After Zirtual, Your Next Assistant

I’ve been sent posts regarding Zirtual “pausing its service” and have been asked to comment. I have been using virtual assistants since 2008, was an early customer of Zirtual and have known Maren, Collin, and other employees since 2012. Needless to say, I’ve been obsessed with this space for a long time.

My heart goes out to Zirtual (especially their 400+ employees, all their customers, and all their staff) — investors were taken by surprise and based on the rumors, it seems that there may have been poor oversight over their finances.

It’s gonna be hard for customers to deal with this loss of service. As people search for their next assistant, virtual or otherwise, I think there are some important points that every customer should be aware of (relating back to what I assume (based on speculation) are Zirtual’s challenges):

  1. Nothing compares to a high-quality in-house executive assistant (EA): Despite all efforts to outsource assistant work, there is no replacement for a top-notch in-house assistant. Zirtual came close with dedicated U.S.-based virtual assistants, but they still had to limit their service (response time, type of task, etc.). Additionally, context, local domain knowledge, and the ability to do complex tasks is something that customers always want, but is highly variable amongst assistants. If you want complexity and hand-holding, a virtual assistant may not fit the bill.
  2. Virtual assistants require process automation software — Like startups, tasks sent to virtual assistants should be narrowly defined. In other outsourcing companies, companies turn to codifying best practices, internal tools, and software. Zirtual limited the type of work their assistant could do and their Zirtual University taught best practices, but virtual assistants still did a lot of varied tasks and they would still make mistakes. More software would have helped, but they now cannot capitalize on the opportunity. Lastly, every single time an assistant quit the company, customers would have to retrain their virtual assistant — taking up a lot of time. If you use a virtual assistant, make sure there is process automation software backing them up.
  3. Complexity requires a higher price point — As Zirtual increased its prices and moved into teams, they probably received more complex customers, which placed a greater burden upon their assistants. On the other hand, Zirtual customers who did not have complex work were unwilling to pay a higher price point. As a result, complex customers demanded quality that was not met or simple customers balked at a higher price point. On top of this, virtual assistant customers (me included) sometimes combine both worlds — they are complex and are unwilling to pay. Quality is hard to get cheap amongst assistants.

Ultimately, these issues play into how much consumers and businesses are willing to pay for an assistant, best summarized by the below graph.

The EA Value Curve

Technology can shift this diagram, but it’s unlikely to decrease the fixed cost of assistants and still maintain a high quality standard (virtualizing is NOT ENOUGH). More importantly, the question should not be how little we can pay to get an assistant, but rather “What can we do to standardize and maximize the productivity of assistants and their executives?” That’s instrumental to finding the best assistant.