I saw this one coming.

Back in February, I tested the virtual assistant service Zirtual to see if it could help me with some scheduling, research, and other repetitive tasks. My biggest complaint at the time was that my assistant just didn't seem that engaged. On a few tasks, I felt like I had been left out in the cold. Or the task took way too long. Then, after the article posted, many former Zirtual assistants wrote to me saying they too didn't like the service or the company, either. A few offered to become my virtual assistant.

Today, Zirtual sent an email to customers explaining that it is "pausing all operations," according to several sources. To me, that's code for winding the company down. As TechCrunch reported, Zirtual recently tried to raise investment funds and have 400 full-time employees. The Next Web noted the official Twitter and Facebook pages are down. I'm not sure what will happen to Zirtual, but I do have a solution for anyone who was using the service.

I've been testing three alternatives to Zirtual for the past few weeks. At first, I wasn't sure if any of the services was really a contender, and I had to change my opinion about the real value of each of them. I still don't know of any service that actually does what I want, which is to have a true virtual assistant. When I go to a conference, I want to have someone who is tracking my whereabouts in real time and can let people know when I'm running late. If I text an assistant, I want that person to be able to jump on the phone and handle a conflict or resolve issues, and to know what my day looks like.

It's interesting, because the reason most of us probably need a virtual assistant is to handle fire drills. I tested Fancy Hands, Red Butler, and Time Etc and liked all of them, and even found great value in using the services, but none of them offer urgent assistance or help during a conference. They do claim to offer more immediate help. But none of them assign one person who is always there to assist with any problems in real time (e.g., scheduling changes, phone calls, finding answers online). Red Butler and Fancy Hands come close to this--e.g., you can text or call a rep to assign a task, but not in real time. None of them were exactly aware of my schedule.

During my normal day, I don't really need anyone to arrange a meeting. It takes about 20 seconds. I did ask virtual assistants to do research for me several times, and that's great, but it's also something I can just do myself. In fact, just about every service they provide is something I can either do myself or even ask a friend or colleague to do.

Where there is a much greater need is at a conference. This is where things can go haywire. If I had a virtual assistant during my hectic conference schedule, someone who could communicate with my contacts for me and make scheduling adjustments, it would be really valuable. I did notice that Red Butler, in particular, was more responsive to quick text messages requesting adjustments to meetings, but there was still a problem. I would say, "I am running late to the meeting with Lenovo," and my Red Butler assistant would respond and try to rearrange. However, what I really want is for someone to be aware of my schedule in real time. I'd be able to send a text that my meeting is going late, and my assistant would adjust my entire schedule and know what I’m doing and why.

Essentially, these services are very task driven. You assign a task, they do it. Adjusting one meeting is a task. Adjusting my schedule for the day is virtual assistance.

I wanted the services to be more actively involved. I wanted more direct help, especially at conferences. What if I wore a GPS locator and the assistant knew I was running late on the basis of my whereabouts? Even better, if I knew I'd be attending a conference, my assistant could meet me there and handle things in person, just for those few days. Or maybe there is some other way to handle fire drills at conferences or during hectic weeks. I just know my experience was not quite what I wanted.

Now, all three alternatives to Zirtual did provide value, it just wasn't as a virtual assistant. Instead, the value was in researching topics and finding answers to problems. And they were able to look up products for me online. That's not a real-time issue, which is where a real assistant comes in handy. In many ways, they work more like TaskRabbit and are not for anything that's really that urgent, just mundane tasks.

Now, let’s talk pricing. Zirtual was not worth the $399 basic plan for 16 hours of work, or the executive and entrepreneur plans that cost twice or three times that much. Not even close. Fancy Hands costs $30 per month for five requests, or $50 per month for 15 requests. Red Butler charges $175 for five hours of work in a month. They respond within an hour. For $450 per month, you have a dedicated (but not real time) agent. Time Etc is a hybrid of Fancy Hands and Red Butler. You pay $30 per month for unlimited requests that total up to about one hour of work. Ten hours of work costs $250.

I don’t know. I plan to use these services for some research, but I’m not ready to hire a virtual assistant. I don’t see the value yet. And I’m guessing there are a lot of former Zirtual customers (and former employees) who are also questioning this market.

What do you think? If there was a real-time virtual assistant service, would you pay more for it? Post in comments or send me your ideas by email.

Published on: Aug 10, 2015