Today I am going to address the number one problem I hear about working with a virtual assistant, or fear of engaging one. What is it? I will give you a hint: A client once asked me, “what is it that made you such a fantastic assistant?”
Good communication is vital to a good assistant/client relationship, regardless of whether that assistant is virtual or sits right outside your door.
I have seen a lot of great commentary lately about how to find a great assistant, what to expect, how to delegate, whether or not a virtual assistant is as reliable as one outside your door, and concerns about confidentiality. Newsflash: the lynchpin in all of it is communication. And if you have never had an assistant outside your door — it is even more critical that you talk, because you are not accustomed to the resource gold mine at your disposal. Proactive communication is a two-way street and it is the best way of making sure everything goes smoothly.
What makes for good communication? It starts at the interview.
The interview is about establishing communication types/patterns, it is about building rapport. It is also a two way process. The assistant and the attorney use it to get a feel for responsiveness, personality, drive, experience, and flexibility. Interviewing is about hearing their request habits and patterns, the type of tasks they want done, the types of tasks they need but have not realized they need, how they relay urgency and expectations. In other words, the interview is about learning communication styles. Some are short — saying only what is needed to convey the necessary information, while others are chatty, taking time to talk about their failing vegetable gardens before they talk about their tasks. Learning all of this up front is critical to managing expectations and establishing clear proactive communication.
The most proactive communication starts with a weekly meeting. Proactive assistants review the dockets and schedules of their clients and discuss upcoming items to maintain a big picture. During the meeting we discuss priorities, potential emergencies, what can be shifted around without further input — even matters which are pending but not finalized. Proactive clients are good about volunteering this information and delegating routine tasks to an assistant’s good sense.
Maintaining calendars and color coding appointments, while keeping important notes in them, is a great tool for proactive communication. When questions come up, as they inevitably do, phone calls and emails are returned quickly.
Building trust requires clear communication.
Communication is also vital for managing expectations. Difficulties arise when you ask your assistant to do something not in their skill set, fail to convey priority, or insist on an unreasonable turn around time. They compound when an assistant is unclear about how long we might need to complete a task, or insist on an unreasonable turn around time. A good assistant can and should tell you if a task falls outside their skill set, and provide alternatives if they really cannot meet the request. Building trust requires clear communication.
Good communication provides more than a cordial working relationship with your assistant; it makes workflow more efficient.
Responsiveness depends on effective communication. A good assistant acknowledging a request and maintaining status updates, is a responsive one. Keeping the follow up questions concise and contained in one call or email saves both the client and the assistant time and demonstrates an understanding of urgency as well as respect for schedules. A client who acknowledges receipt of questions and indicates a good time to discuss and who answers their assistant’s questions about a document all at once rather than trickling the answers out helps keep projects on track.
Relationships or personalities often thought of as “difficult” also come down to communication. The parties become frustrated because a task that should take a short time takes days to accomplish; the task takes on a life of its own because neither person knows exactly what is going on. Simple questions emailed or messages left on voicemail go ignored; clarification never arrives. A self perpetuating cycle sets in where both sides feel a lack of responsiveness and trust breaks down.
Good communication is a two-way street: you cannot expect an assistant to know something if you do not tell them.
There is a difference between delegating and dumping and it also comes down to communication. Dumping unloads one or more tasks without any context or understanding and expects them to be completed as if by magic. Delegation passes off tasks with context, discussion, and expectations managed.
I once received an urgent request for a document, to be delivered by 12N that day, that was sent at 2am. There was no subject line, and we were preparing significant filings for multiple cases, one of which was going to trial in a matter of weeks, and multiple filings had deadlines of 12M that night.
This was a recipe for disaster. Which case? Was it a filing we were already working, or was it a new one? With a subject line I could have known which documents were needed. But I had none of this. My attorney had dumped this request on me and I could not help him.
Luckily I had a good working relationship with the attorney who sent the request, and great communication otherwise. I saw the email come in early and quickly replied, requesting a case and some specifics, wherein I made a joke about foretelling the future and his espresso habit being out of control. His response provided the missing information and joked that it was clearly an incredibly useful request and I should find a better means of divination. I had the necessary document on his desk by 11am, with a large espresso for good measure.
We still joke about this incident today because it is both a perfect example of poor communication under stress, as well as how a good working relationship can overcome what could have been a disaster. It is an example of dumping, and one of a capable legal assistant using trusted and reliable skills to meet a potentially unreasonable expectation. It is also an example of communication style.
If we had discussed the fact that the document was coming — or even if they decided to file it that night at 1:45am and he had included a subject line — that email would have been delegation of a task. In many cases, once solid communication and trust is built, some tasks can indeed be “dumped” because we have established a short hand, and a series of tasks that once need explanation no longer do. It again comes down to effective communication.
The biggest problem and the biggest advantage of a client assistant relationship is communication. We use the communication tools at our disposal. We discuss carefully the end goals of a project and we discuss and listen to needs. We are not outside your door so we are extra careful about confidentiality while using these tools. We work together to create efficient work flow and realistic expectations.
Good communication changes everything.
Alison Pacuska is the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier administrative and legal assistant services with a focus in Intellectual Property and Solo Practitioners. Ask her how she can help you make order from chaos.