I've been a real curmudgeon about virtual assistant services lately.
After a string of articles criticizing them and wondering if it might be better for me to avoid the whole topic, I've got some great news to report.
Before I share my findings, let me give you some back-story.
The idea behind a virtual assistant is fairly simple. Instead of hiring someone in person who keeps you on schedule, replies to emails, does some research, and reminds you about appointments, you hire someone who works remotely. A physical assistant works mostly on a computer and makes phone calls anyway. You might never see him or her, so the idea makes sense. You pay only for the time you need.
I had high hopes for these services because I need the help. I tend to be extremely productive at the tasks that matter to me and extremely disorganized about everything else. I'll dump a meeting into my Google Calendar and forget about it and get back to writing. I tend to be fairly random. I'm not a detail-oriented person, and I know someone with better organizational skills could keep me on task.
The answer has proved to be a bit elusive, however.
I tested Zirtual earlier this year and found it seriously wanting. So did a lot of other people it seems, because the service eventually folded and has since re-materialized. Then I tested three more services (Time etc., RedButler, and FancyHands) and thought they were capable and efficient...when it came to handling tasks. They worked a bit like a virtual TaskRabbit service, but for the most part never really paid that much attention to my daily schedule (e.g., what I was doing each day and why) or had any real impact on my day. The truth is, I can dump meetings into my calendar just as easily as a virtual assistant. I can type up interview transcripts on my own.
Recently, a new virtual assistant service reached out to me with the promise that they could do a better job than Zirtual and, to be honest, I'm always impressed by that. It takes confidence to read a story about how a high-profile competitor failed to make the grade and then promise to live up to the stated expectations. It's like telling someone who drives a Tesla after this Consumer Reports story dinged them and promising to offer a better car that's a better option.
Well, this service totally succeeded.
It's called Fyxer and I tried it for a good month or so. Now, it's worth pointing out that Fyxer is smaller than Zirtual during their prime (when they had a few hundred employees) and, as a U.K.-based company, is still rolling out services in the U.S. (They plan to roll out a New York office next year, fingers crossed.)
However, one benefit to being small is that you can focus your efforts. At first, I wondered if the virtual assistant assigned to me was told to specifically focus on my needs and make sure I was happy. Then I realized, even if that's true, it's a good sign. It's awesome. Obviously, Zirtual never did that. I was just one of many clients (and possibly even one of several journalists) with pesky needs that were easy to ignore.
I first realized Fyxer was working for me when I received a text message right before an important meeting. It wasn't just a "task" I had assigned to send a reminder. It wasn't just a check-box. My assistant knew what was going on in my day; she knew it was an important meeting. She was making sure I was on my way, because she knew the meeting was across town. She had even arranged a follow-up luncheon with the meeting participants and had booked a reservation.
"I just got a call from your assistant, are you John?" asked the maître d' at the restaurant. OK, I'm impressed right now. During my test, I noticed how my assistant worked hard to make sure I was organized. It was more than just sending meeting reminders and typing up transcripts. My assistant was aware of my challenges for that week. After working on an article related to office design and posting a note about it on Twitter, she asked about my research and even offered her own suggestions. To plan for an upcoming conference, she arranged several meetings for me but, during the conference, called and reminded me about them.
In fact, in the course of a month, we talked on the phone at least six or eight times, emailed a dozen times or more, and texted at least once per day. Imagine that--my assistant was working for me. None of those were "tasks"--it was just a way to show an awareness of my activities and keep me on schedule. For the first time ever, it was a bit like having a real assistant, someone who worked in the same office.
Now, Fyxer is not cheap. For 20 hours of work per month, you can expect to pay the assistant around $924. It's $1,848 for 40 hours of work per month. They offer lower rates if you pay by the quarter or for six months, or even employ an assistant full-time. This is also a differentiator, because Fyxer doesn't work with temporary workers; the assistants are full-time, similar to how Zirtual worked (or, more accurately--didn't work, because they often had an imbalance of employees with work demand). It means Fyxer can balance their own staff against long-term client needs.
As a side note, Zirtual is now owned by a company called Clarity.fm, which I covered in the magazine way back in 2013. In discussing the topic by email, Clarity founder Wil Schroter told me I was probably viewing the virtual assistant market through a lens that was too narrow. "What you're talking about is essentially wanting full time coverage but paying on demand prices," he said.
Well, yes? Exactly? That's essentially what Fyxer accomplished. I felt as though my assistant, who was actually helping several other clients at the same time, was my assistant. It's what I was looking for all along. I felt as though she was aware of my needs and my schedule. She helped me stay organized. If that's having the perception of full-time coverage but paying on-demand prices, sign me up.