(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.]
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.
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:
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
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
* Located near the ZIP code of XXXXX
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
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
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.
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
I’d like you to plan a trip from San Francisco to New York and provide me the 3 best options.
Depart: SFO to NYC on May 15 (arrive in time for 11am meeting)
Return: NYC to SFO on May 19th (late afternoon)
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.
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.
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.
- 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.