I pride myself on being a kind person. In my e-mail interactions, I tend to ignore people who are rude and just persevere through conflict. I don't swear at people or get upset. I've learned the secret to modern work life, and it's showing respect and kindness at all times.
That's why, while testing the Zirtual personal assistant service over the past few weeks, I started losing it. I never got mad, but I certainly felt like something was seriously wrong. For a service that costs $399 for 16 hours of work per month (the Exec plan costs $749 for 32 hours per month and the VIP plan costs $1,199 for 55 hours), it wasn't living up to my expectations.
Let me back up a little. The service provides a virtual assistant--a real person--who handles your schedule, arranges phone calls, and can even keep tabs on your e-mail. You can provide access to, say, your social media channels and have your assistant post on your behalf. The service makes this all seem open-ended and freeform. The only thing that seems completely off limits is to have an assistant do any of your accounting. Oh, and anything in person. The services are all provided remotely.
Zirtual is intended for busy entrepreneurs. At a meet and greet with the company in Las Vegas recently, I noticed Tony Hsieh showed up with his new puppy; he's obviously a client. The founder of Zirtual, Maren Kate Donovan, started the company in 2010 when she realized how it would be helpful to have virtual assistants perform routine tasks.
I was excited to try Zirtual, mostly because I actually need an assistant. I'm really bad at scheduling my own meetings, but I'm even worse when it comes to keeping track of them and showing up on time (sorry). I also tend to receive quite a few tech products, but I don't have a good system for knowing what is in my inventory and what I need to send back.
A few weeks ago, I talked with my new assistant by phone to explain some of my needs. (To protect confidentially, I will call her Kate.) We talked for about an hour. Initially, she suggested a few ideas like starting a database for tracking which products I'm testing and using a different task management app. I first became suspicious about how the service worked when I asked Kate a few questions by e-mail and didn't receive a response until much later that day. It turns out that, on the Entrepreneur Plan I was testing, the expectation is "same day" turnaround.
Kate was helpful at first. She organized my tasks and made the product database. Then, things started unraveling. She scheduled a bunch of meetings, but when the day came to meet by phone conference line, Google Calendar suddenly decided to remove the meetings at random. I kept asking Kate to add them back in, but she went AWOL. I missed all of the meetings because I didn't know when they were or who I was supposed to call. I noticed how a few of my other requests sort of ended up fizzling out.
Sadly, it turns out Kate is no longer at Zirtual. The following week, Zirtual assigned a new assistant to help me (I will call her Sue). I was a little more hopeful this time. We had another initial phone call that lasted about an hour and I explained my needs again. She started doing some research, adding a few new appointments for me, and started posting on Twitter. Once, when I had a meeting I couldn't attend that was about to take place in about 20 minutes, I asked her to move the meeting but she didn't respond for an hour. I missed the meeting and Sue had to reschedule it for the following day.
I was having her do some basic research, but she only made minor progress. She asked me some questions about what to do, and I explained the project a little more, but after a few days she still hadn't worked on the research too much. I asked her to make sure my upcoming appointments met a set criterion (I needed to speak to a technical expert and not to a public relations rep only), but she didn't really understand what I meant. Right now, I still have the meetings scheduled, but I plan to cancel a few of them.
The real trouble started when I realized I was checking in with her on tasks rather than relying on her to keep me organized. I felt a pang of irritation. I never did have either of the two assistants remind me of a meeting, update me on their own about how things were going, or flag an important e-mail to show they were attuned to my work.
I let several Zirtual reps know about my concerns. When I spoke with one handler from Zirtual (she is part of the Client Happiness Team), she had quite a bit of advice for me but didn't really seem too interested in handling my specific issues and complaints. It was like she was reading off a script and waiting for me to stop talking.
My main problem with Zirtual, after testing it for a few weeks, is that it is not fast enough. During my testing period, I mentioned how it would be helpful if my assistant worked earlier in the day, starting at 9AM; the company changed its policies. Still, for some reason, my assistant worked in Pacific time, so her day always started two hours behind me. The Client Happiness Team rep acted surprise when she found out we were not in the same time zone, but I didn't want to work with a third new assistant. (My e-mail signature shows my complete address, so anyone could have seen where I live.)
It became fairly obvious that each Zirtual assistant has several clients. What I really wanted is for someone to be more proactive. If I had a meeting coming up, I wanted the assistant to dial in and let people know if I was running late. If I asked for research, I expected the assistant to work diligently on the project, not doing things a little at a time, and send me updates on how things were going. My two assistants seemed distracted.
The more I used Zirtual, the more I realized how the assistance is not in real time. There's a delay, but when you need help managing a schedule or holding a conference call, the main benefit is in having someone stay on top of things. I can schedule meetings myself. Or, I could use an app like Donna (now part of Yahoo) or Cue (now part of Apple).
How to improve it? Build in some video conferencing. I'd like to see a live person in an app or online who can talk to me as though he or she is sitting in the next office over. (I mean through the service itself, not a Skype call.) Also, find a way to expose the assistant's schedule and all interactions through a better interface. If I assign a task and it should take an hour but it is taking a few days instead, have a manager intervene. By adding a few tech features and an app, the service could become invaluable.
I hope they do make some changes. As a journalist, I was not a paying customer, but I could imagine being fairly ticked off at the delays and wondering if 16 hours of work (about $25 per hour) spread out over a month was really worth it. I won't be signing up on my own. At least, not until someone gets a little more organized.