Business

Four Virtual Assistants Tackle Real-World Business Tasks

We received a spreadsheet outlining e-commerce options several hours after the arrival of an AskSunday request for feedback about how well it had done the job (a common issue with the site), and the results weren't terribly impressive. The spreadsheet did offer detailed pricing information on ten e-commerce tools, but nothing about the tools' potential integration with WordPress. We felt that we could have done just as well by googling "e-commerce"--without spending two hours on the task.

Ultimately, we felt that AskSunday was borderline acceptable on most of the tasks, but concerns about privacy after receiving someone else's project--and being billed for it--make us wary.

BPOVIA

Pricing: Plans vary; cheapest plan is $120 for 10 hours, with $15 per hour of overage.

Total amount spent: $120

BPOVIA, based in China, is easily the priciest of the services we tested. We weren't exactly wowed by the interface, however: It's basically an unmodified skin of the Basecamp project management system. We had to pay for our service via PayPal (to the account of a mysterious "Peng Huang"), and the service emailed our password to us in plain-text format, but our worries were allayed when our assistant Cici got to work for us--which was almost immediately after we paid the subscription fee.

BPOVIA's interface will look familiar to Basecamp users.
Cici worked fast. In fact, she finished the Excel job (without flair) before most of the other services had even approved our accounts to get started. Unfortunately, though Cici shared the Google Doc with us, she didn't set up a new account to host it. Ultimately, we were billed for half an hour's work on what amounted to a two-minute task.

We were more impressed with our virtual assistant's work on our Tokyo trip plan. BPOVIA billed us for a lengthy 4.5 hours of time, but the results had far greater depth than the ones we got from the other services, including a detailed hotel guide (complete with rates, amenities, and pros and cons) and a discussion of what we could eat and not eat in Tokyo.

Rather than focusing on individual restaurants, Cici smartly gave us broader food guidelines (suggesting shabu shabu, yakitori, and anything with rice) and identified some things to avoid (noodle shops and Western-style dining), reflecting a deeper understanding of the gluten issue, which had sailed over the heads of everyone else. The sightseeing document covered Tokyo's highlights and spanned more than 2000 words, complete with maps and hours of operation for key attractions. All in all, no other service came close to BPOVIA on this task.

Alas, BPOVIA, like GetFriday, deflected our ecommerce query, trying to upsell us with an offer to build our e-commerce site for us, at a price ranging from $2400 to $3200. Though we weren't billed for the quote, we had wanted (and asked for) research, not salesmanship.

On the strength of its trip planning, BPOVIA was arguably our favorite assistance service, though its rates may be higher than many small businesses will be happy to pay. But then BPOVIA billed us for another $120, after confirming cancellation of our service weeks earlier. We had to challenge the extra fee with PayPal, which decided in our favor. But BPOVIA did not respond to repeated inquiries about the extra billing.

TimeSvr

Pricing: $69 per month for unlimited service; three-day free trial to start.

Total amount spent: $0

You read that right: You can use Singapore-based TimeSvr all you want for a month for just 69 bucks. Regrettably, getting even that much value out of the service may be impossible.

At least TimeSvr puts its money where its mouth is: Getting set up with the service is fast and easy. Unlike the other services, TimeSvr didn't assign us a dedicated rep. Different people handled the tasks we requested, and they performed them very expeditiously--but unfortunately, the quality of the work never rose above some degree of "bad."

The problems started with the simple Excel job. Our TimeSvr virtual assistant performed the basic import job, but also shared it with the wrong email address, giving a stranger access to what might have been sensitive material.

TimeSvr's food options chart in response to our gluten-free meals request included an assessment of U.S. fast-food chains, complete with an assessment of each one's "contamination risk."
As bad as that gaffe was, it paled in comparison to TimeSvr's disastrous Tokyo plan. The scant three hotels suggested (all expensive) were okay, but the food options were hilariously awful. They included a Denver-based chain of Japanese fast food; a bizarre chart of U.S. fast-food restaurants graded by flavor, service, environment, and "contamination risk"; and Tandoor Chef, a line of Indian frozen dinners that are indeed gluten-free. When in doubt, you can always microwave a frozen Tandoor Chef Chicken Tikka Masala in your luxury Tokyo hotel room (assuming that you can find it in a supermarket there, or have the foresight to bring it with you--and keep it frozen--on your flight to Japan).

TimeSvr did not complete our request for sightseeing options--which is probably just as well, lest we wind up at Dollywood.

The company did perhaps its best work in response to our request for ecommerce options, suggesting five WordPress plug-ins ranging from cheap to free. Unfortunately, the information provided was simply cut and pasted verbatim from this Web page. Disappointing, but at least TimeSvr's virtual assistant in this case had the foresight to plagiarize from a source that knew what it was talking about.

The only good news about TimeSvr: Its operatives worked so fast that they completed all three of our tasks within its three-day free trial period. We canceled our service (a PayPal subscription) before the billing period for the first month commenced.

The Big Picture

While none of the services tested consistently pleased us, our satisfaction with their handling of individual tasks was all over the map. One service might do great on the Tokyo plan, but then completely muff the Web hosting. Just about every virtual assistant did a credible job with the Excel task--but many forgot or ignored the details we asked for.

Click for the full view.
Time spent per task was variable, too. Some providers spent days researching the Tokyo trip alone, while one finished all three tasks (albeit haphazardly) within 24 hours of our signing up.

In general, virtual assistants are big on "getting clarification." Some of them called us a lot--generally over a rocky Skype connection. Not surprisingly, we struggled at times to understand the accents of some of the nonnative English speakers. More often than not, we barely comprehended what they were saying, instead relying on email follow-ups to ensure that we had communicated our instructions clearly. Dealing with ssistants reading from canned scripts was common, too, particularly during the setup period.

Overall, BPOVIA did the best job with two of our three tasks, but that experience soured weeks later when the service attempted to overcharge us. Consequently, we did not pick a "winner" among these four services.

One thing is for sure: All four outfits became very responsive when we announced our intention to cancel service. Though each company's performance was fairly lackluster, the heavy flow of virtual tears at parting made us feel a little bad about ending the relationship.

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