
1. Figure out what your goals are
What concrete results or outcomes do you need, want or expect from this working relationship? Why are you getting help for this project or business function? How will your business or life be better as a result?
For example, if you’ve assigned a writing project, like new copy for your website, you probably are hoping for improved conversion rates and more sales. Or when contracting with a bookkeeper, you’re really just looking for a trustworthy, accurate, effective management of your financial records, to save valuable time for you.
2. Clearly communicate and measure your goals
One of the biggest problems I see with outsourcing of any kind is that the business owner fails to actively communicate what’s important, and why. Specific tactics or details will change over time, but your goals will typically be stable. Being able to communicate those effectively can go a long way towards keeping virtual team members on track.
For example, if having a writer work on web copy for you, and your goal is improved conversion rates, you’ll need a way to test that, and to give feedback to the writer. A subjective “this looks good” probably won’t give you what you need, and more importantly, without testing, you won’t know if it’s effective than what you previously had.
Similarly, for something like a bookkeeping service, your goal might be to have up-to-date, accurate records, no older than 7 days. How can you verify that? You may need to track the records yourself for the first month and compare to make sure things are going smoothly. Are you finding mistakes constantly, or having to spend extra time explaining things or tracking things down? If your goal was to save the 2 hours a week you spent before, but now you’re spending an hour and a half with the bookkeeper, maybe you’re not getting what you need.
3. Ask Good Questions
One good question is “How will you keep me updated on what you’re doing? When can I expect these updates?” If you like the answers, it may save you the trouble. Your writer may want to send you a first draft, get your feedback, then submit a final draft. The bookkeeper may want to send a monthly financial statement. If you prefer to get a weekly update, that would be the time to mention it.
You’ll also want to ask questions if you’re confused or surprised by the work a virtual team member produces. I hear from some providers that clients sometimes stop working with them, but never bothered to complain during the project. Often a simple question like “Didn’t we agree you wouldn’t use overly salesly language in that web copy?” might clear things up.
4. Give Positive Feedback
And finally, it’s very helpful to providers when you tell them what they’re doing right. As specifically as you can. Tell your writer: “Great job on that web copy -the tone is exactly what we wanted.” Or tell your bookkeeper – “Thanks for suggesting that new account category, I never knew where to put those weekly massages!”
We’re often quick to point out what we don’t like about someone’s work, but it can be even more effective to point out what is working, and to encourage them to do more of that. Instead of “I didn’t like that last article”, try “When you give specific examples in your article, it’s much more effective”. Or instead of “That design was sloppy”, try “On your last project, everything was perfectly aligned, and had a real sense of balance – can you take the same approach on the next project?”.
For many small business owners, being too busy is the main reason they considered outsourcing. But being too busy to manage those providers is a recipe for disaster.
It takes clear communication up front, a means of objectively measuring the results you’re looking for (more free time, improved sales, better customer service, etc.), and proactive, ongoing conversation about anything thats not going well, and reinforcement of things that are.