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

  1. I’ve been sending a few VA e-mails and it’s true that there are occasionally so many questions sent back to me or corrections to make that I feel like it defeats the time-saving purpose. Will be applying this advice in future, cheers! :)

    Like

    • Typical conversation with a VA.

      Please search this database and compile emails into Excel and send every morning.

      Okay.

      Okay? Does than mean you have read the emails and understand.

      Sure.

      Does that mean yes?

      I think.

      Repeat the email back to me.

      Why? I think I get it.

      You obviously don’t.

      Can you call me?

      No. I hired you to save me time. Not waste it.

      I’m sorry. My wife is sick and the kids too and it’s raining. can you send me ten examples?

      No. You send me examples. I’m paying you.

      Wow. That’s hostile. What did I do wrong.

      Seriously. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just not worth it to hire VAs.

      Like

  2. Look at the size of those specific emails. Don’t you enter a situation where you spend more time writing the email than it would take to perform the actual task yourself, or close to it? Isn’t it better to spend 30 min booking a flight instead of 15 sending a very specific email?

    Like

    • Logan:

      I see what you’re saying, but I disagree. The idea is to create templates that are easy to update and create a uniform response environment. For example, if I fly often, I can take the template Mr. Sethi provided and update the dates and locations. Then you really start saving time. I save all my templates as signatures in Outlook (you can do this in Gmail too, I believe), and I right click, choose the template, and then update whatever I need to update. It saves me 5 minutes every time I do it.

      Like

      • Hi Logan,

        You can also use Outlooks feature called Quick Parts to create “templates” that you use repeatly. You can also add Quick Parts to Word or Excel for easy updating and tracking of your Quick Parts. It is a great feature.

        Chris

        Like

  3. Great tips, Ramit. I greatly enjoy your blog (and am about half way through your book). I am still trying to find a VA (it’s hard to find one who fits my needs: speaks English, reads and writes traditional Mandarin Chinese, etc.) but will definitely apply these tips once I do…

    Like

    • Wah?!

      John; I just happen to work with a freelancer that: speaks English and reads/writes Chinese (Mandarin Chinese native – from Beijing). He’s also Japanese fluent, if that has any use…

      You can contact me through my website contact form. I’d be glad to put you in touch with him.

      Apryl
      Inter Idoru

      Like

      • Apryl,

        Awesome coincidence – I was just about to ask about a Japanese-fluent VA as I’m moving to Tokyo from Singapore and have had the same difficulty as John has.

        Tried your website but the link was dead – could you please provide an alternate?

        Thanks,

        Peter

        Like

  4. Ramit,

    Awesome posts on putting a firm control on knowing what you want in fine-enough detail to let the VAs do their job properly (aligning with the psychological behavioral case studies you previously brought up), knowing exactly what you want from the email scripts (with dates, times, preferences, location, availability, requirements, deliverables, etc.). Something for me to try out once I fix my cash flow and remove distractions.

    Stanley

    Like

  5. One tiny more tweak to those emails I would suggest to add an “if …. than….” alternatives to this emails:
    for the doctor’s example :

    “…if none of the doctors are available during the mentioned dates in 2 miles radius from zip code XXXXX please extend your search to towns A, B and C in this order”

    Giving the VA some alternatives in the case he or she get to a dead end will allow you to find a reasonable alternative that will be accepted by you instead of an email back that might say “there were no appointments available what do you suggest me to do?”

    Like

    • Yep, that realy works! Since I have been working as a programmer for a long time, I started to write some “VA functions” just a few days before Ramit wrote this article.

      An example: I’m reading a lot of books so I always try to get this books as cheap as possible. My VAs work with the following script now:
      – Give my local library a ring and ask them if they’ve got this
      book available or if it’s possible to get it for me. If so, tell them to
      inform me by mail when the book is available and stop here.
      – Is it possible to get the book in a used form? Check the following
      sites: [here comes a list eShops that sell or lend used books]
      Did you find a used book and is it more than 20% cheaper than
      a new one? If so, order the book for me and stop here.
      – If you can´t get it cheaper: Order the book at amazon.
      – After finishing the order, please send me a short report in plain text:
      WHERE did you order the book, what did it COST, and what are the
      ORIGINAL COSTS for this book?

      Of course it took me some time to write down this lines, but now I can save a lot of money when ordering books with just one call to my VA.

      Thanks for this article,

      Frank

      Like

      • I suggest AddAll.com for a 1st pass (of course after my library) for books new and used. It provides a nextag.com type of listing for a book title of best price across multiple online bookstores.

        Like

  6. Thanks for the tips, Ramit.

    Do you have some sort of empowerment criteria for your VA?

    For example: “Get this done if it costs less than X” or “No bugging me . . . be creative!”

    I tried this with my VA and it was a mess and she didn’t respect my wishes on that point so I had to let her go. I let her do it once and set that precedent so it’s my fault.

    Would love to hear your thoughts!

    Good Vibes~
    Vic Dorfman

    Like

    • My guess is the problem there is a personality-type problem. People like you and I (who hire VAs) like to do things “creatively” and find specific instructions tedious or even insulting. People who like jobs like VA are people who like details and are conscientious about them. That’s why we need their strengths to complement ours!

      Like

      • Barbara,

        I completely relate to your feeling of feeling “insulted” when details and specifics are relayed that meticulously. In the time it takes to type all that info out, a quick call to a rep/agent could have been made by the executive w/ a follow up request to his or her assistant when it was time to schedule the meeting or call. If you have to spell it out for someone blow by blow then you may as well handle it yourself. As a person who has made a career of being an Executive Assistant, nothing insults my intelligence more than the above “correct examples” provided. If they aren’t resourceful enough to log onto the net and type “Where is Midtown Manhattan?” into Google and don’t have the common sense to search and discover Thai food fits EVERY budget, quite frankly they should stick to answering phones.

        Like

  7. This things really sounds good and make work easier and possible specially for those who are really busy. Given your VA a specific outline makes her/his task done as possible as you wants. :))
    Im also applying that kind of job right now, and through this article/tips it really helps me a lot. I wish i can handle such things like this (as a VA) ‘coz i really love to! Through that your VA loves to serves you for sure!
    THANKS TIM and Ramit… :))

    note: TIM, WILL YOU POST SOMETHING ABOUT INSOMNIAC, on how to cope up with it? or INSOMIAC WITH MATCHING DIET? is it possible? :))
    thnx!

    Like

  8. Great post, I am getting the hang on the VA lately. Amazing what amount of work you can do with smart people working for you.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    All the best,
    Niels

    Like

  9. Thanks for the tips, with some VA’s I have found that the language barrier causes problems and tips like this would probably help to eliminate them. Although, I also think that if I can do something myself quicker than sending an email, I’ll do that instead (I like booking flights btw ;) )

    Like

  10. Always spelling things out so there’s no possibilities of misunderstanding – it’s also a good habit to use when communicating with customers and clients too.

    Providing the site URLs can also help fight off time-wasting questions.

    Like

  11. Very good post. Just one specific point re date formats…

    …As someone from outside the US I’d just like to point out that writing a date such as 12/17 could be confusing for the VA (esp. if outside the US). You might get away with 12/17 but consider 12/7. To someone in the UK like me that says 12th July, but it could equally mean 7th December. I’ve learned the hard way to use something like 12 July or 12 Jul.

    As a footnote, Wikipedia tells us that in India “The DD-MM-YY is the predominant short form of the numeric date usage in India. The MM-DD-YY format is never used.”

    Like

    • I deal with outsourcing at my “regular” job and the point about the date format is absolutely critical. Also, be sure to spell out addresses, US states, etc. You cannot assume the VA knows the difference between Maine (ME) and Massachusetts (MA). The USPS.com website is really helpful to guide them to US address formatting.

      Same goes the for the airports. I feel you should explain that SFO is San Francisco International Airport.

      Lastly, be clear with names and abbreviations. Don’t assume that the VA knows to “contact Bill Smith” that it’s actually “William Smith.”

      Like

  12. Great advice that generalises to all task delegation communications situations. Whether my assistant is in the next office or the next continent, saying it all clearly once saves a heck of a lot of faff. Nice one!

    Like

  13. Managing people sitting right next to you is hard.  VAs are 10x harder.  My first experience “call around and get the best deal on a large pepperoni pizza and have it sent to this address,” took 5 calls back and forth.  Its a pretty big leap to go from there to booking important flights.  

     My advice is spend more time finding a VA who is a rock star.  Specificity in your requests is a requirement, but it doesn’t compensate for mediocre VAs.  

    For me, the biggest barrier to using VAs is how fast I am at doing Internet related tasks.  At my prior company we had professional travel agents on staff.  I still booked my own flights because I could do it faster than an email, and 15 minutes of my time may save 4 hours when someone makes a mistake.  

    To capture all the things you know, want, or need in for example flight preferences if you’re traveling full time would take Seth’s level of dedication to detail.  Not everyone has that, so you have to find a balance between freeing up your time and getting the results you want, which sometimes means doing it your self.

    Like

  14. Granted, these these emails would be good for specifying project tasks so the VA can go away and spend a few hours work.

    But c’mon … for booking dinner/dentist? IF there are a lot of variables, it HAS to be easier/quicker for the person to just pick up the phone, discuss, book.

    Thanks though.

    Like

  15. Here is a Wufoo form that I made to create tasks for my assistant:

    https://ecudoctors.wufoo.com/forms/steve-assistant-task-form-copy/

    ALSO, I have 2 VAs that I found on Elance which are in USA and are native americans. I pay them $9 per hour, which might sound like a lot but, I don’t have a problem with the language or culture barrier.

    As american VAs they tend to be good problem solvers and more independent so they don’t bother me with the details on how they are going to get things done.

    Like

  16. Awesome tips–I think the more explicit you can be when you ask anyone to do something, the better your results are likely to be. If you can develop someone to the point where they already know your preferences and you no longer need to give all the details because he or she already knows them, that’s definitely worth the investment of effort up front.

    Like

  17. You just try to eliminate as many ambiguity as possible. As for trying to eliminate any chance of a 2nd email, you are wasting time by trying to eliminate all the special cases that can come up. You shouldn’t use templates, you should train yourself to know how to send umambigious instructions as there are 1000’s of cases where these templates won’t fit your criteria, and you can’t create a template for everything.

    Like