How to E-mail Virtual Assistants (or Any Assistants): Proven Templates

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(Photo: Alan Clark Design)

[Tim's note: This is a guest post by Ramit Sethi on two of my favorite topics: one-shot-one-kill e-mail, and creating policies so you never repeat things. Also important to note: great VAs will use templates for answering *your* email; my assistant Amy uses more than a dozen specific templates to handle my inbox overload.]

Enter Ramit

Why is communicating with virtual assistants so hard?

When I first started using virtual assistants (VAs), I tested assistants from India, Bulgaria, and Israel. But I spent most of my time frustrated with the quality of their answers. How many times have your friends said, “Why don’t you just have your VA do that?” and you sigh because you know: they should be able to it, but you just can’t trust them to do it.

Right?

Other times, you email your assistant, saying, “Please book me a roundtrip flight from SFO to NYC from 3/19 – 3/22″ and you have to endure five back-and-forth emails before it’s done… leading you to wonder why you didn’t simply do it yourself.

No one wants more email. I always try for “one and done” emails, meaning when you send an email, it should get done the first time.

Fortunately, because I’m a huge weirdo about time management, I’ve spent over 65 hours optimizing my emails to VAs. Here are three examples of emails that get you answers in one round.

After reading the templates below, you’ll be able to write a crisp one-and-done email that gets you results — the first time. I’ve used these techniques to recover those 65 hours in 3 months and cut back-and-forth emails with my VA by over 80%…

But first, let’s start with a typical email that frustrates us all.

BAD email: Dinner reservations for a date

Imagine you sent this very common email to your VA:

Hi,

Please make reservations for dinner on Friday, 11/12, in midtown NYC. Time: 7 or 7:30pm. I like Indian and Thai food.

This email is doomed to failure…or at least 5 back-and-forth questions from your VA. Take a close look at the email — do you see all the implicit messages you unintentionally communicated in your email?

What is midtown NYC? What is your budget? What if there are no reservations at 7pm or 7:30pm? Do you have any food allergies? Most importantly, what is the single deliverable you expect from your email?

Using the scripts below, you’ll see how important your level of specificity is when working with a VA, or any assistant. You’ll see why spending three additional minutes crafting an effective email can save you 30 minutes in back-and-forth time. So, without further ado, here are 3 tested email scripts to use, along with an analysis of why they work.

* * *

Tested email script: Scheduling a doctor’s appointment

Hello,

Please set up these appointments on Monday morning (12/17), when the doctors’ offices open.

Please set up the following medical appointments for me:

1. A dental appointment (annual checkup)

2. An eye checkup (annual checkup)

WHERE TO LOOK

* Please look up doctors on http://www.bluecrossca.com — my doctor must accept my medical insurance (Blue Cross PPO — Lumenos)

* Then cross-reference the doctors’ names on yelp.com to find doctors with positive reviews

* Call the doctors to see which doctors are available for checkups on the below dates

* Please confirm with the doctors that, as a member of Blue Cross Lumenos PPO, I will have 100% exam coverage (dental exam) and a $15 co-pay (vision exam)

WHEN I’M AVAILABLE

* December 17, 18, 19, 21, 27, 28

* 8am – 11am PST and 4pm-7pm PST

LOCATION

* Located near the ZIP code of XXXXX

Thank you,

-Ramit

WHY THIS WORKS:

- You start with a specific request — you want an appointment set on 12/17 — so there can be no confusion about the deliverable.
- You give step-by-step instructions, which the VA can refer to if they get lost in the details. These instructions take 5 minutes to write, but will invariably save you 5-10x that from email responses and switching costs.
- You provide ALL relevant information so your VA doesn’t have to come back to you asking about your availability, ZIP code, etc. They have everything they need in front of them when booking availability.

* * *

Tested email script: Finding the best online savings account

Hi,

Please find me the best high-interest online savings account. I’ve heard good things about ING, Emigrant Direct, and HSBC Direct, so please begin with these — but please also search for other banks that meet my requirements.

REQUIREMENTS FOR THE BANK ACCOUNT

* No fees

* No minimum balances required (my average balance will be around $2,000)

PREFERRED ACCOUNT OPTIONS

Things I’d *like* to have, but are not required

* High interest rate, over 1%

* Attached online checking account

* Customer service by phone available

DELIVERABLE

Please create a table and rank my choices. You should only include banks that meet my requirements. Rank them by which of the “Things I’d Like To Have” are present.

Also, please include an extra column called “Other interesting facts” for each bank, where you list the most important reasons to choose that particular bank.

This should take no longer than 5 hours. Please check in after 2 hours and send me what you’ve got. I’ll approve further work from there.

Thanks,

-Ramit

WHY THIS WORKS:

- You are explicit about the deliverable you want — a table with very specific cells. Too many people are vague about their deliverable because they don’t take 3 minutes to decide what they really want. Then they’re disappointed when they get another result. If you don’t know what you want, how can your VA?

* * *

Tested email script: Planning air travel

Hi,

I’d like you to plan a trip from San Francisco to New York and provide me the 3 best options.

DATES

Depart: SFO to NYC on May 15 (arrive in time for 11am meeting)

Return: NYC to SFO on May 19th (late afternoon)

TIMES

From SF to NY: I need to be in midtown Manhattan for an 11am meeting on May 16th. Please factor in travel time by cab from the airport.

PREFERENCES

I prefer window seats. All flights must be direct.

I would like the lowest price with the following conditions (in order):

1. Arrive in time to reach my 11am meeting on the 16th (again, please factor in travel time from airport, baggage, etc)

2. Non-stop flight (required)

3. Window seat (preferred)

4. United or JetBlue preferred

Please send me the best three flights in a plaintext email.

Thanks,

-Ramit

WHY THIS WORKS

- The total energy output of the sun cannot compare to my hatred for travel planning. That’s why you need to send explicit instructions to your VA to ensure that no details slip through the cracks, resulting in agonizing back-and-forth emails.
- In this email, you are specific about OUTCOMES when relevant — “arrive in time for 11am meeting” — so you’ve provided basic guidance VA can figure out the flight schedule on their own. However, for other areas where you don’t particularly care, you can simply say “late afternoon” and let them figure it out.
- You should never write your preferences down twice. Instruct your VA to record your preferences so that each interaction makes life easier for you.

* * *

Key learnings:

- Eliminate one-off actions and create policies. It’s ok to share your preferences once, but they should always be recorded. That way, if your VA gets hit by a bus (or you decide to work with someone else), you have a written record of your preferences. Examples: When are you available for meetings? Do you prefer aisle or window? What restaurants do you like going to for business meetings? See the ultimate example of a detailed process checklist here.

- Analyze why your emails aren’t getting the responses you want. Take the last email to your VA that produced unsuccessful results. Now show it to your smartest friend. If they can’t guess what the exact deliverable is, how can you expect your VA to?

- Specify the exact deliverable. If you don’t want to get 10 flights in 10 separate PDFs (this has actually happened to me), ask for all the info in one plaintext email. A couple extra seconds saves a lot of frustration.

- Differentiate between requirements and preferences. Ask for an easy-to-read table so you can compare. Remember, point them to an example!

- Once you automate the details, you’ll naturally get more general. Now that my assistant knows my preferences (and they’re recorded online), I can just say, “Please schedule some time for Ben and me to get together” and she knows exactly where I like to have breakfast, my calendar availability, if I prefer aisle vs. window, etc. But getting to that stage took months of training and refinement.

* * *
About Ramit: Ramit Sethi is the author of the New York Times best-seller, I Will Teach You To Be Rich. He is the founder of iwillteachyoutoberich.com, a blog on personal finance and entrepreneurship where you can learn in-depth techniques on earning more money and automating your finances.

###

Afterword from Tim:
Just to emphasize: this post is not to imply that VAs are dumb. It’s to imply that most people don’t know how to send clear emails. Good VAs are smart, and — as emphasized in The 4-Hour Workweek — most communication failures are due to the person sending the email, not the recipient. Amy, one of my assistants, also emphasized:

Also, a good VA should “study” their client. For example, I read every blog post, every tweet, listen to every interview you do, read every article you write, and every Random episode, flickr update, etc. (Obviously I don’t charge for that time), but it helps me understand what you’ve got in the pipeline, and what you’re working on. A good VA should be familiar with thier clients interests.

Good VAs are like good employees, good managers, and good CEOs: proactive.

QOD: Do you have any e-mail rules that work well with VAs or employees? Or disaster stories and lessons learned? Please share in the comments!

Posted on: November 2, 2010.

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160 comments on “How to E-mail Virtual Assistants (or Any Assistants): Proven Templates

  1. Well even I faced the same issue. My Boss hired a VA from India last year. Firstly we had problems for months and even my boss couldn’t understand why it was happening.
    I went through all the emails.
    What I found was misunderstandings between the VA and Boss. The VA didn’t understand my Boss properly. My Boss is kind of a less talker. The VA is not in “really” in front of him so how could the VA understand what he has to do?
    Finally my boss had to terminate the VA. So the question arises…

    Is there any fault of my Boss?
    OR Is there any fault of the VA?

    I would rather say both.
    Because the boss has to specify what he wants and the VA has to understand him properly.
    He again hired a VA from Bangladesh the company is A to Z Tasks (www.atoztasks.com) they provide good service at a cheap rate.
    I saw my Boss a bit happy because the VA working with him now understands him perfectly and is with us for more than six months. It is not about only understanding. It is also about working together at the same pace. Both should know what they are dealing with. Now we are growing and Our VA handles our social media, cold calls, customer care etc.

    It is all about good communication. How we use it to help others. If one knows the best use of it then he/she could be the best VA.

    For the Bosses I would suggest they need to be more specific of their wants and be friendly with their VAs and make them feel they are an asset of the company and not just a machine who takes order and completes the tasks.

    Like

  2. Hey, I have had lots of problems with getting the right results with outsourcing. I never realized it was all in the way the instructions and details were given, It makes sense though, to eliminate all possible variables and set the exact rules and conditions. Thanks for the templates…they are a huge help.

    Like

  3. If I were a VA, I could definitely work for you!

    I not only love, but I need details. It can be frustrating when someone asks you to fulfill a task without explaining clearly, expecting you to be a mind reader.

    I’m not a fan of messing up; I strive for accuracy. That cause for good communication.

    Great post & thanks for sharing!

    Like

  4. How much do you guys pay for a VA? after reading 4HWW, I contacted YMII, which forwarded me to their sister company Get Friday, and when i asked them to research some programs for me on a topic i am interested in, they said i need to purchase a monthly plan that costs $13 an hour. Correct me if im wrong, but if i remember correctly the cost of a VA sounded much cheaper in 4HWW. Any recommendations of where I could get great service for a great price?

    Like

  5. Great post. I often work remotely with our office in India so these types of communications are key. One suggestion is that if you are doing design or user interface is to use power point. I often take quick screen shots that I cut and paste into powerpoint then use arrows with comments. This is so much faster then giving design instructions in email which can be easily misunderstood.

    Like

  6. I had a very bad experience with VA firm Get Friday, English as a second language issues, very poor work, billing issues, shenanigans.

    This experience was a huge swing and a miss, oh well, caveat emptor.

    Like

  7. Excellent post and good ideas being thrown around. Have any of you tried using a VA service in Malaysia? English is the first language and a very Westernized culture. You will however be paying a little bit more for the quality, reliability and TLC. Have a look at Global Virtual Support (GVS).

    Like

  8. I have so overwhelmed with everything that is coming my way and your book just literally fell off the shelf a year ago when I was visiting the US. I have even bought the new edition. I just can’t seem to get my finger wrapped around on how to get started.

    Like

  9. I’ve found text expanders such as Text Expander on Mac and Phrase Expander on Windows really useful when sending instructions to VAs. If you have to write really comprehensive, fool-proof instructions from scratch, every time you can lose more time than you save. So for setting a doctors appointment (the example Tim uses) you enter the instructions once and then ever time you type, say “dapt” your detailed instructions are inserted.
    I use this, for instance, when I want my VA to put something in my calendar. I have detailed instructions which remind her that I’m based in the UK (to make sure it’s inserted at the right time), what to do if it clashes with something else (bring it to my attention), what reminders to set (one a day before and one 30 minutes before), etc.

    Like

  10. Hi great tips Ramit. I’ve been working with virtual assistants for quite sometime and now I’m running a VA management site. More good experiences with them than bad . Actually having a clear and detailed instruction/template from you will prevent any mistakes. Whenever I have important instructions for my staff, I email and hit them up on chat just to make sure a job is going smoothly. VAs are among the most hard working individuals I’ve worked with.

    Like

  11. Hi.Could you please supply me with the contact details of the virtual assistants mentioned in the book 4 hour work week.I have miss placed my book.Cheers

    Like

  12. This is my 1st discovery of this lively forum and I am saddened that many has misadventures with their respective VA. I just started off as a VA last March after being an EA/PA/OM for the last 25 years. The traffic madness getting to office has finally gotten me insane. However, i discovered that many Malaysian (Kuala Lumpur) entrepreneurs have no idea on how VA works and many distrust this mode of convenience. I don’t limit myself to just accepting desk job. I have done shopping trips, travelling assist, nanny work as I have background in running an education center and now taking on tasks in Search Engine Optimization (SEO). I am very much the learn on the go person as opposed to classroom learning. Well, if anyone looking for a professional support in this region though no boundary limit, let’s discuss.

    Like

  13. Nice article and great tips for people who are looking for a VA and who are working with VAs. But one thing that I would like to point out that when you and your VA works for a long time, there may not be a need for such a detailed email, as by then the VA may have started knowing your preferences well. In the beginning it is very much necessary that you detail out your preferences and requirements.

    Like

  14. Great outline here! I find that before I hire a VA for any task that it is very important to do up a PDF document of EXACTLY what I want done.

    This save so much time as as you mentioned, one email and it is done!

    I just attach the document and they have everything included so I can focus on other stuff

    Like

  15. Do you have a reccomendatin of where to start finding a VA to guarantee supporting my son to obtain Excellent grades in his final HighSchool Year in New Zealand.
    He also has has a Time Hungry Junior tennis schedule requiring a number of weeks out of school.
    Success on both the academic life, tennis circuit and social life are equally important.
    Thanks

    Like

    • I give up on virtual assistants. I just fired one I hired a month ago and told, I need you to communicate with me every day without fail without me asking you first about tasks and goals. Fine for three weeks. Last week a warning. Sunday, nothing, Monday an excuse and today nothing. I email that she’s fired. She emails back six times that she’s a single mother and everything else.

      I’ve had 20 virtual assistants the last three years and maybe 2 were more productive than the effort of hiring, training hand holding, coaching, prepping, reminding, chastising, fixing, repairing, etc.. I put into them. I’ve hired people in India and they screw up the English and Americans have every excuse in the book from their kids to weather, no kidding, to their mood to their girlfriends why they don’t do the work right, on time, the first time.

      Its maddening. I received two requests from people asking for work and I’m telling both no because I just can’t handle being an adult baby sitter anymore.

      This is basic stuff. Like putting together databases. Most people are lazy and lack initiative and need to be employees and sit at a desk and be told what to do and held but he hand for the most basic tasks. I give up.

      Like

      • Hi Joseph,

        It’s such ashamed that you have repeated awful experiences with Virtual Assistants. Is it the same with all age groups?

        I opted out as full time PA/EA in March 2013 and started off as VA. I truly understand your frustrations. When I was in corporate office, I was called all sorts by the younger generation because they hardly work in my eyes and every darn answers I gotten was “I don’t know & You didn’t tell me or best still, it’s not in my job scope”.

        When I started off as Secretary back in 1988, we were trained to have common sense, superb initiatives & absolutely observant.

        In Malaysia, there’s hardly entrepreneurs hiring VA, sadly!! I have a few regular clients who knew my attitude towards responsibilities & accountabilities.

        Wishing you best of everything in your future endeavors. Should you happened to be in the region, feel free to seek out my abilities.

        Warm regards,
        about.me/shinyi.tai

        Like